The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs
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The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs

Bernadette Hanlon, Thomas Vicino, Bernadette Hanlon, Thomas J. Vicino

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs

Bernadette Hanlon, Thomas Vicino, Bernadette Hanlon, Thomas J. Vicino

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About This Book

The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs provides one of the most comprehensive examinations available to date of the suburbs around the world. International in scope and interdisciplinary in nature, this volume will serve as the definitive reference for scholars and students of the suburbs.

This volume brings together the leading scholars of the suburbs researching in different parts of the world to better understand how and why suburbs and their communities grow, decline, and regenerate. The volume sets out four goals: 1) to provide a synthesis and critical appraisal of the historical and current state of understanding about the development of suburbs in the world; 2) to provide a forum for a comprehensive examination into the conceptual, theoretical, spatial, and empirical discontents of suburbanization; 3) to engage in a scholarly conversation about the transformation of suburbs that is interdisciplinary in nature and bridges the divide between the Global North and the Global South; and 4) to reflect on the implications of the socioeconomic, cultural, and political transformations of the suburbs for policymakers and planners. The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs is composed of original, scholarly contributions from the leading scholars of the study of how and why suburbs grow, decline, and transform. Special attention is paid to the global nature of suburbanization and its regional variations, with a focus on comparative analysis of suburbs through regions across the world in the Global North and the Global South.

Articulated in a common voice, the volume is integrated by the very nature of the concept of a suburb as the unit of analysis, offering multidisciplinary perspectives from the fields of economics, geography, planning, political science, sociology, and urban studies.

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Part I
Suburban definitions and descriptions

Defining suburbs

Ann Forsyth

The problem of definition

What is a suburb? In the coming decades, billions of people will move to urban areas and many will live in areas that are already considered suburban. How many people, and what that means, depends heavily on how suburbs are defined. As a vibrant literature on framing in planning work suggests, how urbanists, the press, and the public talk and think about the suburbs shapes how they can see such areas being developed and redeveloped in the future (Caplan and Nelson, 1973; Schon and Rein, 1994; Harvard Law Review Association, 2004; Healey, 2009). In the coming decades, as new suburban areas are built and older suburbs head toward redevelopment, clearer definitions, or better alternatives to the term “suburb,” can help focus academic and practical debates on important issues.
In 1958, Kurtz and Eichler published an article in Social Forces complaining about confusion over “residence categories” and, in particular, the terms “suburb” and “fringe.” As they pointed out, when concepts are not clear it is hard to create an adequate theory. The situation has not improved much in subsequent decades. As Lineberry (1975, p. 2) argued in the mid-1970s, “despite the voluminous literature on suburbia, we are no closer than ever to a definition. It is a mere assumption of convenience that we all know what we are talking about, however variegated the pictures in our heads.” While Lineberry attempted to provide some clarity, decades later Harris, reviewing the international literature on suburbs, still complained that the field needed to establish a “minimum definition to which suburbs everywhere conform” (Harris, 2010, p. 26). Among urban scholars, then, there is no consensus as to what exactly constitutes a suburb and the confusion expands when one includes popular and media accounts.
This chapter examines the range of suburban definitions. These include definitions focused on the physical, functional, social, and process dimensions as well as others that take 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. Several related areas in urban studies – primarily urban planning, urban history, urban sociology, and urban geography – have generated many of the definitions, demonstrating disciplinary differences. For example, historians strive to define suburbs in a way that makes sense over time and urban sociologists are particularly concerned about social relations. Those working in low-income countries often use an overlapping term – peri-urban development – that most commonly refers to the urban or suburban fringe but may also refer to closer areas (Adell, 1999; Iaquinta and Drescher, 1999).
Given this multiplicity, one approach is to abandon the word “suburb” and replace it with terms referring to specific types of suburbs or particular features, such as density. This has some advantages in terms of reducing ambiguity. However, it can also be argued that focusing on key dimensions misses the big picture of metropolitan growth and change.
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, p. 440). The former group has proposed alternative types of “post-suburban” environments such as technoburbs and urban realms (Phelps, 2015; Teaford, 2008, p. x; Webber, 1964). They have a point, particularly if they continue to define suburbs as primarily residential and middle-class. For the purposes of this review, however, I have included these post-suburban environments as types of suburbs and dealt with them under various dimensions. As I note, alternatives to the residential suburbs have been part of the scholarly debate on suburbs for almost a century, so the idea of the non-residential post-suburban environment is really not so new.
For those wishing to define suburbs as a whole, the most practical approaches are based on the suburbs’ outer locations in the metropolis and their relative newness. These two dimensions provide a somewhat distinctive range of opportunities and problems in suburbs including potentially limited access to services, newer social networks, closeness to undeveloped or rural areas, and often lower-cost of land.
In identifying definitions, I encountered a difficulty. Surprisingly few people who write about suburbs define them explicitly as a whole – including many classic, influential, and otherwise important works on suburbs. Some focus on specific types of suburbs, defining them quite clearly but not dealing with suburbs more generally – for example, authors may focus on ethnoburbs, technoburbs, suburban master-planned communities, or streetcar suburbs. Some of my own work has taken this form. Others define suburbs through examples by applying the term suburban to particular places or characteristics from which the reader can deduce a definition. However, it is hard to piece together a comprehensive definition from such accounts. 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.
In order to locate more explicit and comprehensive definitions, I started by reviewing sources likely to define suburbs, such as census agency manuals. I looked at books on suburbs, searching via the combined library catalog, Worldcat. In addition, I located literature using Google Scholar, applying key words such as variants on the terms “suburb” and “definition.” I also searched using questions such as, “What is a suburb?” I started with Google Scholar because it picks up a wider variety of sources than, for example, Web of Knowledge (ISI/Thompson). One assessment in social work found it located four times the number of disciplinary journals (Hodge and Lacasse, 2011). It also is very simple to search for works that have cited a particular piece. However, I also checked my search against several other databases including Web of Knowledge, Summon (a database aggregator used by libraries – my library had 800 million references in the database), and the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals. Combined, these other databases added four more relevant references, all from Summon.
In this way, I traced a range of authors who defined suburbs. More important, I examined the articles and books they cited and located works that cited the sources I had found. Some of these also provided definitions. I did not intend to inventory every work defining suburbs but rather to show the range of definitions across the century in which the urban studies literature has grappled with the phenomenon of suburbanization. A number of definitional issues – such as whether suburbs are essentially residential or can contain employment areas – are long-standing, but that situation is not always obvious from recent debates. While drawing mainly on work from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australasia, where possible, this chapter extends more globally within the English-language literature.

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 perhaps there is no need for one. There are a number of reasons, however, why it is important to define suburbs clearly.
First is the issue of action. As Caplan and Nelson (1973, p. 200) pointed out some decades ago in the context of social problems, “What is done about a problem depends on how it is defined” (Schon and Rein, 1994; Healey, 2009). For example, if suburbs in the United States are seen as essentially white and middle-class or elite, policymakers may pay less attention to the real achievements and problems of African American suburban residents or low-income suburbs. If they are seen as essentially automobile-dependent, the many examples of transit-oriented suburbs may be ignored. In public debates, people may talk past one another.
Second is 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.
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 scholars, students, and practitioners with a roadmap for identifying the perspectives of contributors to debates about suburbs.

Forms of definitions

Analyzing how suburbs are defined is not easy because the methods of constructing those definitions vary quite a bit, even among those authors who define suburbs explicitly. Table 1.1 explains some of these differences.
First, is whether the definition proposes what a suburb is (also called a positive definition) or focuses on what it is not or what it lacks (also called negative). This is not the same as whether the author likes suburbs or not. A positive definition of a suburb may focus on aspects of suburbia seen as problematic by the analyst (e.g., that it is automobile-oriented); similarly, a negative definition of what a suburb lacks may focus on the absence of problems.
Table 1.1 Approaches to defining suburbs explicitly
Core essence Features and types (family resemblance)

What a suburb is/positive Example: LOW-DENSITY primarily residential areas Example: First, second, and third ring suburbs; suburbs as low-density, with detached houses, middle-class families, substantial open space, and scattered employment
What a suburb lacks/negative Example: Suburbs are within metropolitan areas (not rural) and outside the central cities (not core) Example: Not cultured, not diverse, unequal, not dense
Second, and cutting across this first issue, is whether the definition focuses on a core essence of “suburbanity,” for example, that all suburbs, or the most typical suburbs, have low densities and are primarily residential, or lists a set of features or types of suburbs that hang together with a family resemblance (Wittgenstein, 2009). Many definitions revolving around features and types are quite complex, which is part of the reason they were not reduced to an essence.
Several key topics often appear in definitions of suburbs, whatever the approach. Table 1.2 demonstrates some of these; these reflect definitions of suburbs as a whole. What is obvious from the short listing, however, is how varied the dimensions are and how potentially complicated definitions become when dimensions are combined.
Table 1.2 Key dimensions for defining suburbs with examples of definitions
Dimension Brief description Examples

Physical (where, what)
Location Where the suburbs are within a metropolitan area Suburbs as on the outskirts of a town; definition unofficially derived from U.S. census - suburbs as within metropolitan areas but outside of core cities
Built environment characteristics Key physical features related to development patterns or building and landscape types Suburbs as having large areas of low-density detached houses
Functional (operations)
Transportation How people access and get ar...

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