The University of Waterloo’s Atlas of Suburbanisms — a research project by the School of Planning’s Markus Moos and Anna Kramer — looks like a fantastic effort to understand Canadian suburbs on their own terms and as components of larger urban systems:
“…what if we mapped characteristics commonly believed to be telling of suburbs just to see where they actually occur? What if we went to the suburbs, figuratively and literately, and conducted research as if looking from one suburb to the other, or as if looking from a suburb toward the central city? The likely result is an understanding of suburbanism, and our cities more generally, that is richer and more diverse; an understanding that does not take for granted the political or historic development of cities as drawing concrete lines between what we believe is the suburban and the urban.”
To do this, the research relies on a shift from understanding suburbia primarily as a spatial format — defined by distance from the center of a city, by a certain level of density, or by particular ways of arranging streets and buildings — towards understanding suburbanisms as a kind of urbanity constituted by certain patterns of living: driving to work, gravitating towards demographic monocultures, retreating from public space towards semi-public and private space, owning rather than renting.
This is not a new idea, of course, as the authors of the Atlas acknowledge in referencing Henri Lefebvre. (And the tradition of understanding urbanism “as particular ways of living” goes back to Louis Wirth’s Urbanism as a Way of Life, and Park and Simmel before him.)
What is novel — to me at least — is the mapping work included in the Atlas, which extracts a set of variables from Canadian census data — on driving to work, home ownership, and detached housing — to create a series of maps of that treat the overlap between these variables as a kind of spatially-distributed Venn diagram (the key is literally a Venn diagram), producing a first draft of mapping suburbanism as a continuum from less suburban to more suburban.
Though two of these variables might really be considered behaviors and one of which is a spatial format, it seems to me that also overlapping different ways of understanding urbanization — sitting on both sides of that shift from suburbia as a spatial format to suburbanisms as ways of life — makes the mapping work stronger because, while it may detract from the purity of the thesis, urbanism is genuinely defined by both spatial and behavioral patterns.
If anything, it’d be fascinating to see the maps become more and more fragmented. The current simple Venn diagram of a key might start to exhibit fractal behavior as it splinters into endless combinatory possibilities. The variables could expand to include more spatial variations — cul de sacs, highway configurations, architectural styles, maximum building heights, building life-spans, chain-store ecologies and big box indicator species — and near-infinite lists of behavioral patterns: the propensity to start families, the kinds of schools attended, whether demographic homogeneity is increasing or decreasing, the kinds of crimes that are most prevalent, modes of transport taken on basic errands, which cultural institutions and social spaces play the most central role in daily life (from bars to places of worship to ballparks to public squares). And then the kinds of variables under consideration could expand: understanding cities as economic entities, as material networks, as infrastructural assemblages…
[Seen via Nate Berg.]