Democracy and The Geography of Suburbia

According to an increasing number of theorists, modernist planning and urban renewal practices have produced nothing but an overly simplified, paternalistic urbanism that has in time proved unable to mirror the complexity of urban life.

Though, if modernism is dead, the physical signs of its long-lasting influence are still permeating our daily lives, in the US as well as in Europe. The most visible signs of an "antisocial urbanism" (Simon Richard) that relies on car-dependency and individual atomism are still to be seen in the U.S. suburbs, and in the characteristic way of life they helped produce.

According to Michael Thompson's article "The Suburban Assault on Democracy", featured in the latest issue of "The Urban Reinventors", "suburbs provide a spatial pattern of social life that [ ] actively erodes the interactive social foundations of everyday life [thus leading] to an erosion of democratic sensibilities and democratic forms of life." It is the missing city that, in Thompson's words, makes people anti-social: "Whereas urban environments are characterized by diversity, a density of social interaction, and a constant exposure to difference and newness capable of spawning a sense of openness and constant sense of newness, and ways of innovating and exploring what Georg Simmel referred to as "the technique of life," suburban life is characterized by an isolation from those very activities and external forces [ ] it is the spatial manifestation of the liberal political and cultural utopia: to be able to separate public and private at one's own whim and be able to live unencumbered by the various obligations of public and social life."

But Thompson's argument goes even further, correlating the geography of suburbia with specific political behaviors: "One way of looking at the relation between space and political values and ideology is through the spatial pattern of voting behavior [ ] The more acute political analysts of the past two American presidential elections could see - when they broke the electoral map down by counties instead of merely by states - that liberal-democratic votes were cast almost exclusively in urban or heavily metropolitan counties; all else was a sea of republican and varying degrees of conservative sentiment."

A comparable conclusion was first developed by political scientist Robert Putnam, when in "Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of American Community" (2000), he associated sprawl and suburban settings with a reinforced atomistic individualism and a lessening of "social capital".

Thanks to Alessandro Busa'

Full Story: The Suburban Assault on Democracy

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