I want you to picture a suburb. Our understanding of these complex places are shaped by our experiences and prejudices, but it’s likely that the image you’ve conjured fits within one of the following.

Communal Hell

The suburbs are the generative force behind the downfall of the urban community; cookie-cutter gated communities that selfishly suck up resources while transporting people individually in cars between soulless buildings. Without walkable streets, permeability, passive surveillance or anything Jane Jacobs might have liked, these abominations are the harbinger and quintessence of the demise of late capitalism.

Pioneering Bliss

The suburbs are an enclave where families are built through a model of freedom and ownership, giving everyone the chance to have a piece of a dream and establish themselves. The connection to nature and the real community that comes with knowing your neighbours brings people to the true meaning of togetherness that is the backbone of solidarity. This is freedom from claustrophobic, inhumane, polluted and overcrowded city life. Also, people in the suburbs are nice.

Melbourne's suburban sprawl.

“If the thickening of the suburbs represents a chance to take the focus off the false dichotomy between urban and suburban environments, what should we build there and who are we building it for?”

Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear. This false dichotomy between urban and suburban taps into ideological undercurrents that relate directly to what we think is good, fair and true. How else could something as inherently innocuous as a cul-de-sac create feelings of comfort or disgust? Moving beyond the urban versus suburban paradigm would make it possible to create the kinds of places that can transition as things change, which is important given how quickly our cities are expanding.

To define suburban, or ‘less than urban’, it’s helpful to get a handle on urban. According to Kim Dovey, Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Melbourne, to be urban is to respect difference and remain civil; the Latin word urbanus closely translates to ‘courteous’. Existing in urban space is recognising the right to share public space while respecting the rights of others to do likewise. Mixed into this are firmly rooted beliefs about land ownership, civic responsibility, density and individualism that shed light on the birth of the modern suburb. To exist in ‘less than urban’ space could be a kind of freedom from the constraints of urbanity, something closer to what Alexander D’Hooghe, founding partner of ORG, calls the narrative myths of suburban life: nature, community and progress. Or, it could be a deprivation of the services and amenities that make communal human living possible.

Sitting somewhere between urban and rural, the exact definition of suburban depends on who you ask. American suburbs consist of completely different structures, flows, connections and exchanges to Melbourne’s inner suburbs, which are in turn completely different to the suburbs of Shanghai, Johannesburg, etc. The concept of the suburb as antithetical to the benefits of higher-density urban living is changing, but it started from a strange mix of individual freedom and communal idealism.

Past

Nothing shapes a city more than transportation, and the term suburb began to take on its contemporary meaning with the advent of our ability to commute. The physical capabilities and economic reasons for the growth of suburbs are relatively straightforward. The contemporary social and cultural history of suburbia is something more complicated, occasionally dark and a little weird.

Initially, suburbs were intrinsically tied to density and immigration. The cities that people left in mid-twentieth century America were not the walkable, liveable places aspired to today. Dramatic population explosions in congested urban environments are often historical precursors to the proliferation of suburbs: veterans returning and the migration of African Americans to northern cities in the US after WWII; the mass exodus from Downtown L.A. after the Watts Riots; or the nineteenth century influx of gold miners in Johannesburg and Melbourne. Twentieth century suburbs and the angst of urban living are best understood against high-density, under-serviced city backdrops.

Levittown in Pennsylvania is often accredited as the first official American suburb. Like many large-scale projects, a well-meaning visionary was needed to jumpstart the move. William Levitt viewed Levitt and Sons more as manufacturers than developers and their ability to apply high output framed in modernist principles was their boon. Levittown is famous for producing a new house every 16 minutes. However, their primary mortal sin of urbanity may have been eradicating heterogeneity. In other words, the endeavour was an act of institutional racism. Initial reactions to the suburb were the same kind of words one would use to describe a hospital: safe and antiseptic. Even now, more than seven decades after the first brick was laid, Levittown isn’t the most diverse community on the planet.

Didactic graphics present city planning as a natural growth of the nuclear family. From the 1944 show 'Look at Your Neighborhood' produced by MoMA in collaboration with United Neighborhood Housing and various government agencies.
An image from Levitt & Sons brochure.

Present

Not all suburbs are confined homogeneous enclaves. The line between functioning semi-urban suburb and small town is thin. Columbia, Maryland started similarly to Levittown with a visionary focused on nature and humane living. James Rouse set out in the 1960s to build a response to suburbs that were already viewed as cold and lifeless. According to current urban thinking, Columbia was wrong in every way: impermeable, low-density, car-oriented, little public transportation, etc. Now the 100,000 people that make up this unincorporated town are more racially and economically diverse than any of the revitalised neighbourhoods (read: playgrounds of the rich) in New York.

Western, American and European-centric views of suburbia are limiting. Suburban growth across the world is, thankfully, weirder than that. Thames Town, the famously deserted suburb of Shanghai that replicates an English town – complete with a Tudor pub and fish-and-chip shop – is a more overt version of the postmodern mix of architecture and style that makes Caroline Springs in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne seem a little strange. You can buy a house and an identity. Regardless of style, suburbs are moving towards becoming more densely populated spaces that are digitally connected locally and globally, are layered with a mix of uses and which provide ample physical access to the entire city. Ideally, suburban and urban may no longer be concepts that exist in opposition, they will hopefully provide non-hierarchical overlap and produce new urban forms fit for the 21stcentury.

Future?

Cities all over the world have realised that sprawl isn’t working out well. It’s expensive, eats up resources and disconnects people from communities. If a city can’t expand horizontally the growing population has to go somewhere. Thickening suburbs provide an opportunity to implement urban design principles and transportation solutions that won’t produce decay in the city centre. Osaka is a prime example, having achieved a lively urban core surrounded by dense residential that is connected both locally and regionally. Seoul is another. The real villain may lie in what British writer and director of London’s Design Museum Deyan Sudjic cites as, “conditions that freeze the city and cancel out the possibility for further change.” Environments that are unable to allow for social or physical change are doomed on a fundamental level – think vertical ghettos of social housing.

The truth is that for most of us, the choices about where to live are primarily a matter of economics. The majority of fluctuating populations filling up suburbs, slums, urban centres or anywhere between are doing so because of affordability first. Urban design exists in a world of power and politics where the least desirable parts of the city go to those without sufficient opportunity or means. So, if the thickening of the suburbs represents a chance to take the focus off the false dichotomy between urban and suburban environments, what should we build there and who are we building it for? With an urban future that is difficult to predict, perhaps the smartest move is to guard against the wave of built form’s inertia, opting instead to develop flexible urban systems that allow for change.

Thames Town, a suburb of Shanghai, remains deserted.

Author

Nick Jumara lives in the suburbs. He grew up in the American Midwest which is probably not far from what you imagine: lots of space, friendly people, big houses. From there he lived in Asia and now calls Australia home. In all of those places he lived in the suburbs – places that couldn’t be more different from each other physically and structurally but are all layered with the same American values of progress, connection to nature and community. He isn’t sure if this is a good thing.

Nick is Right Angle Studio’s Senior Researcher and Editor.