Dislocated Suburbia

LSE Cities MSc. Thesis
2012


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The following extract forms part of the introduction to my MSc City Design and Social Science thesis, which I completed in 2012:

A Framework for Reading Johannesburg
In developing a theoretical underpinning to reading Johannesburg today, key terms need to be defined within the specific socio-spatial context established in this paper, which include suburbia, postsuburbia, the city, the inner-city, and the anti-urban.

Suburbs are often understood as the ‘non-central city parts of metropolitan areas’ (Hayden 2004: 3). They are typically imagined as sprawling, low rise, low density and residential areas, where manicured gardens, licks of paint and architectural ‘styles’ provide variation within a largely repetitive built form. They are however expansive agglomerations of individual houses, shopping malls and business parks situated beyond the congested energy of the central, urban heart. Suburbs have also become cultural players in their own right, as ‘sites of promises, dreams and fantasies’ (ibid) where the often-derided strip mall, fast food outlet and gigantic billboard become the urban icons of successive generations. References to the suburb here seek to capture this ‘non-central city part’ in the broadest sense possible, defined almost entirely as that which falls outside of traditional urban and industrial centres but remains part of a metropolitan region, including its varied urban forms, societies and cultures.

In assessing the evolution of a large portion of suburban conditions in Johannesburg today, the application of the term postsuburbia seems accurate. As elaborated by Soja, ‘postsuburbia’ is an appropriate bedfellow of his ‘postmetropolis’, or his ‘postmodern urbanism’ analogy for the new urbanisms at the turn of the millennium (2000: 239, xiii). The term captures a degree of the suburban condition, that which is more independent, a regionally significant typology, which exists together with the urban core as opposed to because of it, an ‘amorphous metropolis of many centres or possibly no centres’ (Teaford 2011: 16).

The city is largely de ned as a political construct, that within the municipal boundaries, be it low- rise sprawl, informal settlements or tall, glazed office blocks. This inclusive approach removes the suburban-city dichotomy, and includes the suburban within a notion of the city, while references to the inner-city describe Johannesburg’s old CBD, the area of the city most densely packed with tall buildings on a tight street grid, which skirt the old mining belt.

To a certain degree the historical collusion of business and politics in perpetuating a suburban ideal in Johannesburg can have the effect of distinguishing the city’s suburbs as distinctly anti-urban. Economist Edward Glaeser describes the subsidisation of suburbia in the United States, through homeownership, highways and schooling policies, as politically engineering an anti-urban country (2010). Similarly Schensul and Heller describe how private developers dominated the post- apartheid spatial reconfiguration and de-densification of Johannesburg, in a move that saw the decline of the inner-city at the expense of a range of suburban green eld developments (2011: 81). The anti-urban process as described by Glaeser is thus relevant to Johannesburg, where the office park lakes of the postsuburban emerged as the grey concrete towers of the inner-city emptied...”