We have recently assembled a special issue of the journal Cities with the title “The Suburban Question”, and we assume that many readers will assume the answer is “who cares”? The term ‘sub-urbs’ connotes a lesser form of urban life, and for decades it has been used dismissively to denote anything plastic, even hypocritical. Novelist Anthony Powell described one of his unsympathetic characters possessing a ‘‘face like Hampstead Garden Suburb”; the New York Times recently described architect Robert Stern as ‘‘a suede-loafered sultan of suburban retrotecture”. In the old days, record stores had ‘urban’ bins full of gangsta, but nothing marked ‘suburban’, although it is always easy to use the suburbs as a backdrop for duplicity, as in American Beauty, or the first series of Weeds (set in a gated community, a double score!).
There has been some academic attention—Dick Walker, David Harvey, and of course Kenneth Jackson all wrote lasting pieces about the suburbs. But in these, they always appear as objects of inquiry, rather than subjects in their own right; and if academics live amongst the ‘little boxes of tickytacky’, they rarely write about them. This is more than unfortunate, for many reasons—the most obvious is that by most definitions, most of us are indeed suburbanites. But while there are endless dissertations on public housing, the decline of the inner city, and the much discussed revitalization of the inner city, there is precious little on their further-flung counterparts.
It’s hardly the case, to answer the unspoken question, that there is nothing interesting to research ‘out there’. What about updating research on the ‘growth machine’? No one has really done any detailed work on the complexities of the home building industry, with its rigid design aspirations and complex financial connections. There is the gated community, which is still portrayed as ‘Fortress America’ even though there are significant proportions of Hispanic households living in gated communities, and many of these are rental properties and not the upscale compounds portrayed in textbooks. And there is the Home Owner Association. Despite the fact that millions of Americans live in them, relatively little research has been done on this important aspect of governance since the term ‘Privatopia’ was coined nearly two decades ago.
A few authors have tried to push back against this indifference, arguing that suburbs appear to be ‘good places for most people’. Yet the reality that affordable homes-and-gardens are unquestionably popular does not seem to matter. In almost any manner imaginable, the suburban lifestyle has been savaged. Sprawl causes obesity; it destroys downtowns; it causes global warming. In Metroburbia, Paul Knox argues that the suburbs have turned us into monsters of capitalist consumerism, the sagging SUVs necessary to carry the wobbling masses from mall to McMansion.
It is easy to argue that American suburbs are unsustainable, but to echo Peter Marcuse’s famous rhetorical question—‘sustainable for whom?’ Vibrant cities—New York, San Francisco, Boston—are expensive cities, and while that fabled creature, the Creative Worker (homo Floridian) is willing and, more importantly, able to pay large sums to live in very small spaces, most of us are not. Suburbs have attracted paying customers precisely because housing costs are low and conditions are attractive. Not many cool public spaces, but that’s less important to most people past their college years.
This is the backdrop to the papers that we have collected in our special issue. Its aim is to present work that asks ‘what is happening in the suburbs, in terms of the built form, the economy and social relations’. They are not necessarily written ‘in defense of suburbs,’ but engage suburbs as if they matter. Nick Phelps leads off by emphasizing the contribution that suburbs make to our local and national economies. He reminds us of the transfers there of jobs and the growing importance of suburbs to the urban region and the economic health of our nations. He closes with an urgent reminder that the "economic centrality of suburbs within the contemporary economy should, perhaps more than anything else, signal the need for a re-balancing of urban studies to be more fully suburban in academic and policy focus."
A perfect example of this appears in a study of Phoenix by Carol Atkinson Palombo and Pat Gober. Their analysis of new housing construction in the prior two decades indicates trends that span different types of multi-family housing in suburban locations. They note, "densification no longer equates to urban infill but takes many forms and occurs all over the metropolitan region". A complementary article by Roger Keil and Douglas Young focuses on their empirical work in Toronto, and especially what they have termed ‘the in-between city’. These places are "not quite traditional city and not quite traditional suburban", forgotten geographies where many live and where their infrastructure reminds us that the placing of ‘urban versus suburban’ neglects the many shades of in-between urban places that require planning and policy attention.
Toronto is the focus of another paper, in which Susan Moore explores the tenets of New Urbanism. In four case studies, she explores sub/urban forms, showing that the general edicts of the "densification-is-good" movement are contextualized in different settings, and reveals endless rounds of compromises between developers, planners, politicians and residents. In the end, this design imperative is unable to transcend the "urbanization of the suburbs or the suburbanization of the urban," and once more we are challenged by the need to confront the assumed distinction between urban and suburban developments, or even cities and suburbs themselves.
This theme is given additional attention in a further paper, by noted Turkish urbanist Feyzan Erkip, whose work explores, and contrasts, the new manifestations of Westernization in Ankara—malls and gated communities—with more traditional neighborhoods. She finds little difference between the views of the populations in the old and new, but the meanings that these new design features take on are very much conditioned by their context. For instance, the malls have a liberating veneer for Turkish women, who feel socially threatened in the streets but not in the private shopping districts. Conversely, gated communities adopt familiar design features but unlike their Western counterparts, these are essentially up-scale squatter settlements; this indeterminate legal status is attractive for some residents because it makes their homes less open to search by law enforcement or tax officials.
We conclude our collection, and this piece, with a simple response: the answer to the suburban question is that they possess a rich history and a dynamic present and therefore demand more attention and a serious research agenda. We call for more academic attention to be given to places where a majority of Americans, many Europeans, and a growing number of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans live. Urban studies should either become inclusive of all parts of the city—from edge to center—or the field of Suburban Studies, spearheaded by the New Suburbanism, is long overdue.
Andrew Kirby is the editor of the interdisciplinary Elsevier journal “Cities.”This is his 20th year as a resident of Arizona. Ali Modarres is an urban geographer in Los Angeles and co-author of City and Environment.
Photo: urbanfeel @ flickr