What’s This Place For?

14 thoughts on “What’s This Place For?”

  1. Your third class (“post industrial”) is better described as “information”. It’s the same sort of function which college towns and government centers have always had: generation, dissemination, coordination of information. It requires a vast concentration of people and a constant flow of information. There’s a reason these exist. They’ve always existed; you can find 5000-year-old government centers, and 3000-year-old college towns.

    Suburbs don’t have such a function. They are “sub”urbs because they are dependent on an urb.

  2. I think you are missing the boat. Places, suburbs included, are not about things, not about producing or consuming. They are about people and the relationships between them, and I dare say will ever be so.

    All of us, by necessity, are in a broad sense both producers and consumers, but why do we bother living? We bother with that in order to have relationships with others. Serving others (producing) and being served (consuming) are parts of this greater good, relationship.

    So suburbs are for people. People whose value preferences include affordability and relationships over easier access to cultural and natural wonders. The “productive” value of suburbs may never be in what they give to outsiders, but in what they give to each other. This service may or may not be reflected in market transactions.

    Because ultimately, we all live in a suburb on a tiny planet in a vast universe. Serving each other is the way we’ve discovered to elevate our existence beyond that cold fact.

  3. Interesting thoughts. I wonder about Silicon Valley, and also about the many industries that moved operations out to the ring road around Boston, where I live. My sister’s an engineer who lives in the city for the amenities (consumption!) but commutes every day out to the suburbs for work (production!).

    1. Yes. I agree. Newbury Street and the whole Back Bay are pure “consumption”. See also: Brookline, Newton, etc. (Very nice places to live, by the way.) And there is indeed “production” along the 128 tech corridor in the outlying suburban belt that stretches (arguably) from Braintree in the south all the way up to Peabody in the north. Companies left the city for all the usual reasons, lower operating costs, lower taxes, cheaper real estate, more space to spread out, less bureaucracy, easier to recruit family-oriented workers to a good school district… Silicon Valley is similarly one strip mall and cul-de-sac after another and yet the area is chock full of “productive” tech companies. My argument isn’t that the suburban land use form can’t be productive. I’m asking about all the suburban areas that currently aren’t productive. For example, Toms River in southern New Jersey where much of my family lives. I grew up there and I still can’t figure out how anyone there earns a living that doesn’t involve building or servicing more sprawl.

      1. Ah… When I was young I ruined my fingers doing data entry one summer for a law firm that was representing Ciba-Geigy (sp?) in a lawsuit having to do with their Toms River production facility. But I guess that polluting industry is gone. I don’t know what comes next. Something… But this is a big question for lots of plades, not just suburbs (and Toms River isn’t exactly a classic suburb, since it’s so far away from any city). For example, my mother and father grew up in a small city in southern Ohio (Portsmouth!) that used to produce steel, shoes, shoelaces, and, just out of town, highly enriched uranium for weapons. It was a real city. The shoe industry alone employed 5,000 people. Now all those industries are gone, except for the shoelaces. What has replaced them is basically government largess: a state university and a state medical center. Now the city is much smaller than it was, with half its fomer population, a depressing, hollowed out feel, and a terrible drug epidemic. I don’t know what will happen to the place. So the title question of your post feels very important; I’m just not sure that the urban/suburban divide is necessarily relevant.

        1. I am entirely too familiar with Ciba-Geigy, the Swiss chemical manufacturer that once had a giant plant in Toms River. Tetrachloromethane leached into the groundwater starting in the 1950’s and tainted the water in my mom’s well. The town ultimately ran a municipal supply out to her old house but the municipal supply became tainted too. That plant was scraped to the ground long ago along with the jobs- prodded along by that lawsuit no doubt. The government ended up holding most of the clean up bill. Big surprise. Well, there’s always the aging Oyster Creek Nuclear power station in Forked River – the next town over. That place was built in 1969 and it isn’t long for this world. Excelon, the parent company, has about fourteen cents set aside for decommissioning. Guess how that’s going to play out? Fifty years worth of spent reactor rods are sitting in a big swimming pool next to the plant’s parking lot with nowhere to go for the next 8,000 years. Otherwise Ocean County, New Jersey is just vinyl siding, chain stores, and Wonder Bread as far as the eye can see. I feel like an immigrant who fled the pogroms and escaped to San Francisco just in time. But my sisters and brother are still there. Happy as clams. Go figure.

      2. What are you talking about? Back Bay has a bunch of businesses and several colleges – the tallest commercial buildings in the city are in Back Bay – the western edge of Newton is part of the 128 corridor but it also has Boston College, and is next to Brandeis, etc… – Brookline has some business, but it’s also directly adjacent to Longwood, and the northern end of town is within walking distance of MIT and Harvard (Newton is also pretty convenient to longwood). FYI – anyone in tech wants to be in Kendall – but because it’s so expensive people end up in DTX – which is becoming more affordable due to major firms relocating to the seaport. People are even starting to become interested in places like Roxbury and Dorchester (Somerville has started seeing more biotech moving there). commercial/industrial property along the 128 corridor has had a lot of trouble in recent years attracting tenants – owners have had to spruce up their buildings and offer a lot of amenities to attract people out there, there are definitely still companies out there, but only because the sheer amount of SF. if you do some digging you’ll find there is much higher rates of vacancy out there than there used to be – very low vacancy rates closer to downtown.

        1. Perhaps a better way to describe the city vs. suburb situation is to say this – there would be no suburban tech corridor on the edge of Boston if Boston wasn’t there providing commerce, culture and education. At the same time the suburbs provide things that the inner city doesn’t. The two are complimentary. Neither would thrive without the other and over time the benefits and draw backs of each change along with circumstances.

          Now let’s take a similar strip of highway that isn’t near Boston or New York or Chicago… Just a nothing special collection of strip malls, office parks, and tract homes in the middle of nowhere in particular. What’s it for? How does it earn a living? That was my primary point. At the same time many prosperous inner city neighborhoods have filled with new money that has been skimmed off the ever more abstracted national economy. Money is harvested elsewhere and spent in luxury zip codes. That’s the flip side of dead towns out in the periphery and just as unhealthy in the long run. Can we agree on that?

  4. Actually, I think the suburbs only real impediment to activating production sites is culture and cost of labor. The land and form is perfectly situated in most places for relatively easy conversion. How many derelict or severely under-occupied 10+ acre shopping centers/office parks are there located along major intra- and inter-regional transportation corridors? Answer: Almost more than you can count.

  5. If people should be able to build their vision of happiness (e.g, Fortress of Solitude), assuming they can afford it, they should pay for their social, economic, and environmental impacts, short and long term, for the site, services, and buildings.

    That process would take lots of measurements and analysis, but perhaps that’s the applicant’s price of building outside of good urbanism, meeting or exceeding normative standards however one chooses to accomplish it.

    The other approach: tights rules and enforcement, to restrict outliers. Here in Central Africa, if the rules are too tight, people break them (e.g., build at night) and the rich pay to break the rules. Humans will follow their nesting, working, and shopping desires and needs until they can’t; some will fight for the right to achieve their goals whatever the cost to themselves and others.

    1. Personally I’m a big fan of letting people build what they want in a way and at a price that makes sense for them individually. But I’m also in favor of having individuals assume the true costs and risk of what they build. In the U.S. we tend to privatize the profits and socialize the losses.

      I was in Istanbul recently and explored the gecekondu (so-called built-overnight homes) which constitute 40% of all households in Turkey. No market rate housing can be built at a price the lower half of the population can afford and the Turkish government doesn’t have the cash to build subsidized housing for that many people. If the authorities hold people to the middle class building standard by enforcing official policies 40% of the population would be living on the street. The Turks were pragmatic. The government offered legal title to small parcels of squatted land in informal settlements and then began collecting taxes in order to gradually provided clean drinking water, electricity, rubbish removal, schools and clinics. In the latest political crisis the people in the gecekondu were peaceful while the middle class revolted. The gecekondu are also insulated from bank crises since they have no debt, while the middle class in much better homes go into economic crisis. Over the last few decades the sandbag shacks of the gecekondu have evolved into proper brick homes. I understand the argument against these structures – particularly in an earthquake zone. But much of the official building stock in middle class areas collapse too since builders typically bribe inspectors and cut corners. It’s one thing to have your one story brick home fall down. It’s very different to have your high rise condo tower crumble.

  6. What’s this place for? I ask myself that every time I go on a road trip, in every place I come to. Usually the answer is in the past tense.

  7. These days, truly urban cities are also consumptive in nature. There is very little industry happening in Washington, DC, Miami, or Seattle anymore. And I would bet that large swaths of rural areas have also ceased to be productive at this point. I am with you in thinking that extraction or production are the real engines of growing wealth, rather than a service economy that simply circulates money. But that is really a society-wide problem, not just one of the suburbs.

    1. I agree with you entirely. But the potential to reactivate the productive capacity of rural areas and urban centers is greater than the suburbs. It isn’t just the physical arrangements of sprawling suburbs that gets in the way of efficient production. It’s also the culture. But each place is unique and these things will play out over time. We’ll see…

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