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…

Having children = family

New research from a University of Indiana sociologist suggests that Americans define a collection of people as a family if children are involved:

“Children provide this, quote, ‘guarantee’ that move you to family status,” Powell said. “Having children signals something. It signals that there really is a commitment and a sense of responsibility in a family.”

For instance, 39.6 percent in 2010 said that an unmarried man and woman living together were a family — but give that couple some kids and 83 percent say that’s a family.

Of course, the definition of family has changed over time. The “nuclear family” developed several hundred years ago as people moved away from a broader definition of family that included extended family members or other members of a community.

One can see this recent definition in action in many churches. Having children changes the status of couples from a social grouping not worthy of extra attention to a very important social grouping.