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Canadian Cities on the Edge: Re-assessing the Canadian Suburb

Researchers:
Prof. Roger Keil, Prof. Patricia Wood, Prof. Richard Harris (McMaster University)

Half a century of explosive suburban expansion has fundamentally changed the metropolitan dynamic in North American city-regions. In many cities, the imagined suburban ‘bourgeois utopias’ that evolved during the 19th century in material and discursive opposition to the maladies of the city, have given way to diverse forms of suburban and exurban development. New, complex and contradictory landscapes of diverse social, infrastructural and political-economic characteristics have appeared within pre-existing urbanisms. This maelstrom of growth, with its associated fluid geographical restructuring, is being reflected in qualitatively different rhythms of everyday suburban life and has engendered stresses in the institutional and infrastructural cohesion of the metropolis – problematizing scalar governmental relations between city and suburbs, the theoretical and applied use of ‘urban’ solutions to address ‘suburban’ problems, and what constitutes ‘urbanity’ itself.

Focusing on the Canadian context from a broad (yet by no means exclusive) range of methodological and theoretical perspectives, it can be argued that, despite their ubiquitous presence, suburban society, space and politics have been unduly sidelined in various bodies of geographic literature. In response to this deficit, we think it is time to develop a research agenda for critically unpacking the complex social, institutional and infrastructural realities of contemporary suburban landscapes. In particular, we call for future studies of ‘the suburbs’ to address: (1) the persistence of the city-suburb dichotomy in most urban scholarship; and (2) the pressing need to rewire widely-held academic and popular understandings of the suburbs to reflect, as Richard Harris has suggested, that “other” suburbs exist.

We further contend that current scholarship inadequately recognizes the presence of spaces that are neither “traditionally” urban, nor suburban. Re-conceptualised urban theory would benefit by addressing the following: (1) the presence of “in-between landscapes,” poorly acknowledged in both urban and suburban imaginaries; (2) the dialectical interplay between suburban society, space and politics; (3) the continuing predominance of an uncritical city-suburb dichotomy; and (4) the theoretical de-valorisation of ‘forgotten’ suburban spaces and lives within the contemporary metropolis. The re-conceptualisation we hope to present through this book project would provide a more holistic understanding of the city’s varied landscapes, everyday realities, and contemporary political infrastructures allowing us to grasp the fluidity and dynamism (and emerging contradictions) shaping present-day urban experiences.

A initial literature review and discussion paper was developed for this project by Jean-Paul Addie and Rob Fiedler (Geography, York University). For a copy of this paper click here.

A one-day workshop examining this issue was held on February 29th, 2008 at York University. For more details, including the workshop program and some presentations, please see the Events page.

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