SYMPOSIUM | Creative Suburbia

Posted on 25/10/2010

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the time to participate in a variety of discussions such as the Creative Suburbia Symposium, the Unlimited Design Festival and various seminars. All have been thought provoking and stimulating, leading to other conversations and engagements. The Creative Suburbia Symposium followed up a similar event presented last year and presented new research and critical thinking about our suburbs. Drawing from a range of disciplines including cultural studies, social sciences, geography, environment and urban planning, the symposium set up a multidisciplinary dialogue though hadn’t quite crossed the threshold into interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity.

The event started with rather a sobering account of life in the mining community of Fort McMurray, Canada. It is located in the second largest known petroleum reserves in the world (the Athabasca Oil Sands). The town and surrounding regional municipality have experienced stresses on social and physical infrastructure as the population nearly doubled in size.  Rob Shields of University of Alberta leads a team of researchers exploring the social landscapes in this fragmented and mobile community. The sense of place, according to Shields, is related to going elsewhere. The research team has work with young people in the community to develop some media projects using mash ups and social media. The research project will be/was revealed at a conference, Unwrap the Research.

QUT academic Terry Flew also provided some comments addressing suburbia as a cultural faultline. Making references to several cultural commentators who had delivered scathing sermons about the suburbs, Flew endeavoured to map some other imaginary landscapes that offered a different kind of suburbia. Fiona Allon (UWS) also made reference to a normative construction of suburbia as ‘the good life’. Much of her talk focused on ideas of suburbanisation – not so much as an idea of class or embourgeiousment but of the creation of a property ownership and asset accumulation. This, she suggested, has been the result of new right influence in the development of suburban subjectivity. Within this idea of subjectivity, the house has been reconfigured as an object of speculative investment. She also challenged the use of the word ‘aspirant’ and ‘aspiration’, as unnecessarily ‘financialised’ , referring to ideas of ‘aspiration stress’ and Mark Latham’s reference to ‘aspirationals’. Apparently, use of this term to describe some geo-demographic groups is regarded as derogatory.

The research team from the Creative Suburbs project, Emma Felton and Christy Collis, also presented an update of their project examining the experiences of creative industries workers and enterprises in outer suburban areas in Brisbane and Melbourne. This is better outlined in a SlideShare presentation that was developed by the research team. They exposed the inherent biases in the creative cities discourse and other urbanist formulations which reproduced negative perceptions and constraints in suburban environments. Their outer suburban studies revealed a breath of cultural and creativity activity that thrived in informal and community networks despite difficulties in establishing hubs and clusters. The third spaces in the community, such as cafes and galleries, provided the platform for networking. Justin O’Connor, who addressed questions of creative clusters and urban ecosystems, coined the term ‘comparative suburbanism’. This is an expression that perhaps requires more exploration especially in relation to cultural and creative ecologies and new forms of consumption.

The highlight of the symposium was Deakin University’s Louise Johnson’s presentation exploring gender, suburbs and creativity. In a linguistic excursion linking the suburbs to fundamental definitions of creativity (including pro-creation), Johnson addressed issues of gender, labour and imagination. Through this overlaying of definitions, she mapped a linguistic and rhetorical terrain that drew a parallel between the trivialisation of suburbs and the demeaning of women, despite the foundation of suburbia on women’s domestic and reproductive creativity. The suburban bashing tradition continues to finds its voice in a new generation of critics. However, the suburban nation is undergoing reinvention and cultural meanings are being renegotiated. This is especially apparent in the diversification and cultural overlay that is appearing in large scale masterplanned communities in growth areas. Johnson effectively laid out a kind of grammar of suburban discourse as it manifests across literary, critical, planning and visual systems, presenting some opportunities for rethinking and revaluing.

At one point, someone in the audience commented about the power of the social science over the humanities – I took this to mean that the humanities (particularly cultural studies) are often dismissed in the masterplanning process. Strange really, as so much of the suburban environment is reliant on excessive cultural and domestic consumption rather than other kinds of cultural circulation and capital. I do wonder, though, if one of the outcomes of that is an overemphasis on urban design as the agent of cultural meaning rather than other kinds of approaches to planning and design through which cultural capital and narratives can be articulated. Johnson, in part, addressed this by referring to masterplanned communities which featured public art and the use of virtual communities. Both manifest, in a way, as different kinds of mapping and connecting reliant on a materiality and typology of expression for sharing and negotiating meaning in the built environment. Another typology might be protest or resistance and that is equally a defining characteristic of suburbia, as Shields stated in his keynote presentation, whereby suburbia is both understood in terms of its newness as well as its sameness and resistance to change. While planning and design practice might make a play for the materialities of the built form, communities as social and cultural constructs are much more complex than that: intangibles and virtualities are formative of that complexity.

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