Suburbia is a place you probably associate with certain images: Lawns, bike-riding kids, big houses, two-car garages. The city, similarly, is a place we can easily visualize: dense, busy, and full of a wide variety of people. It's easy to think of cities and suburbs as distinct places with distinct lifestyles. But when elements of those places and lifestyles cross the borderline between city and suburb, these comfortable ideas about what's what begin to erode.
It's becoming increasingly true that the dense and walkable urban form of central cities can be found in suburbs and exurbs just as much as a car-oriented life can be reality in the city. It's an idea explored recently by Emily Badger in her article on the very non-suburban elements of her supposedly suburban home of Alexandria, Virginia. Not every suburb is completely suburban in lifestyle and physical form, nor is every city completely urban. Many, if not most are a blend of qualities and characteristics that challenge the way we think about the spectrum of urbanity.
There could be, for example, a town of densely developed homes with close proximity to shopping and services but which happens to be located 50 miles outside of a major city. Suburban in location, but maybe not so much in lifestyle, according to Markus Moos, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Waterloo who's part of a multi-university research team exploring suburbanism around the world.
"This example of the small city, one might be able to speak about how some of its residents, because of its walkability and high density, actually are living quite urban kinds of lives locally," Moos says. "But regionally they actually are more linked in a suburban way to the larger metropolitan network."
To develop a better understanding of the ways that elements of urbanity and suburbanity go beyond their traditional boundaries, Moos and his team have launched the Atlas of Suburbanisms, a resource-rich website focusing on 19 cities and suburban regions across Canada. By mapping characteristics commonly associated with suburbs, the atlas provides a more nuanced look at how elements of suburbanism are actually dispersed in Canada's metropolitan regions.
"We're trying to move away from this duo-definition of inner city versus suburbs and really trying to think about the ways people live in the metropolitan region and which parts of their lives may be more urban or suburban," Moos says. "Any place could simultaneously have urban and and suburban kinds of characteristics."
A high-rise residential tower in a central city where most of the residents drive 30 minutes to work every day is, in this sense, both urban and suburban.
For each of the 19 metropolitan regions in the Atlas, the researchers have created a series of maps showing the distribution of indicators like family size, home type and mode of commute, creating an easily understandable visualization of the ways that urban and suburban characteristics spread across regions.
The researchers also took data on typically suburban characteristics – single-family home prevalence, home ownership and commuting alone – and mapped them in a Venn diagram of overlapping instances to draw a picture of where all of these suburban characteristics occur.
The Atlas also compiles a wealth of demographic and statistical data on these regions, largely from Canada's census. According to Moos, the goal is to shake up the way we think of suburbanism as being solely a spatial quality, but also to track the trajectories of demographic change that are occurring in Canada's cities. Moos says that the information available in the Atlas can help to disentangle the different processes that are believed to shape suburbanization, from demographic change to immigration to institutional restructuring to market processes. Understanding how these processes are unfolding across regions will help give urban planners and policy makers a more complex view of the spread of populations and their needs, according to Moos.
"When we think about cities, we often focus on the downtown, and I think that focus has intensified as a lot of the large cities, particularly in Canada but also in the U.S., have seen downtown revitalization," says Moos. "This project really tries to shift our attention to parts of metropolitan areas where most of the population actually lives."
And though much of the concept behind the project is an argument that suburbanism is not only a spatial phenomenon, the geography of suburban lifestyles is still important.
"When it comes time to make policy, policies happen within clear boundaries," Moos says. The Atlas "aims to add another layer, not to say that we don’t need to think about places, because that in itself is an important way in which we understand the city and its distinct neighborhoods."
Rather than erasing the line between city and suburb, the information and maps in the Atlas of Suburbanisms show that the two are actually more conditions than places. These conditions, it seems, are less and less tied to specific types of places.
Images courtesy: Atlas of Suburbanisms
Top image: Tim Roberts Photography /Shutterstock