Monday, September 3, 2012

City vs. Suburb: what does it mean?

I just saw this article on my G+. And, as is so often the case, something I mostly identify with prompts much thought and comment. In particular, the idea of the distinction between “The City” and “The Suburbs”. I think the distinction is overblown. It divides places unnecessarily, and it doesn't adequately address the real characteristics of places and the history behind them.

To start with, dividing an urban area into a city and suburbs, especially when the purpose is to set one against another, is to divide something that's working as a whole. People regularly cross not only municipal boundaries, but urban-suburban-exurban-rural boundaries as a matter of course when conducting daily business. The city and suburbs together form an interdependent economic unit. When my wife's grandfather started his heating and air conditioning business he set up shop in La Grange, a suburb of Chicago, because that was the location from which he could reach the largest part of the area as a whole, from Indiana to Wisconsin, city and suburb alike. A location along the Tri-State Tollway was like a shipping business' location the Chicago Belt Railway. Similarly places we live and work may fit somewhere in a city-suburb binary, but we choose them based on their specific characteristics, convenient access to things we care about, and cost of living. Chicago, La Grange, Naperville, and Skokie are all part of the same whole and all serve each other. Or Seattle, Redmond, Canyon Park, and SeaTac. None could exist as it is today without all the others. The city-suburb distinction sometimes encourages people to set one against the other, especially in funding disputes where one typically accuses the other of being a leech.

And while in some ways the city-suburb binary is an unnecessary and divisive way to look at things, it's also in other ways not precise enough. Perhaps you buy the idea that downtown Kirkland and Canyon Park are both suburban, and that SODO, South Lake Union, and the core of downtown Seattle are all urban. The distinctions within the urban and suburban groups are perhaps greater than the distinctions between them. A lot of people in Seattle live in middle-ground areas developed initially as “streetcar suburbs”, which would further stretch the definitions of whichever group you put them in. And even the history of some of these areas is important. In 20 years people might wonder why all the fast transit service between downtown Seattle (decidedly urban) and the U District (urban enough, and a huge transit destination) skips SLU (which in 20 years will be quite a transit destination). Its history as a warehouse district and its long period of decline will answer those questions well, while an appeal to its “urbanness” won't yield many answers.


Nick Barnard said...

Like any set of words city and suburb are imprecise models of the real world.

That being said, I think it is important as shorthand. Living in an urban area likely means many things that the WSJ article points out - being close to places to eat, transit, walkability and all the like. It also means that residential and commercial areas are much closer together if not intermixed.

Suburban means residential and commercial areas are divided, and transit is inefficient and walkability is poor. It also means that residential and commercial areas are strictly divided.

As someone who grew up in suburbia and deliberately moved to an urban area the distinctions are real and important. Should they be used to pit people against each other? I'm not sure..

Nick Barnard said...

One of the things thats in my head that didn't make it into my previous comment is that urban vs suburban is more a continuum than a binary. I'd also argue that Seattle proper is one of the most suburban "urban" cities on that continuum.

Additionally, many of Seattle's more urburban areas are within the city limits.

(Although, I'm not an expert, and NYC's Staten Island also throws an outlier in there as well.)

Al Dimond said...

City limits are right out of the discussion. Miami's municipal boundaries cover a rather small portion of the contiguous urbanized area; Jacksonville's cover just about all of it. Seattle's (like Chicago's or New York's) are somewhere in between. Most big cities have incorporated parts with highly suburban characteristics (Chicago has Beverly and Hegewisch; Seattle has Magnolia and West Seattle; NYC has Staten Island and Queens; LA and San Diego have, well, most parts of those cities).

And most also have suburbs with some urban characteristics. Two people I work closely with live in downtown Kirkland. They carry out many of their errands on foot and walk to work. Downtown Kirkland is certainly a suburban downtown with some "urban" elements and some "suburban" ones. But you could apply the same term to downtown Bellevue, which is a different kind of place entirely (more intense and less pleasant). And, really, doesn't it apply as easily to lower Fremont, the middle of Wallingford, Old Ballard, or the top of Queen Anne? Each in different ways.

Some areas built up to densities, intensities, pedestrian volumes, and transit convergeance that could only be called urban lack mixed use and are empty some times of day. Jane Jacobs leveled this criticism at lower Manhattan, and I've never been there, but parts of downtown Chicago and Seattle are like that, many American cities' "financial districts" are. Many cities have industrial areas considered part of the inner city (Seattle has SODO and areas along its ship canal; Chicago has Goose Island, the Stockyards, areas along the Chicago River and its ship canal), and some of those have been redeveloped or are in the process (SLU, Pearl District, River North). The histories of these areas and their development certainly have a big impact on what it's like to live there and how they interact with the rest of the city. In 20 years SLU may be very urban, but it will look and feel quite different from Pike Place, from LQA. It will have some things more in common with downtown Bellevue.

In the end, if you like urban virtues of walkability, mixed use, etc., and spend any time in the suburbs, you know how important these virtues are there. I used to work in Canyon Park, which is the picture of exurbia, built at massive automotive scale. Mixed use means at lunchtime everyone in the office piles into someone's car and we have access to all the strip malls from there to Mill Creek. But there was a little sandwich shop in the lobby of the building across the street from mine. And a few more in the lobbies of other buildings in my particular office park; though they were a bit of a hike (it's a huge park) I think I got around to all of them. Two had falafel (one lousy, the other pretty good). There was a church (probably of the mega- variety) toward the north end, an apartment complex in the southwest corner, and restaurants open in the evening in the northwest corner, which is more use-mixture than some office parks can boast. And even though the nearby residential neighborhoods were Cul-de-sacced Up Beyond All Recognition you could walk out to them if you were willing to hit some dusty trails. You'd never call it urban, but with those little touches it beats the hell out of Silicon Valley.