Hot of the presses last week at The Atlantic Cities was a piece from Feargus O’Sullivan entitled “Why I Moved Back to the Suburbs.” Without touching on the reasons for O’Sullivan to make that move, the very premise depends on what you call a suburb. As it turns out, O’Sullivan’s destination ‘burb isn’t really all that suburban to my view of the term:
I should point out here that London’s outer districts are quite different from the average American suburb. For a start, they’re often pretty old – areas built no later than the 1930s still abut fields along some stretches of the city’s limits. They also tend to have medium rather than low population density, with decent transport links and broad, walkable sidewalks that mean car ownership is desirable but not essential. What they share with the U.S. however is their sprawl and their reputation for conformity – it’s often said that it was the dullness of suburbs a few miles beyond mine that helped spawnBritain’s Punk movement.
I don’t know that those ‘burbs are all that different from similarly aged American suburbs around the nation’s primary city, either. The further descriptors only serve to emphasize how useless the term ‘suburb’ is – this place has the key qualities of moderately dense development, strong transit links, and a walkable urban design. If you were to ask someone in the US to identify a place with those characteristics without using the label, I’ll bet the responses would identify outlying urban neighborhoods with good access to the city – or, in other words, places that most would call ‘urban.’
So, to get value out of the word ‘suburb’ it would help to define it in terms of characteristics (similar to this exercise in defining sprawl and using the term for more than just outward patterns of development). O’Sullivan isn’t the only one to fall for this. Joel Kotkin is notorious for praising the virtues of the suburbs while conjuring visions of Levittowns, while his analysis hinges on the political definition of a suburb (and all of the arbitrary boundaries therein) and ends up lumping Levittowns and McMansions in with Jersey City. And it isn’t just political boundaries – Cap’n Transit notes that the New York Times has called the Upper West Side suburban in the past.
Cap’n Transit also hits on the need to define these places in terms of the characteristics, rather than just relying on the label:
The problem is that there are several features of suburbs that catch our attention more than whether they are within the city limits. We often essentialize these features and assume that all suburbs are that way. When someone says “suburb” they may actually be referring to just a few of those features, or even a single one.
I don’t know if I agree with Cap’n's categories, but it does raise the issue of separating broad categories of key characteristics: There physical factors, relating to density, design, land use, location, the built and natural environments, etc. – and I would posit that the physical factors are mostly the same as those used to define sprawl, just with different positions on the continuum of choices. There are social and economic factors, covering race/ethnicity, language, income, wealth, jobs, etc. There are network factors as well, looking at links to the core city, considering modes of transport and the quality of the links. I suppose there’s also a category for institutional considerations, perhaps including those arbitrary political boundaries and other quirks of governance.
No matter what term you want to use as the sum of those characteristics, at least the characteristics tell a more complete story. The New Urbanist transect model helps refine the thinking on some of these issues – at least with regard to the physical, built environment. That said, the transect zone labeled as “sub-urban” (T-3) wouldn’t match the terminology used by others in different contexts.