Reflection On The Relational Development And Urbanization Of Suburbia And The Modern Metropolis

The relationship between suburb and city has developed from a simple system of transport and supply early on, as evidenced in Keating’s Chicagoland, to a more complex relationship focused on migrational interchange and the strive for suburban autonomy. As early as 1949, as Arthur Schlesinger noted in his essay The City in American Civilization, the belief that the relationship between the two has become, “ a spinning web, in which city and country, no longer separate entities, have been brought ever closer together” (Boehm pg. 30) has directly influenced the way that urban development has been studied and planned. As one works through the reflective works of Keating, Gans, Schlesinger, and Davis, it is apparent that the many intricacies of urban living cause much of the theorizing to be dated and oft to be prophetic rather than observational. This leads to an inevitable problem of how one would examine the suburban landscape and the way that its inhabitants relate to one another. Gans points out in an 1990 follow up to his essay Urbanism and Suburbanism as Ways of Life: A Reevaluation of Definitions, that “we still do not have a sociology of the suburbs or even a respectable sociological literature on suburbia” (Boehm pg. 38).

While there may be more of such literature as of 2011, suburbia has been, more often, the subject of entertainment than of study. While it is easy for comedians to point out false friendships and rail against the minivan driving soccer mom, what is far more important in that observation is the very fact that it has become stereotypical of the suburban image. We even have cars called Suburbans for those mothers. So what lies at the bottom of such an issue truly is a new social economy. Gans also noted that as of 1990, two thirds or more of the citizens living in the suburbs of major cities did not work in those cities. These individuals worked within the suburb that they resided. This fact goes far beyond satire and helps to shed light on the nature of the new suburban relationship with the big city. If business is now fully comfortable with moving its major operations to the suburbs and surrounding areas, a new trend in city planning takes place. The suburbs demand less of a manufacturing and basic needs based architecture and more of a cultural center when this happens. Roy Lubove pointed out that urban history is best viewed the the lens of city building as it offered a contribution to “the evolution of a community typology” ( Lubove pg. 34). Using this lens, the trend stated earlier shows itself to be a much larger importance. While major landmarks like stadiums, museums, and historical sites remain mostly in the larger cities, most everything else needed for culture and social living can be found, not only in the heavily centralized portions of the suburbs, but also in their lower population densities. Movie theaters, minor sports teams, concert venues, clothing stores, major restaurants, and parks have popped up like wildflowers throughout suburbia as businesses and local governments pushed forth city plans that focused on creating economic and cultural centers within their city limits to meet the demand a more automobile based populace. As commutes to the urban centers became increasingly auto based, the travel demands became more taxing on the commuter. Lubove makes a poignant remark when he states that “the city building process, including social organization, might be examined in relation to changes in energy converters and fuel” (Lubove pg. 34). The change in transport results in a large change in energy supply and demand and the way that fuel is utilized and produced. By reshaping the suburban city, planners have allowed businesses to profit while keeping their populations intact and appeased.

While Gans argued, “the suburb itself creates few changes in ways of life” (Boehm pg. 35), in the 1960’s, today, this statement simply isn’t true. The city planning of suburban landscapes on the outskirts of major cities, as well as those residential and less densely populated parts of the cities themselves, have been changed by this new autonomy and have moved into a role of having individual community identities. This has caused, not only, suburban culture independent of the metropolitan influence, but also, a new sense of “us and them fear” as addressed in Mike Davis’ Beyond Blade Runner. Davis, when speaking on the issue of fear ecology, notes that Los Angeles has undergone a city wide reform that continues to push further into the realms of paranoia in terms of personal and monetary security. Not only do the heavily urban centers have closed circuit monitors and privately hired security officers, but the more affluent neighborhoods in the more residential sectors have actually designed their city blocks based on fear. One are, Thousand Oaks, according to Davis, had their planning commission petitioned by a liaison to the sheriff calling for the city to “outlaw alleys as a crime prevention priority” (Boehm pg. 45). What becomes evident in these examples is a true change in the way that landscapes are shaped in urban and suburban areas of the U.S. Respectively. While fear has always been a part of development, in the downtown areas of the major metropolitan centers, suburban development and planning have always gone hand in hand with the desire for autonomy. Keating speaks of this in Chicagoland while referencing the development of the community of Riverside just southwest of downtown Chicago. The suburban world and its roots start this process of separation from the mother city in 1869 when landscape architects Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were hired to develop a plan for a subdivision that mirrored Olmsted’s view of suburban life as an advancement of the refinements of town living (Keating pg. 93). Addressing Riverside, Keating says that it “is not a natural site. It is a manmade landscape designed for an exclusive group of metropolitan residents who have used restrictive covenants, local laws, zoning ordinances, and taxes, to maintain this leafy suburban retreat” (Keating pg. 93). Suburban life, since early on in its development, has been very much like the story of Riverside. The suburbs have been working to remove themselves from the shadow of the nearest metropolis since their earliest days. Though many of these areas owe their very existence to the urban centers nearby, they none-the-less, seek to become recognized as individual and separate from their neighbors.

While this trend does not prove that suburban areas are fully autonomous from the mega city in respect to overall urban development and sociology, on a micro scale, individual attention and scrutiny are necessary to better comprehend the social economy and the development of culture, business, and design. Though Gans has said that “The sociologist cannot, therefore, speak of an urban or suburban way of life” (Boehm pg. 37), neither can they speak directly of an overarching and all encompassing sense of urbanity. The best practice in this scenario is observation and evaluation of each on a micro scale in order to form more fully an understanding of the two halves or the urban lifestyle of the American individual. Only in this way can we piece together a greater knowledge of how proximity affects the human lifestyle and experience as survival continually changes its shape and requirement throughout our history.


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