Reconsidering what sprawl, suburbs, and world-class city mean

A sociology grad student involved with the city of Calgary regarding development and growth suggests we need to step back and reconsider the “vacant terminology” used by “urbanistas”:

When it comes to sprawl, said Gondek, the term actually means “non-contiguous growth of an urban area.”“It’s uncontrolled, it’s unplanned. In our opinion, it’s simply not the case for Calgary,” she said…

“Suburb” is Gondek’s least-favourite misused term, preferring the term “community” instead.

“Suburbs, as they are properly defined, are areas outside the metropolitan region,” she said.

“They are bedroom communities. It’s an American concept that means independent municipalities outside of the city.”

Growth on Calgary’s edges actually involves periphery communities, not suburbs.

“Calgary’s so-called suburbs are actually a part of the city — there’s nothing ‘sub’ about them,” said Gondek, pointing out that these homeowners pay property taxes into the same pool as inner-city residents do.

The third phrase is the idea of just how “world-class” is Calgary.

Gondek looked at various indices to see how cities are rated on their globalness. She found a wide variety of measures, depending on what angle of “globalness” was sought to be defined: population, income, walkability, transportation — any number of measures.

Gondek drew the conclusion that indices of world-classness depend on the subjective views of what the creators of the indices decide is world-class, rather than any real, fundamental, unified definition of the term.

Some of this makes sense. Suburbs are now vital parts of metropolitan regions rather than ugly step-children of cities. Also, sprawl is not necessarily unplanned or disordered as critics suggest; there is a logic to it, typically involving profits to be made by developers and others. Both of these terms are often loaded with negative connotations by critics.

On the other hand, the definition of a world-class city seems more set to me. The term used widely in urban sociology actually is “global city” which has a lot of overlap with the concept of a world-class city. The global city is typically defined as being a global economic center with a high concentration of FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) industries. But, there are other dimensions to global cities including cultural and government institutions. (For one example of these various dimensions, see this ranking of global cities.) I wonder if the suggestion that world-class city is a nebulous term is done so that Calgary can feel better about what it is doing…

Talking third places and coffee shops in Calgary

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg talks about coffee shops as great “third places”:

For as long as there’s been coffee houses, a community of coffee drinkers has been meeting there to chat, learn, share, debate, gossip, scheme, read, and, of course, soak in the rituals of the daily brew.

They serve a vital function: a place where people from all walks of life can gather and mingle.

“It’s a great leveller,” says urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, a Florida based author known best for his book The Great Good Place.

“The people in the coffee shop are essentially equals . . . and that allows all sorts of people to associate. Different backgrounds, different attitudes, different lifestyles.”

I wonder if anyone has ever done research about whether coffee is the best product/food item to bring people together. Wouldn’t places like Starbucks attract different kinds of people than independent coffee houses? The article gives us an example of a neighborhood coffee shop where a mix of people come together. Do people at coffee houses talk with strangers or neighbors regularly, particularly younger generations? Are these sorts of places only possible in denser settings?

Bonus: this article has a lot of information about the coffee scene in Calgary. Another sociologist is quoted as saying, “Pound for pound, there’s far more bad coffee in places like New York than there are in Calgary.” I wonder if the quality of coffee shops correlates with larger percentages of residents who are part of the creative class.

Quick Review: Radiant City

I’m always on the lookout for movies having to do with suburbia. I recently ran across Radiant City at a local library and found that it had earned some recognition at film festivals (including the 2006 Toronto Film Festival). Here are my thoughts on this 2006 “mockumentary” set in the suburbs of Calgary:

1.If you have read any critiques about suburbia, you are likely to see it discussed in this film: sprawl, too many cars that everyone is dependent on, lack of community where no one knows their neighbors, too much private space and not enough public space, no activities for teenagers, a lack of mass transit, health issues (obesity), a lack of walkability, big box stores, wasted land, the solution of New Urbanism, and on and on.

1a. A number of anti-sprawl experts (or “stars”) are featured including James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany.

1b. There are a number of “statistical interludes” throughout the film that deliver facts about the horrors of suburbia.

2. The film tries to set up fictional family storylines to follow. I didn’t find any of these to be compelling as it seemed like the characters were simply there to break up the facts of the documentary. One of the storylines, of a father who is acting in a satirical musical about suburbia, is particularly obvious.

3. The many shots of the Evergreen neighborhood outside of Calgary are both beautiful and jarring. The homes featured in the films are on the edges of suburban development so there are plenty of open fields (mostly dirt), empty lots filled with construction equipment, single-family homes built very close to each other, concrete sounds barriers and highways that cut off views and walking, and beautiful skies (we are told at one point that the mountains are off in the distance – you could see them if the guy next door would open his front door so you could see through his house).

Overall: you can find the same critiques in many other places. I don’t think the fictional storylines added much as the main point seemed to be the commentary of the experts and the statistics that are meant to get viewers to question their assumptions about suburban living. If you already are opposed to sprawl and suburbs, your likely to find this film preaching right to you.

(This film was well-received by a limited number of critics at RottenTomatoes.com: the movie is 93% fresh with 14 out of 15 positive reviews.)