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The End of Suburbia, or the Return to Centrality?

Publié le 1 juillet, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Social trends and consumer preferences appear to spell the end of the suburbs and the resurgence of downtown living, but for many, suburbia is not a lifestyle choice. In Toronto, the suburbs are only now becoming what they have long been in Europe: the subordinated pole in the centre-periphery relation.

ashley, SUBURBIA, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Among the many ‘endings’ heralded by the end of cheap oil – the end of mass air travel, of long distance relationships and the SUV – the ‘end’ of suburbia would surely be the most traumatic for everyday life in North America. No other society has so tightly conjoined urban form with the automobile and the inexpensive fuel which powers it. But according to the new urban critics of suburbia, the end of cheap oil is simply the latest in a series of reversals confronting a failed experiment in human settlement. Broad social trends – including population ageing, declining birth rates, and cultural shifts towards ‘urban values’ of diversity, ‘neighbourhood-ness’, and density – conspire in the undoing of suburbia and the resurgence of the downtown. Many would consider this a progressive outcome, given the seeming correspondence between suburban life and possessive individualism, exclusionary politics, and environmental degradation.

If this is a typically North American story, so it is in the telling. To the extent that we think of urban form as a social rather than simply a material phenomenon, it is through the rubric of individual preferences and market behaviour. The purchase and sale of property is a private matter between commodity owners. State intervention is kept to the minimum of guaranteeing the legal framework of exchange and the provision of growth-oriented infrastructure. Urban planning is a notorious misnomer. The ‘plan’ for the city of Toronto, for example, merely validates in terms of the public good what private developers are doing already. Thus infill condominium development – impeccable from a business perspective – is lauded as ecologically and socially responsible ‘smart growth’, even if an underground parking space is required for every resident and the inclusion of affordable units are not required. We do discuss the kind of city that we want, and criticize the city that we have, but we do little politically to accomplish public ends. The socio-spatial organization of the city apparently results from free decision making, and therefore must be a socially desired outcome.

Cultural shifts are significant, and they have been registered powerfully in the recent efforts of the film and television industries. We celebrate the city’s promise of liberation (Sex in the City, Queer as Folk) from the oppressive conformity of suburbia (Desperate Housewives, Stepford Wives), even as we intuit that emancipation-through-consumption threatens the collapse of urban civilization via the brutal reassertion of nature (The Day After Tomorrow, 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men). Our preferences are not inconsequential either, particularly for those who have the power to exercise them. But the methodological individualism with which we understand changing urban form in North America accomplishes a nearly total de-politicization of space, and, consequently, of urban social relations. The very terms ‘end’ of suburbia and ‘resurgence’ of downtown are ideological: they associate the existential status of space with those who have the power to control it. It is said of Toronto and many other Canadian cities that ‘we’ did not abandon the downtown (to ‘them’?) as in the American metropolis.

The cultural explanation for the ‘end’ of suburbia is not without its ironic vindication. If the culture has rejected suburbia, why is the centre being suburbanized? Auto-centric big box retailing continues to make inroads in the city, easily displacing small-format competitors. The private-public PATH system of shop-lined passageways built out under Toronto’s downtown financial core over the past 30 years is now the biggest strip mall in the country – larger in area than the West Edmonton Mall. Far from fostering civic engagement and encounters with others – as open streets could – PATH is a highly surveilled and disciplined space in which political and ludic activities are discouraged and panhandling is banned. Condominiums, which since 2007 account for over half of all new residential construction in the Greater Toronto Area, are the high-density analogues of gated communities. When they are grouped together in development projects – such as Concord Cityplace at the foot of Spadina Street, or Waterpark City further West – they achieve the effective suppression of anything resembling neighbourhood-ness. The insistent use of the term ‘city’ in their naming suggests the opposite, that there is something uncity-like about them.

The Return to Centrality

The outdated and increasingly discredited notion that suburbia is a privileged space, that there is, or once was, something utopian about it, finds its counterpoint in Henri Lefebvre’s urban critique. For Lefebvre, social space is a space of encounter, assembly and simultaneity at or around a central point. Urban space concentrates these encounters, acts, crowds and products: “to say urban space is to say centre and centrality.1” The desire to partake of centrality is a fundamental human need, a need which becomes frustrated when centrality is claimed by power. Those without power are systematically expelled to the periphery, from which they return as tourists (to consume centrality) or insurgents (to authentically appropriate it). Under capitalism, the centre-periphery relation has become the dominant form of social space. It has eclipsed the town-country opposition which, with the total urbanization of the countryside, has lost its referent. In a series of highly influential texts, including most prominently his 1968 La droit à la ville, Lefebvre articulates the demand to reappropriate centrality as a “right to the city.2

Although this is a global critique of the urban, it is also clearly an abstraction from the history of Paris. In Paris, the relation between centre and periphery is not to be mistaken for the socially optimal outcome of free decision making. Social struggles over centrality have here more often broken out on the surface of society. From Bonapartist urban planning in the mid-19th century to the remaking of the city under Chirac, the state has visibly intervened in the production of urban space to secure the centre for the bourgeoisie and itself by expelling the working class to the periphery. This exclusion has been made visible (that is, revealed as an exercise of power) due to the resistance that has met it: the return of the proletariat from the suburbs of Belleville during the Commune of 1871, the return of marginalized students from Nanterre to the Latin Quarter in 1968, the suburban uprisings of 2005-7. . .

The New Toronto

On December 20, 2007, a map of Toronto was published on the front page of the metro edition of The Globe and Mail that dramatically underscored the relevance of Lefebvre’s critique to today’s North American reality 3. Under the banner headline “Toronto divided: A tale of 3 cities,” the map represented what the Globe characterized as a “striking and disturbing image” of changes in income distribution at the neighbourhood level over a period of 30 years. The colour-coded map represented three ‘cities’ within Toronto. The first city had seen household income increase by more than 20 percent over the study period, and was geographically concentrated along the subway lines radiating north, east and west from the central business district. The population of this city was 84 percent white and earned an average household income of $126,000, according to the 2000 census. The third city had seen household income decrease by more than 20 percent, and extended across a vast arc of suburban poverty from North Etobicoke in the west to Scarborough in the east. The population of this city is racially mixed, with whites in a minority, and in which average household income stood at $54,800. The second city, in which household income had either increased or decreased by less than 20 percent, was located in narrow strips separating the upwardly mobile downtown core from the downwardly mobile periphery, and more closely approximated the ethnic diversity of the city as a whole.

This new image of Toronto represents a process of socio-spatial polarization interrelating two tendencies which have gained force during the neoliberal period and will be familiar to urbanists around the world. Firstly, it registers a polarization between high and low income earners, with a dramatic constriction in the middle of the distribution. Middle class households – once the dominant demographic in the city, having defined its sensibilities, civic politics, and urban form throughout the post-war period – have now declined to minority status 4. Secondly, the image registers a spatial reordering of the city through a process of tenurial segregation in racial and class terms. The patch-work of mixed income neighbourhoods which blanketed Toronto in the post-war period have experienced an uninterrupted decline in number since 1970. The majority of these neighbourhoods, located in the older ‘inner suburbs’, now house low-wage workers drawn from the global periphery. Mixed and low income neighbourhoods in the downtown core, on the other hand, have been reappropriated by upper-income, predominantly white professionals working in the industries associated with Toronto’s rise as Canada’s premier city of financial capital and business services.

If the map only confirmed what many researchers, social service providers and residents already knew about the changing face of their city, it did so in a remarkably arresting fashion. In the absence of the politicization of centrality, or of urban space, the map made visible the same pattern of exclusion seen in many large European cities. City boosters in Toronto celebrate its supposed ‘Manhattanization’ under neoliberalism. Instead, they might get its ‘Parisification’.


1. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell (1991): p. 101
2. Henri Lefebvre, La droit à la ville. Paris: Anthropos (1968)
3. John Barber, “Toronto divided: A tale of three cities,” The Globe and Mail (December 20, 2007): A1. The article presented research conducted by David Hulchanski, director of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto. See Hulchanski, “The Three Cities Within Toronto: income polarization among Toronto neighbourhoods, 1970-2000,” Research Bulletin #41 (December 2007) [www.urbancenter.utoronto.ca]
4. Given the increasing asset gap between downtown owners and suburban renters seen during the study period, an analysis of wealth rather than income would likely have registered an even more pronounced bifurcation.

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