Thought Piece: What is in a Sub-Urb?

October 26, 2011

Whilst walking around the area where I live, Brixton, I attempted to explain the adaptable suburbs project to a friend of mine.  ‘Suburbs?’  She said, ‘is this a suburb?’.   Looking around at rows of houses, with black wheelie bins, bulges of orange recycling bag awaiting collection by the local council, rows of cars and varies gates and hedges it seemed to suddenly contrast, as  never before with the buzzing swirl of Brixton hill, which could be glimpsed at the end of the street.  There packed buses rushed past each other in busy double lanes whilst cyclists zipped by on the inside  and all manner of banners and signs declared that the shops where open for business.  Zone two, residential and commercial, is this a suburb?  If so what makes it so?  What the areas of study in the Adaptable  Suburbs project have been called ‘outer suburbs’.  Some might say these places are obviously suburban, some might question the definition altogether’ (see Griffiths et al 2008).  It could be viewed that the sub-urban presupposes the ‘Urban’ to which the ‘suburban’ area is below, beneath, a category of, this then poses another question…what is urban?

The task of this post is not to tackle questions such as these but it worth considering their indistinct, ungraspable and malleable nature and how it is that such questions arise out of a need to understand the   ‘real’ qualities of terms that in themselves are abstract notions (society, place, space, local and community might be some others to be found in this project).  These abstract terms are formed, used and   understood in different ways by different people and groups for differing reasons which can then be interpreted again in different ways.

In the introduction to his book The Social Logic of Space Bill Hillier claims that it is in the public spaces of cities where ideologies are generated and contested (see pp19-21).  Public space is then, in a sense, political in that it is an arena in which ideas and beliefs are made, contested and debated.  This is enabled through the permeability of the area and the high co-presence with others and the high number of encounters that  happen there, encounters which are relatively unplaced.  It is here where ideologies are made, created, debated and contested.  These public domains then become vocal in their communication with us, they involve    us in a dialogue over who ‘we’ are, ‘we’ being the community, the society, the nation and the self as individual situated in these multiplicious spatial dialogues.  This can be seen to contrast to the spaces of the domestic where the categories and terms of ‘being’ are fixed and re-affirmed by the users of the space.  These users are few, expected (usually owner or occupier and the invited) and policed.  Outside space is characterised by weak     barriers or permeability allowing movement and co-presence in which events that create dialogue and debate are generated.  Whereas domestic barriers that control and define the use of space are strong, they prevent un-   policed movement, co-presence of the unexpected or conflictual kind and aid in the re-affirming ideologies by the users of the space.

If this is the case then a ‘suburb’ could be conceived of as a space in which co-presence is less intense than say a city centre.  The types of co-presence that will occur are to be understood by the character of the  neighbourhood, (as in the city = business workers, West End = tourists) and as such a definable character to the suburb could be built up (Brixton has its own character).  Suburbs, it could be said are also characterised by a higher amount of residential use.  As such co-presence and movement may be less resulting in fewer generative events.  In this sense a ‘suburb’ could be seen as sliding towards the more domestic elements of space, less a place of debating and contesting ideologies and more a place for affirming them at a local level (hence the ‘BE OUR GUEST’ painted on the rail bridge on the Brixton road as you enter Brixton).   Through an increase in the amount of social policing of the permeability of the space and through a build-up of the knowledge of social encounters that are likely in a space one can start to sense the increasingly local sense of a place.

I want to turn my back on the city and take the above idea further.  If suburbs allow less capacity for generative events then the rural would have even less still.  This is a domain in which contestation of ideologies does not occur explicitly (please note the huge body of work assessing landscape as text and representational by Dennis Cosgrove, Bruce Braun, William Cronan and work by phenomenologists  such as Chris Tilly and David Seamon on the affective aspects of landscape).  The actors (trees, lakes, grass, stones) here have to speak for themselves in the silence.  These actors then are non-human; they constitute our idea of being a non-human actor in a non-human environment.

It was with this thinking in mind then that I came to be made nauseous by the sight of unwanted, unloved and naked Christmas trees.  Scattered around the paths of Brixton’s residential streets they lay, at odd angles, slowly seeping life from their once green and decorated branches.

The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear but the tree has been seasonally brought into the home and decorated for hundreds of years.  Some say it is a celebration of the natural at the time of the winter solstice, certainly this is one reading that resonates with me others see it as an implicit part of the Christian celebration or perhaps just tradition.  Either way the tree has been invited, revered, celebrated and focused upon, the tree is a celebration of the ‘natural’ and the living elements of earth, of being in the middle of a cold dark season.  It was these thoughts then that the Christmas trees I saw lying around Brixton invoked a Sarterian sense of nausea.  The encounter was not unexpected (its January, people throw trees out), but there was an oddity in the way it conflated nature, human, domestic, public, private, revered, rejected, organic, concrete and urban and natural systems.  Further the marks of a felled stump, clear wood, fallen needles on hard concrete and the odd de-branched tree evoked the sense of movement.  The trees, usually static from seed to death, have felled early, collected, packaged, transported, bought and sold, they have moved and in doing so have been commoditised, personalised and bureaucratised.  The trees are a once annually co-presence that seems to disturb the spaces of usually dormant categories of definition, rural, natural, domestic, public.  Their co-presence and their being ‘in place’ and then ‘out of place’, their disturbances and agency interest me.  Their location, their timings and the subtleties can be explored, thought about and considered and it struck me that here might be a good place to do some exploring.  Perhaps other bloggers can suggest other aspects of co-presence they have encountered and their feelings on such meetings.  What agency do things such as graffiti, ruin, architectural abnormalities and other things have?  What feelings do they evoke, why do you not expect to see such things?  Perhaps the lack of presence is an issue for you, clean, ordered and safe? Too much so?  Post, blog away

References and Readings

Braun, B. & Castree, N. eds. (1998). Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millennium. London: Routledge.

Cronon, W. (1996) Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co

Cosgrove, D, & Daniels, S. eds (1998) The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Griffiths, S. and Vaughan, L. and Haklay, M. and Jones, C.E. (2008) The sustainable suburban high street: a review of themes and approaches. Geography Compass, 2 (4). pp. 1155-1188.

Vaughan, L. and Jones, C.E. and Griffiths, S. and Haklay, M. (2010) The spatial signature of suburban town centres. The Journal of Space Syntax, 1 (1). pp. 77-91. ISSN 20447507

Tilley, C. (1994)Y, A phenomenology of landscape : places, paths, and monuments, Berg.

eamon, D. (2007). A lived Hermeneutic of People and Place.


2 Responses to “Thought Piece: What is in a Sub-Urb?”

  1. Interesting thoughts… Not sure I agree though that trees or other things display agency. How would that be?
    And curious what makes you think of naked unloved Christmas trees in October? 😉

  2. Jeeva D Says:

    Excellent questions yes.

    On the first point concerning the agency of ‘things’. To answer this one has to stress that I am invoking a way of thinking about ‘our being in the world’ through a relational ontology. By this I mean we go about making and understanding our world through a relation with other actents. For example when it is cold we may put on a jumper, in this sense the cold has asserted itself on our bodies and we know it through this association. Similarary our homes gain thick walls to protect us from it, the cold has asserted itself on the house through a relation to ourselves. At times material might just surprise us, a wall might fall down after a frost and reveal hidden treasures (if were lucky).

    I’m not sure if I would say this is things having agency in their own right and this has been much discussed in Actor Network Theory with Latour himself siding on the side that they don’t. Rather they have a capacity to act on the world. In the case above the Christmas trees acted on me by evoking in me a sense of nature being out of place. This of course in relation to me so you could argue that the capacity was mine to see, true, just as if they were in a forest the acidic pine needles would be a capacity to interact with the soils and related ecology. So I suppose agency works through capacity.

    On the second point, I obviously wrote this a while ago, however on hearing a advert on the radio for something Christmas related I thought that’s ‘out of place’ and it made me feel uneasy (“its to early, how dare they the money greedy so and so’s” and so on….) and with that I thought of this. I thought I would post it now as I have been thinking about such issues again and thought it would be nice to have this piece NOT at Christmas or July so you could make your point about it being ‘out of place’ and I could make mine.

    WIth reference to the first point this article by Albena Yaneva a former student of Latour’s might be of interest.

    Yaneva, A. (2008). How Buildings “ Surprise ”: The Renovation of the Alte Aula in Vienna. Science, 21(1), 8-28.

    and for a lot more abstraction see my personal blog

    Thanks, hope that answers the questions?


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