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Buildings and What Happens Inside Them

Rob Holmes at mammoth recently posted a fascinating look at the University of Waterloo’s Atlas of Suburbanisms, an effort to more realistically map the suburbs of major Canadian cities. Rather than defining the suburbs as a continuous, easily identifiable landscape that surrounds “the city,” the researchers find that Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver more closely resemble patchwork quilts in which the urban and suburban are fragmented and mixed. The suburbs are not simply outside the city—they are finely intertwined with it.

Source: University of Waterloo’s Atlas of Suburbanisms, via mammoth

Holmes points out that this research departs from a prior understanding of suburbia as a purely spatial phenomenon, characterized by certain types of houses, commerce, and transportation infrastructure arranged in a certain way. The Atlas of Suburbanisms instead acknowledges that suburbs are as much a product of human behavior as of the built environment, and it maps the variables that distinguish suburban behavior from urban: renting vs. owning, driving to work, and living in detached, single-family homes. The resulting maps show that there is no clear line separating the urban and the suburban, and that suburban modes of living flourish in the centers of major cities just as urban culture can be found in the strip mall sprawl far outside those cities. Joel Garreau, who first explained the edge city twenty years ago, helped to complicate the urban-suburban distinction, and the concepts have only become blurrier since then.

What’s more valuable about this work than its content, however, are the assumptions about cities that it embodies—something Holmes also points out. It’s tempting to understand cities as mainly physical entities, collections of buildings and streets and power lines, and to study them accordingly, but this oversimplifies them. The principal content of cities has always been people, not buildings, and human activity is far more fluid and complex than the built environment that houses and supports that activity. Behavior and culture correlate with space, of course, and both factors are important, but we should be analyzing the former to understand the latter and not the other way around.

In the fully globalized 21st century, culture and information as well as people themselves are more mobile than ever before in history. It makes less and less sense to treat urban space as static now that its human content flows through it at such an accelerated rate. A suburb cannot be understood as an array of housing subdivisions and shopping centers any more than an airport can be understood as a group of terminals and paved surfaces. It’s necessary to know how people are using those spaces and how the spaces in turn influence their occupants’ behavior. Information, culture, and money have completely transformed New York neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, but the built environment only tells a tiny part of those stories. More data about people and how they’re living will tell us what part of the city we’re really in, and we should expect to find “suburbs” in some strange places.

One Comment on “Buildings and What Happens Inside Them”

  1. […] July, I wrote a post about the increasingly blurry distinction between the urban and suburban, as suggested by an […]

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