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A Critical Assessment of the Urban Structure and the Concept of Suburbia

Info: 7008 words (28 pages) Essay
Published: 16th Nov 2021 in Environmental Studies

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The theoretical discussions about the transformation of urban form highlight the dialectic nature of social and ecological change, the role of history in producing urban spaces, and the importance of power relations that shape the modern cities (Swyngedow & Kaika, 2008). Since the 19th century, the formation of nation states, the development of industry, mass transportation and the rising number of private automobiles have made it more difficult to distinguish the spatial boundaries between different development patterns within cities (Bengs, Schmidt, Thome 2006; Korcelli et al. 2012; Ravetz et al. 2013). With the ongoing process of suburbanization, a significant number of people reside in areas that are difficult to be defined. These socio-spatial transformations of cities have triggered the emergence of new forms of peripheral development, urban governance and urban identities (Schafran, 2013).

The emergence of new urban development forms led to the need for new research on (re)defining concepts related to urban morphology.

Suburbs are one of the urban forms that have grabbed a significant attention in the 21st century. The epistemological and ontological underpinnings of suburbia have become a major concern for geographers and urban scholars. Even though there is an extensive literature on suburbia, the concept of suburbia still seems elusive and difficult to define. For some, the suburb is a geographical space; for others, a cultural form; while for some others it is a state of mind (Hinchcliffe, 2005). More than being studied as a continuum of a city or as a separate residential development within commuting distance of a city, a robust literature is currently studying suburbia as a critical object of analysis to think through the politics, ecology, social relations, and everyday experiences of urban life (Coutard, 2008; Graham and Marvin, 2001; Teaford, 1997; Young et al. 2011).

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The sheer diversity of suburban taxonomies (in terms of structure, and spatio-temporal development) impedes the creation of comprehensive or all-encompassing definitions of the 'suburbs' (Phelps et al. 2010). On one hand a significant number of concepts have been introduced by geographers and urban scholars to grapple with the specificities of diverse and complex suburban areas, in contemporary literature known as 'edge cities' (Garreau, 1991), 'ethnoburbs' (Li, 2009), 'metroburbia' (Knox, 2008), 'città diffusa' (Indovina, 1990) and 'inbetween city' (Sieverts, 2003; Young et al. 2011). Whereas, on the other hand, typologies substantiated from more general characteristics, such as a peripherality (Stanilov and Scheer 2004; Vaughan et al. 2009), low-density (Harris, 2010), population type, and morphological change (Charmes and Keil 2015), have struggled to embrace the dynamic, rapidly evolving and transitory characteristics of the suburban areas.

In the absence of a versatile definition of suburbia there is "a tendency for urban researchers to focus on particular suburb typologies and contexts … [with] little held in common beyond suburbia itself (Harris, 2010, McFarlane et al. 2014; Robinson, 2011). In addition, strong theorization and rigorous methodologies, continue to be essential if we are to conduct comprehensive research and prevent chaotic conceptions of suburbia representing 'unreal' realities (Kantor & Savitch 2005).

To analyze in detail the definitions, strengths, limitations as well as the epistemological and ontological underpinnings of suburbs ("the part") it is important to first analyze and review the literature dedicated to the epistemologies of urban structure which represents "the whole".

Transformations of urban structure

Urban spatial structure theories have always received significant attention by urban researchers in the social sciences for decades. To understand why cities are spatially organized in various ways, urban geographers have developed urban structure theories and models that explain and predict the internal structures of cities.

The basic assumptions of many urban spatial structure theories that have been developed particularly in urban geography (but also in fields like economics, and sociology) have been proved true and advocated by many empirical studies (in different contexts; times). Furthermore, diverse studies have built on top of these theories by studying the causes and effects of the spatial distributions of population and economic activity in urban dichotomies such as "city/nature", "city/suburb" and "urban/rural" (Swyungedouw & Kaika, 2008; Birch, 1975)

By the 1970s, however, it was apparent that the boundaries between these categories were blurring. In metropolitan areas, city centers were losing ground relative to the suburbs (Clark, 1972). Clearly, the suburbs were not just passive, outlying districts of the city - they were becoming centers of employment, consumer activity, culture, and administration (Baldassare 1992; Logan 1989; Stahura 1982; Wood 1974). These dynamics prompted criticism of the underlying assumptions of existing urban structure theories (Birch 1975; Fava 1975; Greene 1980; Oland 1978; Wheaton 1979; Wilson 1978).

Historical timeline of urban structure models, strengths and limitations

One of the main reasons why some of the very early urban structure theories were developed in response to the desire for a more habitable urban life and in order to create better urban communities (Prigge, 1998). In doing so, they produce extreme forms of urbanism with the goal of creating their ideal society. Such models were: Howard's Garden City, Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse and F.L. Wright's Broadcare City and all of them contained elements of utopian conceptions (Mumford, 1965).

Similar visions have appeared also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in urban structure designs by modern radicals, who strove to improve social life through the transformation of the urban form. All the urban structure models that were developed since the 19th century have some common characteristics. In all these models, urban geographers have tried to generalize the forces underlying the pattern of land use, process of urban growth and accessibility (through commuting) within and outward of a city. It is true to a large extent that each city possesses a unique combination of various use of land, but to some degree, in some contexts, common development patterns were found too. The commonly referred patterns led to the development of concentric, sectoral and the multiple nuclei models. They are known as models of city structure or theories explaining urban morphology.

Starting from the 19th century, the cities were viewed as monocentered, i.e., dominated by a single center that coordinates and integrates a (in)dependent peripheries. With the deconcentration of manufacturing and retailing, however, suburbs gained significant autonomy (Hunter 1974; Muller 1981), and in many cases competed with the core (Stanback 1991). This reorientation, or refocusing, of population and economic activity away from the center city altered the organization of the metropolitan community. Moreover, it seriously compromised the assumption of mono-centricity (Erickson 1983; Gottdiener 1985; Ladd and Wheaton 1991; Richardson 1988). Multi-nodal reformulations of the monocentered urban structure model were offered in response to the failure of the existing model's explanatory power. Questioning the ecological premises of traditional urban theory, some researchers formulated alternative theories based on organizational or political decisions (Castells 1985; Gottdiener 1985; Molotch 1976). Researchers working within the ecological framework offered extensions of the theory (Marshall & Stahura 1986; Meyer 1984; Sly & Tayman 1980; Wilson 1978). Each perspective recognizes the growing influence of suburbs and other "off center" activities (Dunn 1983).

However, what seems to be the problem with these models is the fact that these models are unable to represent the diverse sub-typologies that have emerged within the existing urban form typologies. Nowadays the researchers have paid attention to recognizing the new urban patterns such as "edge cities", "peri-urban areas" "città diffusa" "in-between city" etc. which are not only spatially different than the existing urban patterns but also have diverse socio-economic, political and ecological characteristics. The models shown in table 1 present urban structures divided by clear boundaries that separate urban, suburban and rural areas from each other clearly. However, contemporary ways of envisioning, and planning see these ways of spatial structuring almost impossible. In terms of the methodologies and the data used to develop the urban structure models, the study of city structure in the 21st century, stands in stark contrast to earlier ways that researchers planned towns and cities. Current research on urban structure is based on both qualitative and quantitative data that measure and analyse land use zones, traffic flows, real estate products, and political and administrative structures. Contemporary research uses Geospatial Information Systems to visualize, perform spatial analysis, and spatial modeling of emerging urban typologies. Urban scholars use the spatial query and mapping functions of GIS to analyze the existing situation in the city store as well as forecast, manipulate, and analyze physical, social, and economic data of a city. Usage of technological tools such as ArcGIS, NetCAD and other mapping instruments have helped urban geographers to study the city structure not as a spatial conceptualization of reality, but also in more detail in different scales.

Table 1: Classical Models of Urban Morphology

Source: Prepared by Monika Imeri

Table 1: Classical Models of Urban Morphology

Source: Prepared by Monika Imeri

Some insights from contemporary discussion on urban structure

Although researchers have been using more complex data and advanced technological tools to study the city structure, they still agree that significant changes have occurred in constantly evolving urban structure over the past 20 years. As a result, there is less agreement on what is a comprehensive city structure that represents all the obvious and hidden realities of different urban morphologies, the role of suburbs in the urban morphology hierarchy, or the causes of restructuring the spatial form of cities.

Urban structure has usually been examined, explicitly or implicitly, using a city center/suburb comparison. There is an extensive amount of research that has been focused on the role of the city center and obscured the role of individual suburbs (Giuliano and Small 1991; Greene 1980; Stanback 1991). Research on suburbs has shown that the obscure position of suburbs in the metropolitan hierarchy may be influenced by past political decisions (Baldassare 1992; Gottdiener 1985; Harvey 1989; Logan 1978; Logan and Zhou 1989). However, there is growing attention towards research that examines and analyzes distinct suburbs and provides a more complete picture of intra-urban relationships. To provide a better picture of the intra-urban relationships, studies have identified the commuting patterns to be a principle indicator of socioeconomic integration among suburbs and other urban patterns. (Burgess 1924; McKenzie 1933). Because commuting flows measure actual interaction, they clarify the differential positions and functions of metropolitan cities (Filina, 1987; Guest, 1975; Bogue, 1949).

Definitional problem of suburbia, strengths and limitations

'Suburb' is freighted with meanings, which vary from place to place. When we enlarge the scope of our survey beyond Anglo-America, the variations of suburban socio-economic political and ecological (landscape) characteristics become striking. Whenever we try to define suburbs, we should be able to answer these questions, in such a way to include all the typologies and taxonomies of suburbs. … what type of landscape would we draw if we were invited to draw the suburbs? Which people, houses, streets would be part of that drawing…? How would they be placed in space? How far would they be from … which reference point? Can we? – Guerra (1987) says that in a way, "everyone knows when you speak of, for example, the square, the city center, the shopping centre, a public space, etc." (p. 113) … But what do we know when we speak of the suburbs?

The question is extremely important. Theoretical knowledge helps us to know, classify, name and describe certain urban morphological categories that have emerged as a result of urbanization.

For several decades we have been fascinated with urbanization and the usual processes of downtown (re)development (Levine, 1987), densification, the glamorous central infrastructures and transportation developments (Keil, 2014), the creative destruction (Schumpeter, 1942) and gentrification of the core and the displacement of traditional populations from the city centre (Podagrosi & Vojnovic, 2008). In the current urban geography research, the attention is directed towards suburbs and the dynamic aspects of urbanization in the peripheries of cities. However, the suburbs are not a new theme or a neologism. Vaughan, et al. (2009) state that the suburbs are as old as the city itself. Indeed, the suburbs are not only a phenomenon of modern times as "the old and medieval cities" also had suburbs (known as such), located just outside the city walls.

A wide body of literature has tried to define contemporary suburbs by classifying them as a form of urban development associated with a high socio-demographic, land use and morphology diversity.

Unfortunately, definitions and typologies do not always correspond to the realities they intend to hold/represent. Is this the case of the suburbs?

Defining suburbs is more than just an issue of semantics. When concepts are not clear, it is hard to create adequate theory (Kurtz & Eichler, 1958). As a vibrant literature suggests, the methodologies and techniques used by geographers and urban scholars to examine suburbia are significantly influenced by the way how they perceive, interpret and define suburbia (Caplan & Nelson 1973; Teaford, 2008; Healey, 2009). Clearer definitions or more comprehensive alternatives to the term suburb can help focus academic research and practical debates on important issues.

However, it is important to emphasise that not only the term suburb is confined to the problem of poor definition. An interesting research conducted on definitions of ''community'' in the field of sociology examined ninety-four different definitions about community and the only thing they had in common was that they all contained people (Hillery, 1959; Clark, 1973; Plant, 1978; Amit, 2003).

Suburbia has proven to be a tough concept to define and it has long had a problem of representation (Vaughan et al., 2009). The way we define suburbia depends on the knowledge lenses ((1) scientific knowledge, (2) traditional knowledge) that we use to analyze urban patterns. (1) Among urban scholars, there is no consensus as to what exactly constitutes a suburb. The plethora of meanings expands as historical developments, culture, power relations and context are taken into account while defining suburbia (Harris & Vorms, 2017). This leaves us with a wide variety of definitions, each working perfectly in a specific context, but none could be used to give a general interpretation of what suburbs are.

(2) In addition to the academic research perspective on the definition of suburbs there exists also the cognitive approach towards the concept. Each of us uses the cognitive perceptions and knowledge to define certain spatial structures of the city. When we hear the word suburbs, an image comes to mind of what the word means for each one of us. It can be said that there are often great similarities and commonalities between the images that we 'individually' produce. Through those similarities we produce the 'collective image' to explain and make sense of the phenomenon of suburbia.

In this collective conception, in terms of space and location we associate the concept of suburbia to something beyond the city; at a distance, however close. Thus, the 'collective' image we generally have of the suburbs, refers to something quite distinct from the city centre in spatial terms.

In some cases, however, the term suburb has another meaning. It is understood that it refers to something whose characteristics are not enough to be considered as urban. The suburban, has a qualitative inferiority, as opposed to the urban (Nunes, 2011).

Nevertheless, to go against the general feeling, supported by an extensive bibliography, that the suburbs are ugly, uncharacterized and 'unlovely' (Sieverts, 2003), we also find an extensive bibliography saying the opposite, supporting its "loveliness" (Vaughan, et al., 2009).

Dimensions of suburbia—Multidisciplinary perspectives

The existing range of suburban definitions differ from each other in terms of their structure and the topical issues that they grapple with. These include definitions focused on physical, functional, social, and process dimensions as well as others taking a more analytical or critical view. Obviously, definitions of terms such as suburbs are social constructions or deliberate abstractions, focusing attention on some aspects of suburbs and not others. In particular, which aspects are focused on depends on the aims and perceptions of the researchers—which can be quite varied.

There are certainly some disciplinary differences in terms of definitions. These differences become very clear while examining definitions from several related areas in urban studies— primarily urban planning, urban history, urban sociology and urban geography.

For example, urban history researchers are striving to define suburbs in a way that makes sense over time whereas urban sociology researchers are particularly concerned about socio-economic relations, identity, social norms and status structures of the residents living in suburban areas. A more space-oriented perspective is provided by urban geographers who are particularly concerned with spatial location, infrastructures and residential development of suburbs. All of these diverse focus points have led to the emergence of different definitions about suburbs (Adell 1999; Iaquinta and Drescher 2000).

Something that needs to be noted is that a limited amount of research including many classic, influential, and otherwise important works on suburbs actually define them explicitly as a whole. Of all the research conducted, urban researchers tried to define suburbs using different types of research lenses such as: (1) Some researchers focus on specific types of suburbs defining them quite clearly but not dealing with suburbs more generally.

For example, in different contexts, urban researchers have been focusing on "ethnoburbs", "technoburbs", "suburban masterplanned communities", or "peri-urban areas". (2) Others define suburbs through examples by applying the term suburban to particular places or characteristics from which a definition can be deduced by the reader. (3) Yet, others focus on areas that are clearly suburban by many definitions - for example, new developments of detached housing on the urban fringe. However, they do not pay much attention to articulating whether other kinds of developments are also suburban. These being said, it is hard to piece together a comprehensive definition from such accounts.

Why definitions matter

Why does better defining suburbs matter for urban studies and planning? People have been discussing and studying suburbs for decades without any consistent definition so one would think that maybe there is no need for one. However, research has shown that there are three main reasons, why it is important to define suburbs clearly:

1. The issue of action

Caplan and Nelson (1973) have pointed out that, ''what is done about a problem depends on how it is defined'' (also Schon & Rein 1994; Healey, 2009). As a result of the lack of a consistent definition of suburbs, urban scholars have found it difficult to grapple with issues related to boundaries of suburbs, density and growth patterns in these areas (e.g., Forsyth 1999; Goetz 2008).

In addition, I would add to this point by saying that "what is done about a problem, depends also on where (the context) that it is defined". Sometimes in the same context we might find several suburb typologies that might be very distinct from each other. Thus, the existence of a general definition that is applicable to "the whole" (i.e. North American suburbs) might not express reality for some "parts". For example, if suburbs in a certain context (A) "are defined" as essentially white and middle class, policy makers may pay less attention to the problems of African American suburbs or low-income suburbs. If "the overall" is seen as essentially automobile dependent, then transit-oriented suburbs may be ignored.

2. The problem of research and theory

Conducting empirical research requires adequate definitions of features and concepts being measured. As Kurtz and Eichler (1958) argued in the 1950s, it is difficult to develop an adequate theory of suburbs if terms are not clearly defined. If one study defines suburbs as metropolitan municipalities outside the central city and another as places that are dominated by detached housing, they will be examining different areas making comparisons and generalizations more difficult. While researchers may themselves be careful about such issues, those using research findings may well miss these subtle differences and misinterpret the implications.

This would make it also difficult for researchers and policy makers to communicate and share ideas and solve problems about suburbs in theory and practice.

Figure 1: Discussing suburbs: Definitions that divide.

Source: http://www.bookwormroom.com/2014/08/25/mass-confusion/ (December, 2019).

Finally, even if one does not consider that clear definitions matter for theory and practice, it is still worthwhile to review the variety of definitions to help reduce confusion in the field. Such a review provides urban scholars, decision makers and practitioners with a roadmap to find adequate solutions to issues emerging in different typologies of suburbs.

Research approaches to define suburbs

Whether a relatively simple or complex definition, urban researchers that have examined what suburbs are or what they are not, focused their research approach on certain features and dimensions that are often common and appear in several suburban areas.

These characteristics 'help' to generalize and understand suburbs as a whole and show how potentially complicated the definition of suburb can become when dimensions are combined.

In this essay I have divided the definitions of suburbia on 3 main groups based on the dimensions that are considered in the formulation of the definition.

1. Definitions focused on physical dimensions: such as where the suburb is located in the metropolitan area and its general built environment characteristics.

2. Definitions focused on how suburbs function: such as in terms of transportation modes or typical land use of suburbs (residential, mixed use, agricultural, etc.).

3. Definitions focused broadly social dimensions: related to how people interact either politically (whether suburbs have their own governments) or culturally (often related to issues of diversity, exclusivity, and whether there is a distinctive suburban way of life).

Many definitions of suburbs as a whole incorporate several dimensions at once meaning they are quite complex. For example: Gober and Behr (1982) used discriminant analysis to check the importance of nine characteristics including age/family status, ethnicity, income, density, autoorientation, housing age, and employment in manufacturing, retail, and services. They found race and ethnicity to be the most important variable distinguishing city centers from suburbs in the United States at the time (Gober and Behr, 1982).

Harris and Larkham (1999) used historical and geographical approaches to note five characteristics of suburbia focusing on North America and the United Kingdom:

  1. peripheral location;
  2. residential character;
  3. low density with perhaps high levels of owner occupancy;
  4. a distinctive way of life;
  5. separate identities for communities often at the municipal level.

Writing a decade later, and attempting to provide a truly global definition, Harris recast suburbs as having two dimensions: (1) ''peripheral location,'' (2) usually having ''residential densities intermediate between those of the city and the country,'' (Harris, 2010).

Johnson (2006), considered Harris and Larkham's (1999) definition as being relevant but added her own definition from the Australian perspective: ''the idea of a single storied, freestanding dwelling on a relatively large allotment, in a mainly residential area, with strong local identity and limited governance, located midway between the city center and rural lands, where women tend to children and community while their husbands journeyed elsewhere for paid work, encapsulates the Australian suburb''(p.261).

Johnson went on to argue that suburbs were changing—in terms of household types, ''house forms, density, retailing, employment, outlook and voting behavior'' so that suburbs had fundamentally departed from this definition, at least in a number of major Australian cities (Johnson, 2006).

Flint (2006) focusing on the situation in the United States simply described ''suburbia—spreadout, drive-thru, car-dependent, newer-the-better suburbia'' (p.2). This definition combines the dimension of density and dominant transportation mode.

Obviously, different researchers have different emphases related to their substantive interests and the contexts that they are studying. They also reflect the changing character of suburbs over time—both in one location such as the Australian suburbs described by Johnson, and between different contexts.

Of course, not all definitions can be all inclusive in terms of dimensions. For example, suburbs may vary from socially homogenous to socially mixed in terms of their sociocultural character, and in terms of style may be built at a large scale by a developer or house by house by an owner.

Combining just these two dimensions creates an amazing variety of suburban types, most of which actually exist, for example, both large-scale homogenous and socially mixed suburbs, and built-by-owner homogenous or mixed suburbs.

Finally, it should be noted that a number of authors either reject the term suburb as obsolete or propose that it is impossible to define suburbs due to their diversity (Archer, 2005).


As urbanization continues, making cities more complex, it is essential to understand all the components that shape the urban structure. The term suburb represents a long-standing and viable term for describing development beyond the core city.

Being able to distinguish suburbs from other kinds of development, and different types of suburban environments, can help both those who want to understand suburbs and those involved in planning and developing/redeveloping them.

Suburbs, at their simplest, are parts of an urban or metropolitan area outside the core area of the city. Even this definition raises questions. How far from the center of a city do the suburbs start? How far do they extend?

To sum up, given all the confusion around the term, one solution to the definitional problem of suburbia is to give up on the concept. There are two ways to do this.

(1) The first is to replace it with more specific urban morphologies such as peri-urban area, technoburb, edge city and so on. In this way, the city structure would be composed not only of core city and suburbs but of a variety of such morphologies (Hayden 2004). This approach might be welcomed among suburban experts who are typically aware that suburbs are quite diverse. In comparative work, it may be easier to examine specific suburban types.

Such an approach may, however, be a challenge for those working on more general processes of urban growth or speaking to the communities (layman terminology). As also mentioned in this essay, terms like community, or neighborhood are similarly complex and hard to define but also hard to give up completely.

A varying solution is to focus on specific features such as location, density, or historical period of development and not use the term suburb. This is in fact quite often done in urban studies. This approach allows research variables to be clearly conceptualized. Many research projects on environment and health do not claim that certain communities are suburban, but rather that they have low population densities.

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(2) Alternatively, it may be possible to keep the term. (a) One way to do this is to better distinguish between types of suburbs—so that all references to suburbs are qualified by an adjective. This makes sense because different types of suburbs will have different problems and different planning needs. Many authors today deal with this situation by focusing on fairly clearly defined types of suburbs such as Fishman's (2003) ''American-style 'suburbs of prosperity''' or the ''ethnoburb'' (Li, 1998). If such suburbs are defined with some precision, then they could be the bases of conceptual models, larger theories, and thoughtful practice.

An interesting point to be discussed in future research can whether such obviously diverse suburban areas have enough in common that they can plausibly be viewed as variations on a common theme, or to pose a generic type of problem for urban theory. Researchers have to determine whether it is useful to lump all of these suburban (elite and middle-class suburbs, inbetween cities, ethnoburbs, technoburbs, edgeless cities and the like) into a common category whatever the label.

As a concluding remark I would say that although several generations of scholars have argued the importance of viewing cities and suburbs as part of "the whole", researchers commonly ignore this sort of inter-dependence. This is especially true of those who have written about suburban areas in the Global South, where gated and squatter communities have typically been considered in isolation. Future research needs to focus on the nature and extent of inter-relation between the varied types of suburban settlements and the urban core.

For now, and the future, rather than tacitly envisioning of suburban space as form(less), boundary(less), time(less) and as 'other', it is equally possible to think of it as diverse, dynamic, persistent and familiar. Here, the significance of suburban theory and definitions lies in their ability to reflect on the manifold social complexities that emerge from the differentiation of suburbs spatial-temporal form.

Trying to identify elements of unity within diverse, dynamic morphologies of urban structure (if there is one) to come up with comprehensive theoretical models that clearly represent reality is a great challenge for all urban geographers. However, to make this challenge somehow easier, us as urban geographers while trying to come up with definitions and theories for suburbs and other urban structures, we should always recall concepts like inclusion, ethics and reality. Furthermore, we shall be aware and consider the diversity of urban morphologies and shall endeavor to include diverse perspectives of existing urban theory to create a robust base layer for our research.


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