Following are some of the spaces that are the concern of this conference, journal book
The distinctiveness of the urban has risen historically from the pragmatics and aesthetics of collocation, contiguity, propinquity. Grounded in the virtues and pragmatics of proximity, the urban has been the site of peculiarly intensive development (commerce, industry, employment). It has been a focal point of what has been regarded as ‘civilization’ (cultural practices, institutions, iconic edifices and intense meaning-places). But what if intensively physical-spatial agglomeration were to begin to matter less—because, perhaps, other modes of social proximity were increasingly available and put into motion for the purposes of production, community and personal life? And what if intensive physical-spatial contiguity was starting to come at economic, environmental and social costs that are now regarded as too high? What, then, of other spaces?
The world’s largest cities have become so large that, at their edges, they are no longer viably urban. At this point, the centers of energy of people’s lives increasingly become local, located in distinctively edge-city industrial ‘zones’, office ‘parks’, shopping malls, colleges and recreational facilities. Often disparagingly called ‘sprawl’ for the absence of the rigors of urban planning, the edge-urban may also breed social movements intensely protective of natural aesthetics, built form and post-industrial agricultural values. Looking out from the city, edge-urban spaces may appear to be distressingly fragmented, sites of anti-urban ‘dispersed nucleation’. From another point of view, however, they are increasingly autonomous spaces attempting to deliver on values and lifestyles not so readily available in cities.
The de-urban is the formerly urban, apparently dead spaces in cities, spaces that seem to have been ‘hollowed out’, stripped of urban vitality. These spaces might be collapsing suburbs in big cities—literally when condemned buildings are demolished. At times, all that is left is a checkerboard of buildings interspersed with ‘urban prairies’. Or they might be smaller cities and towns which have imploded as key industries leave. However, often-times these spaces appear tragically dead more from the perspective of their intensively urban past than they do from the perspective of their extraurban potentials. They are also spaces where, in a very uncitylike way, half-decent houses, shops and factories can be bought or rented at low cost. So, amongst the new signs of life in these places, we see the poor and people on welfare returning for more spacious housing, arts and craft colonies emerging where there is next-to-no home or warehouse overhead, middle class people purchasing decaying mansions to renovate, former main streets being filled out with recycling facilities and collectables stores, and community-maintained urban parks and food gardens.
Towns and cities of 10,000, 50,000 or even 200,000 people are not archetypically urban, either. Yet many are sites of dynamic growth, as ‘new economy’ employers move to locations where property and labor are significantly cheaper than large cities. Unlike the ‘small towns’ of our stereotypical imaginations, these places have increasingly fluid and diversified populations, both in terms of socio-economic differentiation and the ethnic origins of newcomers. Other instances of the micro-urban include slums or former slums that are cities unto themselves, from the rudimentary planning of the ‘townships’ of South Africa, to the energetic village-like qualities of the slums of Mumbai or Rio de Janiero, places of architecture with out architects, of intensely (extra)urban human activity without social engineering or urban planning.
Beyond the edge-urban, and outside of the micro-urban are various forms of ‘greenfield’ life, in rural hamlets, on farms, in holiday houses, in retirement villages, in forest cabins or beach shacks, in caravan and mobile home ‘parks’. Industry may purposefully locate near these places, archetypically in contrast with its formerly urban ‘rustbelt’ locations. Scientific-rationalist, intellectual property-intensive monocultural farming may provide forms of agricultural employment, but equally boutique, organic and retirement farms, promoted with the cache of ‘local foods’ or ‘slow foods’.
In formerly remote places—in mountains, forests, coastlines and deserts—off-the-grid energy sources and online and physical deliveries make it possible to live virtually urban, socially and culturally proximate lives. These are also spaces for increasingly autonomous yet globally integrated indigenous or first nation communities.
The term ‘extraurbia’ is intended to capture some newly significant continuities across these other-than-urban spaces. It is a conceptual fulcrum for analysis of changed dynamics across these spaces, the emerging dimensions of which might be considered to ‘urban plus’—most of what the heritage-urban offered to enhance human energies, plus things that the urban can no longer so easily provide. In this regard, the shape of today’s emerging sociospatial flows is telling.
What is happening in all these spaces, and especially in these the
To start with the banal—real estate prices trigger a cascade of profound consequences. Real property in the spaces extraurbia has over the past few decades become relatively much cheaper than urban property. This is a global phenomenon, and two-fold development. On the one hand, city property prices have become exorbitantly high, and even when extraurban prices have risen, they have mostly risen at a slower pace. The urban-extraurban cost gap has grown. On the other hand, as the historic advantages of physical-spatial proximity wane, costs of property in cities are no longer a matter of necessity for households and employers.
Here are some, characteristically extraurban flowpaths: Telecommute because you are an online teacher or because you are a designer who works from a home office; or at least travel less because your person-to-person work does not require you to travel to work every day; or travel a short distance because homes and workspaces are collocated in mixed developments, or in places of closer differential zoning. Do your shopping online, a move which turns a privatized flow (drive to the shops) to a socialized flow, and one which is much more efficient in terms of time and energy use. Sometimes the product is a frictionless download away, through shared infrastructure of the social web (a song, an ebook, a movie). Other times, physical delivery is through the burgeoning public transport delivery system, the remarkably cheap and efficient shared transport system of trains, planes and delivery vans. Go to the nearby market, and you’ll not have to go far, because markets making virtue of their localness are proliferating. Despite its spatial dispersal, extraurbia may well be a geography of driving less. It may represent new transportation efficiencies. In-person travel—to a meeting (when not a virtual meeting), to an in-person class (when not an online class), to an aesthetically different recreational space (when not on documentary TV or video)—can then become a matter of now-and-then choice rather than daily necessity. In all these scenarios, the logistical practicalities and efficiencies of contiguity which characterized the city may prove anachronistic. Paradoxically, a common property in the shift to extraurbia may not be more transportation across greater distances and private transportation, but reduced physical movement of people and goods, and increasingly co-ordinated or socialized systems of transportation.
The infrastructures of the urban were grounded in the economies of proximity in the creation of nodally oriented electricity, water and sewerage distribution systems, and the urban-to-urban nodality of transport and energy grids. These infrastructural logics favor spatial centralization and collocation. However, it is possible that they could come under challenge from what we will call ‘extrastructures’, or decentralized, relatively autonomous sites of production such as onsite solar, wind or geothermal energy on or off the grid, efficient grey water recycling, rain water collection or rubbish composting. As these technologies rapidly develop and become cheaper, they could present a practical and more affordable alternative to the extraordinarily costly grid infrastructures. And as the social desire to be green picks up momentum, these extrastructures will become more environmentally virtuous than the grid. Such extrastructures are better suited to extraurban spaces. They are harder and more expensive to build in the traditional city.
Extraurbia offers a panoply of job opportunities for workers, from knowledge work in new economy businesses, to close-to-the-field food processing. The pay may be lower than in big city jobs, but the costs of living (primarily housing) are lower still. The result is a better standard of living at all levels of the labor market. At the same time, these are the quintessential sites of new and old production—from the innovation industries of R&D and design, to the new information sweatshops such as call centers, to high-tech manufacturing, to relocated old-economy industries such as hand-crafted furniture and abattoirs. The are also places of affordable and somewhat more agreeable retirement, reduced hardship for those living on welfare benefits, not to mention intensified exploitation of unskilled and newly arrived migrant labor, be these documented or (less visibly so than in the big city) undocumented migrants. So, across the various spaces of extraurbia we may see the development of new modes of production, at least subtly different in some significant ways to the modes of production characteristic of cities.
New modes of production spawn new modes of consumption. The focal point of consumer energy during the twentieth century shifted from one iconic urban site to another, from the downtown with its main street to the shopping mall and the big box stores at the edge of the inner city or in the middle of the suburbs. Inefficiencies and cost structures may, however, spell the end of both malls and big box stores. The online megastores have a breadth of inventory with which no bookstore or video store or department store from the era of spatially massed shopping could ever compete. Then there is the myriad of specialist stores with narrower focal points than any retailers of the recent past—a store just for faucets, or light dimmers, or light bulbs. These stores have a depth of product offering, online information and live help, that that no conventional specialist store could ever have. They run on databases with filter mechanisms which mean you can sensibly sort what you want from five thousand faucets or one thousand light bulbs. This brings products to light that no browsing along physical shelves ever could. Then there are the small manufacturers who produce on-demand—the metal shop manufacturer which makes stainless steel sinks and delivers them to order for much less than the big manufacturers, the cutting board manufacturer who will make boards to any size you order, the artists and craftspeople with online galleries, the boutique vineyards who sell their wine online and globally. Finally, there is the eBay economy which blurs the very distinction of consumer and seller, and creates a market agnostic to retail scale, a place for miniscule sellers alongside major buyers. Myriad new enterprises reconfigure the supply chain in quite fundamental ways, cutting out many of its more expensive layers of warehousing, distribution and physical retail display. Most importantly, however, they don’t need to be near consumers—they can be, and are, located most competitively in the least expensive reaches of extraurbia. They offer a deeper, broader, more engaging consumer experience, and, for the money, they offer more of it. Of course, these new modes of consumption are available to city dwellers, too. It’s just that, at a particular level of income, people in extraurbia can do more of it, and city dwellers have lost their costly historic advantage of being close to ‘good stores’ based on larger markets or ‘good value stores’ based on economies of large scale.
In an earlier modernity, the spatial separations of extraurbia created social divides and ethnic separations. They were places of ‘white flight’, of small town insularity, of cultural and demographic stasis. They became the proverbial stuff of ‘rural idiocy’ and rigid class segregations. They were an escape from the city, which seemed from an outsider’s perspective to be swarming with immigrants, conflicted by the claims of social movements, afflicted by social problems, and made dangerous by the juxtapositions of the poor alongside the affluent. If extraurbia offers advantages to everyone, these patterns may be changing. Extraurban spaces may become sites of opportunity and improved lifestyle for all—for refugees, documented or undocumented immigrants, the poor, the middle classes and the affluent. Places that had been demographically homogenous are becoming cosmopolitan.
From an environmental point of view, the extraurban can at times be a site of particular horrors, for out-of-sight is out-of-mind—in cases of mountain top mining, or aggressive farming practices, or large scale burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity, for instance. However, it also has peculiar advantages in the introduction of new environmental technologies. Extraurbia is especially well suited to the introduction of the ‘extrastructures’ of post-grid, de-nodal energy production. On-site composting and gray water recycling are more practicable alternatives in extraurbia, and potentially cheaper per capita than the waste disposal infrastructures of big cities. Extraurbia, in other words, can be more cheaply and easily green. In fact, the sites of primary engagement, and thus the burden of environmental responsibility, falls primarily in extraurbia, for this is where the energy for cities is generated, the food produced, the building materials sourced, the sewerage pumped and the rubbish dumped. From the perspective of the city, the environment is an external site of referred pain, a site of collateral damage, and for this reason a site of merely abstract concern. Extraurbia, by comparison, may become the focal site for protest as well as action in the creation of new ecoscapes.
For their dispersal, for their smallness, for their relative autonomy from the heavy and urban-centered structures of the state, for the comparatively unformed informality of their institutions of civil society, the spaces of extraurbia may allow the possibility of more devolved, flexible and responsive modes of governance, engaging a greater proportion of their populations. Compared to the city, the relative institutional thin-ness of these spaces presents dangers—of hyper-exploitation, neoliberal lawlessness and poor planning. But on the other hand, extraurban spaces may also offer possibilities in the form of ‘quiet encroachment’ of participatory self-governance and what might be called, for their unassuming activism, ‘social non-movements’.
Every demographic has its peculiar reasons to move to the spaces of extraurbia—retired people for a quasi vacation lifestyle, families for their children, gays for places of shared style, immigrants and refugees for an entry point into the labor market. Increasingly, extraurbia becomes a place of cosmopolitan community. For this reason, intersectional rainbow coalitions may form in these spaces, as newly integrated communities face cutting-edge workplace, environmental or educational issues.
Historically, cities sorted demographics into spatially distinguishable neighborhoods, or quarters, or ghettoes. Extraurban spatial sorting may prove to be less rigorous, and this in part supported by a broader trend to viable post-territorial identities, ending the conventionally framed isomorphisms of space and social form and the ascription of cultural authenticity or essence to space. In the era of digital communications and online community, person-to-person collocation is less needed in order to maintain diaspora, or knowledge community, or fashion, or fad, or fetish. Here we see a dynamics of difference emerging that is less determined by space, and for this, it is more complex and multilayered.
In the new communications environment, sharing of meaning becomes less dependent on the heritage synergies of collocation or economics of contiguity. Facebook creates a never-before envisaged shape of proximity in life narratives. Voice-over-internet and videoconferencing remove diseconomies of distance. Mobile phones ‘roam’ as if location were immaterial. People in cities have no better access to good newspapers than people beyond their print distribution reach. In any event, mass market newspapers, grounded in economies of large scale, find they are competing with disruptive economies and qualities of small scale—the thematically particular blogs, the micromedia that cover a few hundred households, the slicing and dicing of information in blogs that reaggregate and link from one perspective or another. In all of these respects, the city loses its communicational advantages.
Where does innovation increasingly occur? On university campuses that have for a long time been located outside of big cities, in university towns for instance which are distinctively attractive for precisely that. Or in the research ‘parks’ which incubate enterprises spun-off from university originated IP. Or in the new economy multinationals which are headquartered out of big cities or which have their R&D divisions located outside of cities. Or the R&D startups that take advantage of lower overheads and regional incentives offered more commonly in one or other of the spaces of extraurbia.
And finally, how is knowledge transferred intergenerationally? The answer will in part be through environments of ubiquitous learning, ranging from online degrees, to small local schools relying on online infrastructure, and beyond the conventional classroom or training room, on and through networked mobile devices, where learning can happen any place and anytime, just enough and just in time (Cope and Kalantzis 2009). As the spatio-institutional walls of the traditional school come down, there need be no location-defined educational disadvantage.
These are disconcerting times in many respects. When we think about spaces and flows, who until recently could have imagined that the city might cede many of its magnetic advantages to the not-city? That day may soon be arriving. And when it does, we might also be able to transfer lessons learnt in extraurban spaces to make our cities better places. We will all be extraurban then.