Beyond the white picket fence


With more people gravitating toward cities than ever before, new urban morphologies are proliferating throughout the developed and developing worlds. Roger Keil, a professor at Toronto’s York University, has spent his career thinking about the implications of this process. I spoke with him about Suburban Governance: A Global View, a newly released book he co-edited with University of Montreal professor Pierre Hamel.


What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

We’re claiming that suburbanization is maybe the most important process now going on in the world of urbanization. We need to have our lens trained on suburbanization as a process and suburban living as a way of life.

We thought that it was necessary to look specifically at A) how suburban places are produced and B) how they are being lived in. And the novelty of this part of our research is that we attempted a global perspective. That really hasn’t been done. There have been idiosyncratic comparisons of this and that, and regional studies on suburbanization in former Soviet countries, in China. But we believe for the first time we have looked at this in a global context with a particular perspective on the idea of governance.

Our starting question for this first book in our series about global suburbanisms was, how can we imagine a universal framework that explains governance of suburbanization? We came up with this idea that there are always three factors: the state, capital accumulation, and private authoritarian government.

The state is pretty self-explanatory; it’s government. The national state has always played a big role in suburbanization, even though it’s a municipal thing in many cases. But in the Anglo-Saxon models, like the United States and Canada, the state has provided tax incentives or created agencies that provided mortgage payments and particular conditions under which the market could produce suburbs. And, of course, the state also builds and governs the infrastructure that’s needed in order to create the suburbs.

Then you have capital accumulation. We call it that because it’s a bit different from the market. People always believe the market is a neutral thing that distributes things in a rational fashion, but really it’s a process with a particular political economy. So, for example, land is being bought and sold in order to make a profit. This is done under regulations that the state has provided. These are two points in that triangle.

The third point is what we call private authoritarianism. And that is, we believe, a growing modality of governance and suburbanization. The most common form of private authoritarianism is the gated community. You have, again, the state and the market operating in building the gated community. But then you have this new thing: private actors — homeowners, associations of homeowners, or a private builder — create a jurisdiction that is private, but also public in a strange way. It makes a slice of the public private, then protects that community from things outside the fence.

So rules are established that are protected by both the state’s actions and the market’s realities, but it’s a bit different from the classic model of public and private. It’s another animal altogether.

You have various mixes of state action, capital accumulation, and private authoritarianism in all these different places in the world. They are not always present at the same time, in the same intensity. You have classic cases where the state is more operative: France, for example, or the former Soviet countries, that built millions of units of suburban high-rise tower housing. Or China: today the state is very active, that’s the best example. But China is also interesting, because it shares with Brazil or South Africa and the United States a certain knack for gating and private authoritarianism.

One thing we can take away from the book is that, in a very practical way, the growth of these large, suburban regions has led to two major developments in terms of governance. One is a push toward regionalization everywhere in the world. People now talk about, “we need regional agencies.” In Toronto we have a regional transportation agency.

People look at air pollution control, like in Southern California, as a regional issue. The suburbanized urban regions are attempting to find a rational way to participate in the delivery of services across a watershed, an airshed, a garbage shed. So that’s one tendency.

The opposing tendency is, of course, private authoritarianism. One of our researchers found that about 50% of the roads now built in the United States are private. So you have an atomizing of urban governance, where every suburb fends for itself.

These two very different tendencies are often seen around the world side by side. My co-editor, Pierre Hamel, is now leading an empirical study on the basis of this book in which we will look at actual mechanisms of regional governance in select urban regions in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America.

How do you see design fitting into discussions of suburbanization and governance?

Well, take the North American suburb. It’s important to realize that this world is created at the planning scale. The design basically follows. Space is produced in a particular form by particular governance processes, by metropolitan governments that lay out the space, build the highways, create the subdivisions. The land is subdivided, the lot size is determined, the lot size determines a certain design: will it be a ranch-style home or a bungalow? You can pretty much lay that out the entire way. The important thing has in the past been that scale.

Dallas suburbs. Image: La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA 2.0

Dallas suburbs. Image: La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA 2.0

What we now have are interesting conversations about retrofitting suburbia. The single-family home is often considered unreformable; once there’s a single-family home on a single lot, it’s basically untouchable for all kinds of reasons. But then there could be design ideas about how to start from the individual lot outward, to think differently about that space.

The much-bemoaned and very real lack of public space in the suburbs is a design issue, to some degree. What do you do with public space dominated by the automobile? Which is common throughout North America. You need a change in the political economy. But we now have that, for example, with the dead mall. Everywhere in North America we have the opportunity to think differently about these spaces, because the political economy of mall-land is not working anymore.

Design per se will not save us; design has to be put in relationship with social innovation that put the suburbs into a different context. What the crisis of the suburbs around the world have now shown, whether it’s the banlieue of Paris, the outskirts of Stockholm, or Ferguson, Missouri, is that we now have to confront the suburban crisis. As we begin to think differently about the suburbs, we need to redesign those suburbs in light of the social and economic crisis that exists there. We can’t just beautify them or put in more bicycle paths. We also need to make sure that we address the lack of services in those places, that we address the increased and often subterranean poverty. And we need to address the suburbs as places of diversity, rather than thinking of them as those places where white flight ended. Our suburbs now are much more diverse socioeconomically, ethnically, and otherwise.

And this is just the beginning. Think about the Chinese government, the Turkish government, and other such states putting millions of people into suburban settlements: the peripheries of Istanbul and Ankara and Shanghai and Shenzhen, all these places. If we think 30 years down the road, we can already see the challenges that these communities will encounter. Some of them are design issues: we know that high-rise buildings age differently than single-family homes. We know that the kind of infrastructure you put into place in these suburban peripheries age very badly. We need to think about peak oil and the availability of the automobile. That is a very important area of activity for designers and architects and engineers and infrastructure specialists.

You’ve focused on suburban issues throughout your career. Where do you see these topics fitting within mainstream discussions about urbanism and design? My suspicion is that they receive less attention than they should — in the United States, at least — and that one reason for that might be the heavy concentration of the media and design professions in large cities.

I would have thought that out of all the places in the world you would hear most about the suburbs is the United States. In many parts of the world they pretend they don’t exist. But in the United States, a country where the suburbs are inhabited by a majority of the population, there has been an assumption that the suburbs are a good place. They have distinguished themselves through narratives of success. And not only of individual success — people moving to the suburbs because they have the means to do so — but also the success of a particular economic model. So it is a bit surprising that the suburbs are not being talked about more.

Globally it’s surprising, because the majority of what David Harvey has called “the planet as building site” is perhaps now in the urban periphery. It is not recognized by everybody as suburban, because the idea of suburb is linked to a particular imagery of white picket fences and single-family homes. But if you have a more expansive view of suburbanization, you can count squatter settlements and high-rise neighborhoods and edge cities, all manner of morphologies, into this process of suburbanization.

It is also surprising that in our field of urban studies, the suburbs are still considered to be of lesser value. It’s not just in the popular imagination that the suburbs are a lesser place, a separate place that is not quite the city. Also in what we teach at the university, suburbs still play this minor role.

It’s interesting, particularly because a lot of people have been thinking really hard, recently but also in the past, about so-called dialectics between centralization and decentralization. The more high-rise buildings that grow downtown, the more sprawl you have in the outer city. These things are related.

So what you’re pointing out is a very important issue.

Could you say more about the history of these ideas?

This kind of thinking goes back to the 1960s and Henri Lefebvre, who talks about the explosion of the city. By this he means the movement from dense, compact downtown developments to suburbs, holiday resorts and those kinds of things. In every urban region you have implosion and explosion, intensification and decentralization. For every dense urban form that we’re producing, we need an oil field in Saudi Arabia or in the Canadian oil sands. One doesn’t work without the other. That’s a thought that started with Henri Lefebvre’s Urban Revolution.

For more than twenty years now, my work has looked at oscillating growth dynamics for global cities. In the late ’80s early ’90s, my colleague Klaus Ronneberger and I wrote about how the global city of Frankfurt is a very good example of this phenomenon. Whenever the downtown grew, with another office or bank tower built, there was more development in the outer rings.

The Frankfurt airport is a classic case of creating an economy all by itself on the outer fringes of the city, with warehouses and logistics companies and what-have-you. The employment at the airport has always been higher than the employment in the banking sector. However, the literature focuses on the banking sector; it doesn’t focus on the airport. The bankers couldn’t go anywhere if there wasn’t an airport. The commodities, the stuff that they need, couldn’t reach them. The suburban nerve centers and logistics centers and back offices keep the city going, keep the entire region going.

It’s not a dichotomy between the city and the suburb; it’s now a complex division of labor across the urban region. For every latte you drink in your downtown coffee shop, some truck needs to be delivering the beans to a warehouse somewhere. And the warehouse tends to be in the suburbs, not downtown.

Published in Doggerel in March 2015.
Doggerel was an online magazine published by design firm Arup.