Where do you draw the line between urban and suburban?
For most of us, it’s kind of an “I know it when I see it” situation. We have certain characteristics that we look for to tell us when we’ve left the city and crossed over into the ‘burbs. Low densities? Detached, single-family homes? Big front yards? Lack of sidewalks? A preponderance of subdivisions with only a single entry point from an arterial road? Strip malls with acres of parking? Overwhelmingly white populations? For most of us, any place deserving of being calling a suburb will have at least some of these traits. But not necessarily all of them, which means that when we argue about suburbs, we may not even be talking about the same places.
And of course that doesn’t even account for the intentional blurring of that urban-suburban divide in many New Urbanist developments throughout the country. Places like Longleaf (in New Port Richey, Florida) or Celebration, Florida shrewdly took on some of the trappings of what we often think of as “urban” living – smaller front yards, sidewalks to promote walkability, small-scale retail within easy walking or biking distance – and then dropped them smack in the middle of nowhere. People who live there can pretend to live in a gentrifying urban neighborhood when they’re at home, but because these places have little to no access to effective transit and are fairly distant from other urban centers, there’s no real way to physically interact with the outside world except through driving. And that’s certainly not an urban way to live.
It’s that last concept – an urban way to live – that researchers at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning have seized upon. The key to understanding the urban-suburban divide, they say, is to think about suburbanisms rather than suburbs; in other words, behaviors are more important to identifying suburbs than are statistics like distance from the city center, or even population density.
That’s not to say that those statistics are unimportant, however. They can influence our behaviors in profound ways. The researchers specifically cite work done by Alan Walks and Henri Lefebvre as a way to help understand the impact certain factors may have in making our behaviors more or less suburban in nature:
The use of continuums essentially involves thinking about how people’s ways of living are shaped by (1) the distance from the central city, (2) the symbolic distance from positions of power, (3) the diversity of people and households nearby, (4) the colocation of different land uses and social, economic, cultural and political activities, (5) the reliance on automobiles, and (6) the degree to which spaces and activities are public versus domestic.
As an analytical tool, these continuums permit us to concurrently characterize people, or places, as ‘more’ or ‘less’ suburban for different reasons. For example, a new condominium development downtown where most people still end up driving to work can be, for different reasons, both urban and suburban at the same time.
Essentially, the idea that there is a bright line between city and suburb doesn’t reflect the reality of the way we live. Instead, it’s just varying degrees of urban.
The Waterloo researchers, Markus Moos and Anna Kramer, have been working on quantifying data from Statistics Canada to create an Atlas of Suburbanisms for Canada. Their goal is to develop
an understanding of suburbanism, and our cities more generally, that is richer and more diverse; an understanding that does not take for granted the political or historic development of cities as drawing concrete lines between what we believe is the suburban and the urban.
It’s a tall order for sure, but I think it’s an exciting project with great potential to eventually change the way we think about the urban/suburban divide and give us the perspective to look at population and resource issues with more nuance than we generally do now.
Click here to check it out for yourself.