In most North American cities, you’ll find two separate worlds. The first is complicated, jumbled up with different histories and different cultures; a sort of dynamic mess between the old and the new. The second is constant, predictable, repetitive, and modern.
You’ll probably recognize the worlds I’m referring to when you see them:
As a kind of dualism, these worlds tend to be at odds with each other without intending to be. The dualism manifests in the physical form of the urban environment, but also the psychological, the aesthetic, and the political. Indeed, you can really ‘feel’ the difference.
But how do we discern such difference? This is a surprisingly complicated question to answer with many implications. But before getting to that, let us first consider what urban planners broadly mean to be the ‘urban-suburban’ distinction.
Urban vs Suburban
We can broadly separate ‘the urban’ from ‘the suburban’ by listing out a few of their basic characteristics:
World 1: The Urban
Dense (More living and activity in a given plot of land)
Walkable (Easier to walk between services, work, and housing)
Diverse (Diverse in housing, services, and employment)
World 2: The Suburban
Sprawled (Low density with less activity in a given plot of land)
Car-Oriented (Road networks designed for automobile use rather than walking)
Uniform (Low diversity in housing, services, and employment, which are separated at greater distances)
Characterizing each world this way is useful, but it can also be misleading. There is evidence that the suburbs are quite diverse and exhibit a range of urban and suburban qualities. On the flip side, you can find suburban characteristics in urban areas as a result of wealthy suburban residents returning to the city core.
Despite these caveats, there is something imperative, something pressing about having an ability to discern these two environments. As I watch more and more cookie-cutter suburban developments crop up on the edges of cities across on Ontario, it becomes clear to me that we ought to really figure out what we’re doing as our cities continue to expand. It is becoming less important to debate technical differences between the urban and the suburban, and more important to understand the kinds of environments they really are.
Modern Times, Modern Cities
To understand the suburbs, we need to understand modernism.
Modernism was an approach that influenced nearly every aspect of society for a large part of the 20th century. In the world of urban planning, the approach developed out of a growing trust in science and technology. Planners and architects saw technological advancements that achieved unforeseen progress through the research and analysis and thought ‘perhaps we can apply this to designing the city’. From this manifested the ‘rational-comprehensive model’, a method of planning that was meant to determine the best urban environment through an objective understanding of the city achieved through scientific analysis and systematic goal setting.
Development projects thus relied heavily on the expertise of engineers, and modern architects like Le Corbusier, Erno Goldfinger, and Alvar Alto, who likened buildings to a kind of technology that could be optimized for the greatest benefit of city residents.
The result includes concrete megastructures:
The Firminy Cultural Centre designed by Le Corbusier. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Symmetric, uniform neighbourhood arrangements:
The Bijlmer Project (near Amsterdam) designed by Pi de Bruijn, among others.
Large, straight-edge, rectangular towers:
The IBM building in Chicago designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
And the suburbs:
Levittown, considered the first American Suburb developed by Levitt & Sons.
The suburbs in particular developed in response to several factors, including the prevalence of the automobile, the dream of affordable home ownership, and the post-WWII economic boom. Their development thrived on a practice known as ‘zoning‘, a kind of planning regulation that prevents different uses of land from mixing or being too close together. This meant large swaths of land with only housing, and large other swaths of land with only commerce (i.e. malls).
The Problem with Modernism
The problem with modernism was that it didn’t work as intended. Despite the promise for a utopia based on objective analysis and engineering, the modern era was an era of failures.
The concrete megastructures that characterized the beginning of the modern era were criticized for their bleakness, lack of character, and general inhabitability. The geometric forms may have been mathematically ideal, or fiscally efficient, but they did nothing to make people feel more comfortable in their environment.
The suburbs, which were promised as the ideal living environment for close to half a century (and still are to some extent) led to many negative consequences, which have been widely studied and criticized. Perhaps the most commonly discussed is that the uniformity and strict zoning has made suburbs difficult places to access and devoid of most services. This meant residents had to spend more time commuting via car, less time interacting with neighbours, and more time isolated at home. This is now thought to be connected to an increase in obesity, depression (among children), psychological stress, and cardiovascular issues. Residents (particularly teens) are also prone to the side effect of alienation, meaning a problematic disconnect between oneself and the rest of society.
All these criticisms address something truly fundamental about the suburbs: the supposedly objective method by which they were made does not appear to be creating the utopia we were promised.
Despite the critiques, it doesn’t appear as though suburban development is slowing down. In Canada, seventy five percent of all urban population growth from 2006 to 2016 was in so-called “auto-suburbs” in which most people commute by car. This is not to say that all suburbs popping up are as monotonous as this:
A suburban development in Winnipeg.
But it is a surprisingly high statistic in an era that claims to have moved on to, well, what exactly have we moved on to anyways?
From the rubble of modern theory, which has been viciously attacked for the last several decades, one interesting theory that has arose is called ‘postmodernism’.
Postmodernism is a difficult, perhaps impossible term to define. But from a philosophical lens, a basic way to think of it would be a collection of theories, strategies, and approaches to navigating the messy hodgepodge of cultures, lifestyles, symbols, images, and meanings in twenty first century. In this way, a postmodern philosopher (though it should be noted that most philosophers do not name themselves in this way) can be imagined as a kind cartographer, figuratively mapping the current messy state of affairs.
The first philosopher to bring ‘postmodernism’ to the academic philosophical discourse was Jean-François Lyotard who wrote The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in 1979, a kind of bible in postmodern theory. In the introduction, he writes:
“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” — Jean-François Lyotard
By this, he means that the postmodern attitude is doubtful that all of reality can be boiled down to a grand narrative that gives meaning to life and all of its events. Examples of grand narrative include Capitalism, Marxism, Darwinism, and Religious Doctrines. These are considered grand narratives, or ‘meta’-narratives, because you could go your whole life explaining everything you see and everything that has meaning to you in terms of one such narrative. In other words, these narratives create a vocabulary for interpreting truth.
In rejecting conformity to one meta-narrative, a postmodern attitude would consider the perspectives of individual narratives, their vocabularies, and the connections between them, even if they are contradictory. This would involve examining the stories of many individual people from many different places with many different belief systems without creating a hierarchy in which to sort them. A rhetorical device used to illustrate this is the notion of a ‘center-less’ world. Believing in one meta-narrative insinuates a ‘center’ of which all other things orbit around. For example, a Marxist gives credence to Marxist principles such as class struggle and economic incentives, which forms the center to which everything else relates to. In contrast, the postmodern attitude sees the world as without a center to hold onto, and understands the many lenses in which one can look at reality.
I should be clear that this is an enormous oversimplification of postmodern thought, which is heterogenous in itself, but Lyotard’s disbelief in meta-narratives has important implications for urban planning.
The Suburbs: A Problematic Narrative
‘Modernism’ can also be thought of as a meta-narrative, and a strong one at that. For decades it assumed that cities should be developed based on strict, formulaic, scientific processes. In architecture and urban planning, this meant housing that all looked the same, for the same kind of hypothetical family.
In the film ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, the suburban landscape is illustrated as a kind of perfectly-uniform hell. All of the children go out to play in their well-manicured front lawns at the same time. The neighbourhood operates like a well-oiled machine.
In this way, we can think of the suburbs as a manifestation of the modern meta-narrative. And while the suburbs today certainly have postmodern elements (particularly in terms of borrowing architectural styles), in the grand scheme of the city, they hold onto at least four modern notions:
- A sense of purity and cleanliness
- A focus on the nuclear family
- Strict zoning regulations
- A utopian ideal of the neighbourhood
Such notions are the main reason why the way suburbs are developed has not change a whole lot since their inception in the 1950s.
Lyotard’s postmodern attitude lacks conformity to any particular meta-narrative. But what does this look like in the city? According to some theorists, it looks like how many inner cities appear today. A mess of symbols, art, food, services, and other forms of human expression. An interconnected environment where telecommunication has allowed socio-cultural information to flow freely. A city without a center.
But unlike modernism, postmodern neighbourhoods and cities do not promise a utopian future. In this way, they are associated with both positive and negative possibilities.
On the negative side, the chaos of the postmodern urban core is not always kind to its residents. As an example, a study indicates that growing up in urban cores is correlated with an increased risk of schizophrenic tendencies as compared with suburban and rural environments. There is also a sense of confusion and helplessness that is often associated with postmodern cities. In the movie Blade Runner, for example (a classic example of postmodernism in film), the setting is Los Angeles in the year 2019, and the city is a heterogenous mess of cultural-corporate symbols, architectural styles, and dark, dingy housing units.
In Blade Runner, Las Vegas is a dystopian postmodern city.
Despite the foreboding imagery of Blade Runner, urban planners have begun to employ fairly postmodern approaches in attempt to provide structure to our current postmodern reality, while avoiding the mistakes of the modernist movement.
Oftentimes, these ‘postmodern’ approaches involve a communication component; often some kind of facilitation of communication among members of a community. This is a method which (unlike strict scientific formulas) considers the narratives of individual people in a community. Planners collect these narratives and combine them with planning practices from across the world in order to design new developments. This is postmodern in that it considers the plurality of world-views across a given community of people. In this way, the process differs every time, and the result is never the same.
At the level of the neighbourhood, this can mean a diversity of buildings with different styles inspired from different cultures, and a range of symbolic ornamentation, media, and historical artefacts.
The Kensington Market neighbourhood in Toronto (Canada) is arguably a postmodern creation, because it came about from a pluralistic public interest over several generations, combines a variety of architectural styles and cultural symbols, and is a meeting place for a diverse range of communities. The colourful graffiti art adds to this postmodern effect, acting as a visual expression of the micro-cultures within the city.
It can also mean spaces serving multiple roles based on the needs of the community, as deliberated through community discussion.
A Multi-Use space in Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, Canada
Or it could result in cultural centres that cater to a particular demographic within the larger city population.
The Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, designed through collaboration between many members of the Aboriginal Community in Toronto.
All of these projects demonstrate that when planners listen and consider the cultural realities of others, we can create beautiful urban environments. But we must also remember that this new approach is not an easy one. Favouring a plethora of narratives over one large meta-narrative when planning a community can be arduous, complex, and to a certain extent, impossible.
Returning to the suburbs, it appears that urban planners are faced with an important choice. We can continue planning subdivisions from the modernist lens, creating homogenous rows of houses for nuclear families in defiance to the current heterogeneous world we live in. Or we can attempt to apply new, postmodern approaches to the messiness of cities, gathering narratives from a diversity of urban dwellers and their cultural background. The latter may be more difficult, and it will certainly lead to problems, criticisms, and headaches. But perhaps it will lead to a world that all of us, despite our differences, can feel more connected to.