“Infinite Suburbia,” a collection of essays edited by Alan Berger, Joel Kotkin, and Celina Balderas Guzman, challenges the suburban notion that Lewis Mumford once described as “a multitude of uniform unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibility, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every respect to a common mold.”
Did you catch yourself nodding your head? Imagining a row of white picket fences, overwatered lawns, and garage dominated facades? “Infinite Suburbia” challenges this notion through the voices of 74 authors and 52 essays. As you make your way through this hefty tome, interspersed with stunning aerials of suburbs across the globe, you might find yourself forming a new stance-- one that recognizes the complexity of suburbia’s production, persistence, and expansion.
“Infinite Suburbia” not only presents a robust analysis of suburbia’s interaction with its inhabitants, environment, and neighbors; but also prompts readers to consider the enormous potential of suburban sustainability as the global population continues to move and live within its borders.
The editors are quick to note the complexity of suburbia and the interrelatedness of the essays. In order to better help readers navigate, the book begins with the “Infinite Suburbia Roadmap,” which substitutes the conventional linear organization of chapters for a table of contents in the form of a spider’s web. The Roadmap links the book’s 52 essays through common themes such as health, technology, ecology, and governance. By recognizing the multiple interrelationships among the essays, the Roadmap demonstrates the rich complexity of suburbia before the reader reaches the first essay.
The wide range of topics covered by the essays reflects the deluge of criticisms that suburbia has received over the years. Coming from one author, a book written in defense of the suburbs might have been deemed a naive and outdated perspective. However, the diversity of the contributors and their perspectives causes readers to pause and seriously consider suburbia as a viable form of development, both in the past and for the future.
Take, for example, the often cited claim of suburbia’s damaging effect on the natural environment. In “Rediscovering the Nature of the Suburbs,” Christopher Sellers provides an interesting paradox by describing how many environmental activist movements in mid-century America originated in the suburbs. In 1951, the Nature Conservancy was born in an east coast suburb and in the 1960s, suburbanites rallied behind the Sierra Club in order to address ecological preservation and protect the natural settings of their neighborhoods. Action against air pollution and pesticides was also fueled by suburban residents, leading to model policies adopted nationwide and new organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund. Sellers’ observations echo a trend cited by many of the book’s other authors, which emphasizes the relationship between class separation and suburban trends. In the 1950s and 1960s, the suburbs housed a wealthier demographic, providing the financial and political support that fueled these environmental movements. While that trend did not continue everywhere, it illustrates the suburbs’ reliance on nature to keep the appeal of suburban living alive.
Additional essays regarding environmentalism are more forward-looking; a balance that is seen throughout the book, making the read informative and actionable. “The Cosmopolitan Ecology of Suburbia” posits that suburbs are not mutually exclusive from natural ecosystems, but rather examples of a pattern that blends wild and cultivated habitats, increasing opportunities for biodiversity. And in “Metabolic Suburbs or the “Virtue of Low Densities,” Susanna Hagan asks us to view suburbs as “organic extensions of the urban system” and leverage the low-density for environmental purposes, such as growing food, purifying water, and generating energy. Hagan provides a catalog of eco-elements that can be included in suburbs as benefits for metropolitan areas, such as food production, energy generation, and water filtration. Similarly, in “Willow Pond,” Bruce Tonn and Dorian Stiefel provide a scenario that identifies technological solutions to the characteristics that currently make suburbs unsustainable. From energy storage and recycled water systems to agriceuticals and smart clothes, the cited solutions are technologies that are currently accessible to developers to some extent. In this fictional scenario Tonn and Stiefel posit the transformation was driven by a number of social, technological, economic, environmental, and political trends that exist in today’s reality, including the threat of climate change, collaboration through online platforms, and a desire for local self-reliance due to declining trust in the national system. Their findings indicate a possible sustainable future for the suburbs if we have the determination and ingenuity to accomplish the transition.
What about the common perception that millennials are rejecting suburbia and seeking an urban lifestyle? In the essay “Measuring Urban Cores and Suburbs in the United States,” Wendell Cox found that how we define the suburbs changes the underlying presumptions drastically. When Cox defined suburbs by urban form and household behavior rather than conventional census methods, the suburbs and exurbs accounted for all population growth, employment growth, and nearly all of the millennial generation growth between 2000-2010. This compelling statistic leaves the reader wondering about trends even more relevant to the book’s 2017 publication date. However, other essays help fill the gap by noting other millennial trends. In “Creative Suburbia,” Mark Gibson, Terry Flew, Christy Collis, and Emma Felton note that while millennials might initially target the urban core, suburbia is well-suited for the creative lifestyle once artists enter later stages of life. The essay references a study that found space for studios, relative affordability, schools, and the tranquility of the suburbs are attracting creative industry workers away from the inner city. In addition to the creative industry, several essays discuss the tech industry boom and the implications of tech company campuses for continuing suburban growth.
Perhaps the most common image of suburbia is the uniform, sprawling, residential communities. In “Rediscovering the Nature of Suburbs” Christopher Sellers describes the 1950s media portrayal of the suburbs as “exhibit A in the arrival of a new, mass-consumerist society” and in “Sprawl of the Century,” Thomas C. Campanella cites “a homey popular expression in China, tan da bing, that likens sprawl to a cook pouring batter on a hot skillet.” And while these visions are reflected in the book’s suburban photographs interrupting the seemingly endless flow of essays; the book’s written content challenges this notion.
In “The Divided Metropolis,” Robert Fishman asserts the complexity and even the chaos of the suburbs. He acknowledges that suburbanization varies radically according to how different cultures choose how to use the land on the periphery. He illustrates this concept through the evolutionary timeline of the modern suburb, divided into three drivers that reflect the political dynamics of the time: class separation, social democracy, and rapid urbanization. While the examples used to develop this essay are somewhat limited, the author succeeds in conveying the underlying theme of this essay: “nothing is more hybridized-indeed, chaotic- than morphology, and land uses at the edge of a rapidly growing city.”
And just in case you were not convinced by Fishman’s essay, the book’s editors, once again, include multiple essays to underscore a single misconception of the suburbs. Jon C. Teaford, in “The Myth of Homogeneous Suburbia,” relays examples of suburbs throughout the years and across the globe that illustrate the heterogeneity of suburbia in regards to income, race, ethnicity, industry, and density. And “Driving While Suburban” claims that this trend of diversity will continue to rise as employment grows in the suburbs and affects traditional commuting patterns. Instead of commuting into urban cores, suburbanites are commuting to other suburbs, dictating a new approach to how transportation planners move forward. The number of essays dedicated to one general concept may seem overwhelming to individuals attempting to read the book from cover to cover; however, it’s nuance could prove to be useful for those using the book as a reference tool in the future.
Page after page emphasizes suburbia is not homogenous, which means that suburban ailments and suburban solutions are not universally applicable. Although 52 essays may seem excessive, I argue that it is necessary to attempt to reverse the ingrained notion of a monotone suburbia. Whether it be through the lens of academia or media, the suburbs are universally viewed as a subpar model of development. The many authors of “Infinite Suburbia” lead us in a different, more proactive question: how do we move forward? Whether you prefer the urban, suburban, or rural life, here are a few key takeaways from their discussions:
- Acknowledge that “still, whatever the reasons, the reality is that the suburbanization of America continues.”
- Remove the suburban illusion. “It is time to bid the (conceptual) white picket fence farewell.”
- Be proactive by planning neighborhoods on the urban fringe “to ensure the orderly and efficient provision of infrastructure services” and matching governance with the evolution of the suburbs and metropolitan region.
- Learn from thriving suburban models around the world, such as Curitiba and its connective transportation system between the suburbs and the central city.
- Be creative! Because suburbs are generally less complex than the urban core, both from regulatory and infrastructure standings, there are opportunities to experiment with codes and zoning that improve community well-being and sustainability.
Like many of my peers, I began this book with a bias against suburban development, favoring instead the energy and co-benefits of the urban realm. Today, as I close this review, I am filled with a new curiosity about the future of the suburbs and the role of urban planners in shaping its development. “Infinite Suburbia” points to an optimistic future by dispelling many of myths that vilify suburbia and offering solution-oriented approaches to our evolving city fabrics. The book is anything but a light read and may deter planners out in the field from diving in head-first. In order to leverage it’s motivating message, it warrants an abbreviated version for those not in academia.
The contributing authors of “Infinite Suburbia” highlight an area often neglected by planners; yet one with enormous potential. With its myriad of topics and perspectives, there is something for professionals of many disciplines. I recommend the book as a reference for those involved in the urban expansion. Although the essays are not enough to inform a full planning process, they introduce concepts that prompt planners to go down the rabbit hole in an attempt to create a suburban wonderland.
Do you have a bias towards urban development? And is there merit in investing in a suburban future? Share your thoughts in the comments area below.
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