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Constellations: Searching for the Global Suburb

[Figure 1: Suburban Tripoli? The Urban Fringes of Tripoli, Lebanon. Image by Author.] [Figure 1: Suburban Tripoli? The Urban Fringes of Tripoli, Lebanon. Image by Author.]

Conference Review: A Suburban Revolution? An International Conference on Bringing the Fringe to the Centre of Global Urban Research and Practice

Suburbanization is the crucial aspect of twenty first century urban development, as now most global urban growth is in the form of peripheral or suburban development. This is the central claim made by the organizers of A Suburban Revolution? An International Conference on Bringing the Fringe to the Centre of Global Urban Research and Practice.[1] The Suburban Revolution? conference is part of a Canadian-funded Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) entitled “Global Suburbanisms: Governance, Land, and Infrastructure in the Twenty First Century (2010-2017),” which includes fifty scholars and many more students working worldwide. The project seeks to contribute to foundational thinking on suburbanization. Roger Keil, the principal organizer of the conference, argues we must realize that the “urban century” is rather the “suburban century.”

But what is a suburb? Contemporary debates have highlighted that, just like cities, suburbs are many things. Attempts to define the suburb and the suburban are dominated by concerns over the binaries of center and the periphery, the whole and the part. Wide-ranging material realities and socio-geographical perceptions of the suburb make it very difficult to know what we are referencing when we refer to the suburb. Ann Forsyth (2012) cites complaints as far back as 1958 over the diverging definitions of the modern suburb and that a minimum definition continues to remain elusive.

In America and Britain, for example, the dominant perception of the mass-produced suburb is low-density, white, right wing, middle class and unimaginably boring, while in France, the banlieue is represented in the popular imagination as high-density, brown, working class and, as Mustafa Dikeç (2006) notes, since the 1990s, Islamic. In our contemporary era of global urbanism, the term suburb is applied to even broader and more complex contexts. In much of the global south, the suburb predominately references not the gated communities of the rich, but areas dominated by the urban poor and deemed to be derivate of the center. The suburb remains a term that leads everywhere and nowhere at once. One of the problems, of course, is the city and its fringes are constantly moving targets. As Baudelaire wrote, “The form of a city changes quicker, alas, than the human heart.”

Increasingly, urban theorists, such as Andy Merrifield and Neil Brenner, have called to do away with conceptualizations between urban and rural, urban and regional, city and suburb, and to reframe the urban question. For Merrifield, we have entered a period of neo-Haussmannization, a global-urban strategy. A strategy in which the economic “peripheralization” of millions of people everywhere has meant that it no longer makes sense to refer to these people as being peripheral, there no longer exists a straightforward urban-suburban divide. While for Brenner, what he deems to be our current state of “planetary urbanization” means that political-economic spaces can no longer be treated as if they were composed of discrete, distinct, and universal “types” of settlement.  

The organizers of the conference occupy an interesting interstitial conceptual space in their approach to the suburb. On the one hand, they have embraced the critiques of those that have called for abandoning the suburb as a concept and the need to reframe the urban question. While on the other hand, they have chosen to maintain the concept of the suburb, all be it hollowed out of any pre-existing meaning.

Roger Keil notes that instead of focusing on a specific definition of the suburb the conference adopts an inquisitive approach and is “…more keen on contextualizing the continuous suburbanization of our world in a general project of urban theory building.” Subsequently, the conference, and the accompanying edited volume Suburban Constellations, advance a definition of “suburbanization as the combination of an increase in non-central population and economic activity, as well as urban spatial expansion. Suburbanism(s) refers to a suburban way of life.”

The very loose framing of the suburb results in the conference failing to fully answer why the utilization of the “suburb” is analytically useful. Further than this, it resulted in uncertainty regarding what urban form participants were referring to outside the basic idea of non-rural spaces beyond the metropolitan core. The reductive definition of the suburb was especially problematic in the context of the examples from the global south. 

For instance, Shubra Gururani presented on Gurgaon, a city thirty kilometres south of the Indian capital Delhi. A rural village in the 1970s, Gurgaon has since been transformed into a prime destination for many multi-national companies. Its growth has been so incredible that Saskia Sassen considers it to be one of the sixteen global cities to watch, according to Gururani. The example of Gurgaon was placed in stark contrast to the examples of global suburbanism(s) as squatter settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey, or high-rise projects on the outskirts of Hanoi or middle class developments in the urban peripheries of Shanghai. Why Gurgaon is examined rather than high-rise projects on the outskirts of this city is unclear, and the critical analytical question of how and why Gurgaon is a periphery rather than a center is not addressed. The examples of the “suburb” from the global south displayed an unwieldy focus that was not evident in the case studies in the global north. But, this is not entirely problematic as one of the central contributions that the Global Suburbanism(s) project seeks to make is to include the urbanization of the global south in the debate on global suburbanisation(s). Importantly, Keil emphasizes that “…the inclusion of urbanization in the Global South in the debate on global suburbanism(s) is not a mere addition of more empirical cases to an existing script of peripheral expansion. It is the acknowledgment that the script of urban theorizing has to be rewritten from scratch.”

[Figure 2: Gurgaon, India. Image by Pithwilds via Wikimedia Commons]

Two central issues emerge, however, in the conference’s approach to integrating the global south into the debate on global suburbanism(s). Firstly, the script of urban theorizing cannot be rewritten when the concept, namely the suburb, is not clear. Secondly and more importantly, it is unclear why the script of urban theorizing needs to be rewritten from scratch. For example, two previous conferences on the global suburb[2] were not referenced and, even if they could not be built upon, certainly their failings could have been outlined. The frequent calls for reloading urban theory and new vocabularies is also curious given the fact that starting from a discrete urban locale and urban type (the suburb), and defining suburbanism(s) as a “suburban way of life” are both very much rooted in the tradition of the Chicago School urban theorists of the 1930s.  

In the rush to get out into the suburb, to rewrite urban theorizing from scratch and construct a global suburb project, preceding foundational work that has grappled with the challenges of researching cities, and specifically their peripheries, may have been under utilized. For instance, the significant literature and theorizing that exists on the spaces of rapid urban change in the global south was not substantially engaged, specifically the work of Abdou Maliq Simone, Garth Myers or Achille Mbembe (see a great review of De-Westernising Urban Theory by Armelle Choplin). One of the reasons for this lack of engagement may be that urban peripheries in this literature have not been engaged through the concept of the suburb but mainly as peripheries.

Indeed, postcolonial urban theorist Ananya Roy, who is part of the “arms-length Advisory Board” of the global suburbanism(s) project, focused in her contribution to the conference on concerns of the global—specifically “where is the global?”—rather than the concept of the suburb. It is also of note that Roy was a crucial part of the 2009 conference on Peripheries: Decentering Urban Theory held at the University of California at Berkeley. The conference sought to decenter urban theory from the global north to the global south through encouraging a move away from unitary concepts of periphery (and it can also be assumed suburb) to, as Hector Fernando Burga (2009) wrote, “…the formation of diverse expressions and possibilities.” The Suburban Revolution? conference did not make the analytical case for expanding the concept of the suburb to the global south, and therefore globally, or for abandoning the term peripheries. This is problematic in a context in which the existing literature on peripheral urban spaces in the global south have decisively shifted away from the utilization of the suburb as a useful theoretical concept.

Nevertheless, the global suburbanism(s) project does provide a substantive range of empirical contributions from the global south that may well result in the establishment of new vocabularies, and provide the basis for extended urban theorizing. Significant research clusters for the global suburbanism(s) project have been established for Africa (South Africa, Tanzania and Ghana), India and China. The Suburban Revolution? conference represented the halfway point for the results achieved in these research clusters, in which presentations from Latin America were also included.

Largely missing from the global suburbanism(s) project and The Suburban Revolution? conference’s topological imagination was substantive engagement with the Arab world.[3] Academics, and others, however, have not ignored the importance of the urban fringe in the Arab world and have forwarded important insights. The work on the Arab urban fringes have illuminated the dynamic relationships across governance, land and infrastructure—the three anchors of the conference—that have produced distinct outcomes and urban formations, inter alia, (refugee) camps, informal settlements, quasi-legal settlements, large-scale residential complexes, gated communities and peri-urban zones.  The literatures on the urban fringes often note that they are thought of as misery belts, the result of sprawling unregulated and ungoverned urban growth driven by outsiders coming to the city. Such a view of the urban periphery seeks to stigmatize and maintain the urban periphery as unambiguously outside of the city, and less than, rather than fully, urban.

Existing work on the urban fringe of the Arab world is predominately focused on neoliberal urbanism. Of the rich, specifically their gated communities, which Timothy Mitchell’s (1999) significant work “Dreamland: The Neoliberalism of Your Desires” paved the way for. And of the poor, in particular the rise of informal settlements, which Asef Bayat and Eric Denis’ (2000) “Who Is Afraid of Ashwaiyyat? Urban Change and Politics in Egypt” investigated in their important foundational work. It is of note, that the literature on the urban fringe in the Arab world largely avoids the term “suburb.” The work of de Koning (2001) is an important exception that directly engages the term suburb to analyze the urban fringe in Cairo. Another outlier is of course the work on the Arab world’s perhaps most infamous “suburb,” al-Dahiya, the southern neighborhoods of Beirut (see for example Mona Harb). Interestingly, Eric Denis in his essay “Cairo as Neoliberal Capital” locates the rise of gated communities as “bordering the city and the suburbs of Cairo,” but does not specify what this interstitial space might be conceptualized as. The Arab world presents a broad range of experiences at the urban fringe, and forms of life that could potentially be part of the global suburban experience and also articulate important distinctions from it.

The conference and edited volume make it clear that getting out into and engaging with the urban peripheries is increasingly important to understand contemporary patterns and processes of social life. Whether, however, we can construct an idea of a global suburb remains to be answered. More work needs to be done not just in getting out into the suburb but also connecting existing literature on urban peripheries to the idea of global suburbanism(s). Trying to assemble an idea, or a constellation, of the suburb from the disparate and fragmented global examples is no easy task, as the conference so powerfully articulated. It is hoped that over the remaining four years of the global suburbanism(s) project, the search for the global suburban constellation will be successful. The “suburb century” is yet to be established as an analytically substantive statement. The global landscape remains an urban form of stars, but maybe, just not yet in suburban constellation.

Mustafa Dikeç (2006) “Badlands of the Republic? Revolts, the French State, and the Question of Banlieues,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24(2):159-163.
Ann Forsyth (2012) “Defining Suburbs,” Journal of Planning Literature 27(3): 270-281.
Anouk de Koning (2001) “Dreams of Leaving… Suburbia in Cairo,” Etnofoor 14(1):103-106.

[1] The conference A Suburban Revolution? was held on 26-28 September 2013 at the City Institute, York University (CITY), Toronto, Canada.

[2] For example, in March 2008, the University of Michigan held a conference on Global Suburbs, and in April 2008, the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech convened A Suburban World? Global Decentralization and the New Metropolis.

[3] The only contributions on the Arab world were my own presentation on "The Suburban Arab Spring?" and Oded Haas’ on  "Suburban Occupation: Exploring ‘Colonization’ in Israel and Beyond."

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