TEXT | Changescapes

Posted on 07/11/2010

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Suburbia is such an easy and obvious target. As someone who is concerned about language and communication, especially in relation to cities and communities, it’s rankling to see the way ‘blame’ for various of our current crises is apportioned to ‘the suburbs’. In fact, I hear this so often, that such commentary seems to close the door on any other conversation about how we might begin to work, think and care beyond the suburbs into other scenarios for our post-suburban future. What prompted this is a tweet from someone who claimed/reported that the ‘suburbs steal public space’. Others on twitter seemed to jump on this like an easy mantra. But the shorthand of twittering, I recognise, is far from precise, often off the cuff and on the run. For me, this mantra is a rhetorical ruse given the flow of power and ideology that produced such landscapes – the suburbs aren’t planned or designed with public space or ‘third spaces’ in mind, other than perhaps a park, so how can they steal what was never there in any meaningful or ‘urban’ sense? Suburbs simply don’t offer or provide public space. Likewise the proposition that the internet and social media return such civic spaces to the suburbs doesn’t quite cut it – with all the connectivity of such media and agency of its users, it stills seems to operate as privatised consumption and use in privatopias. This is the fundamental nature of suburbanism where much is driven by private consumption and where access to seeming communal spaces is provisional (like all those terms and conditions on facebook and youtube). So when we say ‘public space’ what do we mean and what do we want?

There are no singular and simple solutions or analyses. Scapegoating the suburbs – much like the valorisation of suburbs – doesn’t produce much change or generate alternative ways of living. Cultural forms and social institutions have a persistence that overwhelms and suburbia is both monolithic as an institution, yet fragmented as a cultural form. In chastising and blaming the suburbs for our current woes, we seem to disavow much bigger and more complex forces bearing down on us. There needs to be a more meaningful engagement with the cultural forms we create, as destruction through and by our own design, our own making. There are threshold events which turn once and initially sound propositions into unbearable and unliveable ones especially when the issues of land use and transport collude to compound and produce serious impacts, such as the geographies, ontologies and ecologies of poverty, affordability, social disadvantage and social exclusion, not to mention environmental, health and nutrition inequities. Even as I scan Max Neef’s matrix of human need, understood as ontological, I make mental notes revealing that suburban environments, even with embedded web connectivity, simply cannot meet some of those needs. (Is it just me or is there a marked similarity between Max Neef’s Matrix and Patrick Geddes Place-Work-Folk Diagram?)

At some point, the suburbs were a solution – albeit a consumerist solution driven by the ideology of capital and free markets chewing into and dominating nature predominantly on the basis of cheap land, mass production and cheap energy – and now enmass they are a problem. In various historical manifestations, suburbanism has often catalysed and embedded problems – largely attributable to governmentalism and patchy decision making. – yet, in the USA, The Center for Amercian Progress reports that “Our nation’s suburbs, once considered by some to be white-picket-fenced safe havens from inner-city poverty, are now home to nearly one-third of the poor. Poverty in suburbia has spiked over the last decade, and nonprofits in these areas are struggling to meet the surge in demand for their support services.” With the threshold crossed, there’s no turning back because the suburbs have become something else and are becoming something else, demanding extraordinary levels of resources to maintain. There’s a need for a type of practice that is more attuned to changescaping

I do, in fact, enoy the idea that we might be able to socially network and negotiate our way into modes of living that are transformative and creative. I continue to read articles that say 80% of the population lives in suburbs, rippling out from predominantly radial cities and reliant on the concentrations of work, culture and, indeed, public space. The ideological divide between suburban and urban seems to show no signs of abating. Thinking back to Louise Johnson’s presentation at the Creative Suburbia Symposium, the suburbs relied on and were maintained by the voluntary and (pro)creative efforts of women, who bore the brunt of social isolation and whose ‘liberation’ resulted in new cracks and ruptures in the suburban fabric, exposing the inherent lie of the ideologies that inscribed that ground. So too studies of social and environmental sustainability. Even with the good intentions of the original architects of the suburbs, it’s a type of development that hasn’t shown the resilience needed (despite its persistence) in the face of changing social, economic and environmental change and security. In many ways, drawing on resilience thinking, the threshold has been crossed and the suburbs in their current form are a high maintenance and high consumption proposition, wreaking havoc on the lives and bodies of those who live there and who seem, as Marx might have said, settled into a ocean of ‘false consciousness’ and commodity fetishism, otherwise and presently named ‘affluenza’, ‘aspiration’ or ‘affordability’. Naomi Oreskes squarely places responsibility for our environmental undoing at the feet of ‘free market ideology’ with its vampire teeth firmly embedded into the life support systems of this planet – the sort of logic that seems to position climate change as ‘external risk’ rather than ontological condition.

I hope we are, at this time, rewriting the ideological and ontological scripts of our existence, perhaps the iterative generosity and reflexive practices of communication and network through social media are part of that process. Urgency and intent splash in and out of various privileged and urban realms (Unlimited AP, Tipping Point, Creative Suburbia, TEDx, Pecha Kucha etc) – where do the ripples of those all important and very different conversations end? Are they anticipating the maps of our changescapes? Underwriting (or overwriting or maybe just writing) the Placing project is a sense – a belief – that we need different conversations (messages, communication etc) about the state of our settlements, especially our suburbs, and that cultural deliberation and change lies at the heart of  unpicking this complexity, and the mesh of ideology and ontology.

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