Production, Governance, and Lived Experience in Suburbia by Pengfei Li

There is extensive literature dealing with suburbia in the United States. In the 1950s, when massive suburbanization was undergoing, scholars and media were very critical of the suburb. The suburb was characterized as a homogeneous community for white middle-class conformists. Besides this stereotype of the suburb, Wood’s (1958) classic study of suburbia criticized the fragmentation of the suburban politics—too many independent governments within an interconnected region—that made efficient distribution of resources and meaningful political participation impossible. Studies in the 1960s were more positive about suburbia. Scholars began to refute the stereotype of the suburb—the American suburbs were not homogenous; suburbanites were not conformists. Gans’s 1960s study of the Levittowners stressed that Americans moved their habits to the suburb, and suggested that class and other structural factors influence people’s daily activities rather than the place per se. Moreover, Gans argued that community life in the suburbs was vibrant—people worked collectively to solve problems such as school issues and local zoning.

As the suburban lifestyle became the norm and America became a suburban nation after the 1970s, the stereotyping and mystification of the suburb was no longer a central concern. However, the more persistent problems of suburbia remained. Some scholars commented on the decline of civic participation in the suburb (Baumgartner, 1988; McKenzie, 1994; Putnam, 2000), while other authors continued to work on the theme of political Balkanization of the suburb (Kaplan, 1977). More commonly, scholars provide detailed historical accounts of the suburbanization in the United States (Hayden, 2003; Jaskson, 1985; Teaford, 2008). The majority of suburbia studies are not theoretical, but can be categorized and interpreted through different perspectives. Via the lens of “community,” suburbia becomes a classic sociological topic. Is there a (cohesive) community in the suburb? Is the suburban community lost, saved, or transformed? Contemporary studies rarely favor the argument that communities are saved. A pessimistic position like Baumgartner’s (1988) portrays “moral minimalism” as the norm of contemporary American suburbs. People (family members, neighbors, and strangers) try to avoid each other when conflicts occur. Interestingly, Baumgartner does not attribute the cause of moral minimalism primarily to the physical environment of the suburb. Instead, she argues that the fundamental reasons are our modern conditions—fluidity, individuation, and fragmentation of the everyday life. This pessimistic tone is echoed by other scholars (Low, 2003; Putnam, 2000), although they focus more on local environments and communities instead of the “modern” conditions.

Another perspective in understanding American suburbia is New Urbanism, which criticizes the design of the American suburb. Several planners argue that the physical layout of the suburb itself prevents meaningful neighboring interactions (Duany, et al 2000; Langdon, 1994). They blame cul-de-sacs, the low density of the environment, and the predominant car culture. New urbanists do not hesitate to provide moral judgment on the American suburb, and they intend to design better environment for Americans. This evaluative position on the suburb is shared by the US public, as Feldman (1994) demonstrates in her psychological study of residents’ perception of the city and the suburb. Committed city dwellers believe that city life is the good life not only for themselves but also for all Americans, because it is stimulating, enriching, and liberating, while committed suburbanites believe that the suburb is the right of all Americans “to be and to do what one wants.”


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