Researcher shifts the lens to suburbs around the globe

The suburbs have often been dismissed as cultureless wastelands of cookie-cutter housing and strip malls. But York enviromental studies Professor Roger Keil, principal investigator of a major international research initiative, says there’s a lot more happening in suburbia than people think and researchers have ignored it for far too long. Most urban growth these days is suburban development and yet, until now, there has not been an encompassing study of suburbs around the world which examines their challenges and commonalities.

“The suburbs have not received a lot of attention, so we’re trying to shift the lens, so to speak,” says Keil, director of the City Institute at York University (CITY). “Urbanization is at the core of the growth and crisis of the global economy today. Yet, the crucial aspect of 21st-century urban development is suburbanization, which is defined as the combination of an increase in non-central city population and economic activity, as well as urban spatial expansion.”

Left: Suburbs being built in York Region. Photo by Roger Keil.

With $2.5 million in research funding through the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Major Collaborative Research Initiatives program, Keil, along with some 43 researchers from around the globe, will study various aspects of what he likes to call the in-between city. Global Suburbanisms: Governance, Land and Infrastructure in the 21st Century is “the first major research project that takes stock of worldwide suburban developments in a systematic way. By studying suburbs, we analyze recent forms of urbanization and emerging forms of urbanism across the world, but we also take into view the dilemmas of aging suburbanity,” he says. Canadian suburbanization and suburbanism trends will serve as a critical basis for understanding suburbanization in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.

What makes suburbs so important to study is their abundant growth. In the 1800s, only about two per cent of the world’s population was urbanized. That increased to about 10 per cent in the 1900s and to almost 50 per cent in the early 2000s. The suburbs are changing and growing, and, in North America at least, they are becoming the place to be. “It’s a percentage increase but also a real increase because the world population has risen dramatically,” says Keil. “More and more people don’t live in dense urban centres anymore, they live in suburbs. So now we call it suburbanization instead of urbanization.” Canada is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world and that includes the suburbs. When people immigrate to Canada, they often move straight to the suburbs, places like Brampton and Markham, bypassing cities like Toronto altogether.

Right: Roger Keil

The question then becomes, “When we see a suburb, how do we understand it? We want to create a different way of looking at things,” says Keil. “We also hope in the process…this information becomes useful to users of suburban spaces, where they consume and produce, as well as to developers.”

By examining the governance of suburbanization, researchers will get a better idea of how development is guided and regulated, and how state, market and civil society actors are involved. The seven-year project is comprised of many smaller studies of two to four years in length. The two prime anchors will be land – housing, shelter systems, real estate, greenbelts and megaprojects – and infrastructure, including transportation, water and social services.

Keil’s own keen interest is in greenbelts and the relationships between natural and social, urban and suburban. How, for instance, does water fit in? Where does it come from, a pipe, a lake, a well? What is the relationship of suburbanization to water? How is it used? “We need to develop alternatives and this is particularly true in environmental metabolism of waste disposal, water, smog. The energy use has increased…the environmental bads growing out of suburbs have outpaced suburbanization,” he says. “We all live in one environmental global space.” There is a need to understand that interconnectivity.

Left: Suburb of Kuisebmond in Namibia, Africa. Photo by Roger Keil.

In the process of studying suburbanization, researchers will be up against the traditional biases and ingrained way people think about the areas surrounding the city core, often as urban sprawl. “We need to break down and expand the way people look at the suburbs,” says Keil. There is not just one type of suburban development. There are the squatter settlements in Africa and Latin America, the expanding outskirts of India and China, the peripheral high-rise developments in Europe and Canada, and North America’s gated communities. With the different types of development come different social and cultural norms, land-use patterns and forms of transportation. “Through one lens we say these are all suburbanizations.” Until now, there has been “no serious attempt to bring all these phenomena together.”

This project will look at the differences between central cities and suburbs, as well as the diversity of suburban development. “Suburbs are very diverse ethnically, culturally and lifestyle-wise and the gender roles are not as traditional as ‘Leave it to Beaver’ may have led us to believe.” People around the world have negotiated the suburban realm in a variety of different ways.

New forms of suburbanization are being created all the time. There are copycat North American suburbs in Calcutta, for instance. Keil expects that suburbs around the world have different trajectories of where they’re going and he hopes that they can learn from one another. As it turns out, all cities and suburbs are not looking like Los Angeles or Chicago, as once thought. “We’re turning that upside down,” says Keil. “Conceptually, we want to rewrite the books. The suburbs can all be understood under a number of guidelines we want to develop. So there is a common lens we can look through despite the large variety of forms we see.”

In addition to the various studies, classes, workshops and conferences will held around the world. There will be a travelling multimedia exhibition at the end, a book series and a series of documentaries produced in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit will connect the research with policy-makers and community organizations over the span of the project.

Through this project, the suburbs may finally get a little respect.

For more information, visit the CITY Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer