Meet the Researchers

Iroger1n this ongoing series of posts, we will be talking with researchers on the Global Suburbanisms project about their own individual work, published articles and ongoing research. Our first installment is a discussion with the project's principal investigator Roger Keil, regarding Governing Suburbia: Modalities and Mechanisms of Suburban Governance, co-authored with Michael Ekers and Pierre Hamel.

Q: Can you talk about your background and how you became involved in the Global Suburbanisms project?

A: I am a political scientist by training and have looked at the way cities have been governed and contested since before my PhD dissertation on local politics in globalizing Los Angeles in the 1980s. Returning to Frankfurt in the early 1990s, I worked on a regional greenbelt in that city, which is also my hometown. When I moved to Toronto, I continued research on urban and regional politics and governance.

What was important for me to understand was that in all these very different cities and regions, much of the friction and tension around politics (and policy) was caused by rapid, sustained but barely understood processes of suburbanization. I discussed these with my long time friend, and now MCRI [Major Collaborative Research Initiative] co-investigator, Robin Bloch early on when we were both doctoral students in California what the consequences of that tremendous push towards the periphery would be for our understanding and practice of politics.

These were the heady days of the regulation school and of regime theory in urban political studies. And the new economic geography coming out of places as diverse as the Third Italy and Southern California taught us a bit about the relationships of the new – Postfordist – regime of accumulation and its spatial form which involved a decided move of industries and residences to urban peripheries. Logistics, just-in-time production, the access to air cargo capacity and massive suburban labour forces were crucial at the time. Politically, suburban sensibilities entered the overall political process, just think of the cleansing of Times Square in New York in the 1990s.

Later, in Frankfurt with Klaus Ronneberger, and in collaboration with MCRI researchers such as Ute Lehrer and Christian Schmid, I continued exploring the relationships of globalized urbanization and urban margins. I took that further in Toronto in joined projects with folks at FES like John Graham, Stefan Kipfer, Gene Desfor and Doug Young. In the long run, when I became Director of the City Institute at York University in 2006, this larger topic of suburbanization seemed like a logical continuation of this work more generally, and my own interests in the politics and urban political ecologies of cities more generally. We tested the waters on the topic with our In-between Infrastructure project in the early years of the CITY Institute and then moved to the strategic grant we now have on Global Suburbanisms. I couldn’t be happier being the Principal Investigator of this important project.

Q: What's so important about suburbs?

A: Well, there is nothing inherently important about suburbs. But they do exist and are often overlooked or seen as less important than the central cities which they surround. So, one of the things our MCRI has been doing is to emphasize the need for a better positioning of suburban research in a general project of urban and regional studies. We have recently stepped up our efforts for such recognition by claiming specifically the impact a better understanding of suburbanization and suburbanisms can have for urban theory overall.

What is important at this conjuncture? Let’s start with three things. First, while we are often hearing these days about having entered “an urban age”, we have really entered the “suburban century”. While, in the past, cities have always grown through suburbanization of existing urban forms and function, there is now a generalization of suburbanization processes going on that goes beyond the mere adding of peripheral residential and commercial rings around existing cities. The great French urban thinker, Henri Lefebvre predicted the complete urbanization of the world back in the 1960s. This does not mean, as many urban theorists such as Andy Merrifield have pointed out, that there will now be houses and streets and factories everywhere on the planet, but rather that this process happens in fits and starts, is very uneven and occurs through various “implosions” and “explosions” of urban life, to revert to the expressive astrophysical language of Lefebvre in the latter half of the last century. We believe that this explosive suburbanization that we see today needs to be better understood in order to grasp the enormity of the overall process of urbanization in today’s urban world.

"While we are often hearing these days about having entered 'an urban age,'
we have really entered the 'suburban century.'"

Secondly, we want to defy the myth that all urban economic activity in the world today occurs in the downtowns of so-called creative cities where twenty-somethings huddle in lofts, coffee-shops and condos. There is more to cities than their cores. Suburbs are the staging ground, warehousing districts, labour reservoirs, metabolic supply and dumping fields, educational satellites, and logistics centres for urban regions and of their global economies. And, yet, they are almost entirely caricatured, still, as dormitories or bedroom communities with white picket fences and cul-de-sacs.

And, third, there is so now much diversity in suburban areas as to rival the inner cities. In fact, most suburbs in many parts of the world are now more mixed demographically and economically than most inner cities. While the latter have been subject to gentrification and revitalization, which has brought wealthier and often whiter populations back into inner cities, suburbs in North America but also elsewhere have increasingly become home to new immigrant, visible minority and working class populations who cannot afford or have been displaced from more central locations.

Q: What is the focus of your research for the MCRI to date and what are you working on over the next few years?

A: My research has mainly been in two areas, governance and boundaries. Let me focus on the former for this conversation. With my colleagues Mike Ekers and Pierre Hamel, we have written the foundational think piece for the area of suburban governance research. On the basis of this paper, we held a workshop on Suburban Governance with colleagues from around the world to find out about how and with what “modalities”, as we called it, suburbanization and suburban ways of life were governed around the world. We are now entering a phase of empirical research with teams in Africa, China, India, Europe and North America to test our conceptual assumptions in real expanding urban regions. Results from these studies can be expected in about a year, when we hold another workshop on the topic in Montreal.


Q: Looking at the article specifically, what's the most important point you wish to convey?

A: Surely, the most important point of this paper – and you may want to check in with my co-authors on that – is to create an understanding that suburbs are not the product of some automatic market magic. Clearly, markets are important both in the “organized” Western economies where regulated land markets exist and offer huge outlets for capital investment and in more informal economic settings where slum dwellers, for example, organize their land uses with market devices.

Yet, while markets are, in fact, an important modality of suburban governance, states have played a big role in supporting suburbanization even in the most free-market societies such as the United States or the other Anglo Saxon capitalist democracies. In the social democracies of Western Europe, in the planned regimes of the former Soviet
bloc, or in today’s China, there can be no doubt that the state has always played a major role in governing the expansion of cities.

More recently, and it’s a very unique point we are making in the paper, new forms of “private authoritarianism” have to be regarded alongside governance, the state and the market. Gated communities, which we see springing up in rich
countries like the US but also in South Africa or Brazil, and even in Eastern Europe, are perhaps the most common and most popularly known forms of such private authoritarian governance. Here, the market is used to exclude, and the state often hands over important community services to private corporations. A troubling trend for metropolitan democracy overall!

"I hope our [research] can rescue suburban research a bit from its often marginal position in the temple of urban studies. We believe that it is necessary to pay close attention to the actual living environments of literally billions of people around the world rather than chasing the dreamof the walkable downtown as the only legitimate form of metropolitan life."

Q: How do you hope this article and your research change the conversation both in terms of further research and in affecting policy?

GTSWGA: As I mentioned, the article first and foremost had the purpose of providing us with a set of guidelines for further research. But we have now seen its ideas also picked up outside our MCRI both in theory and in practice. In our own work, we have used the principles of our thinking in this academic article to inspire and spawn a new form of suburban-based professional activism in the Toronto area. Sean Hertel and myself created the so-called Greater Toronto Suburban Working Group in 2010. The GTSWG’s mandate is to bring together organizations with overlapping and competing interests in the Greater Toronto Area when it comes to suburbanization on a regular basis for an ongoing conversation on the chief challenges that face us in this sprawling region. We have created a productive dialogue amongst academics, politicians, planners and communities through this process and have moved our work from talk to action.

Q: Beyond just your own work, what are your hopes for the MCRI in terms of changing how we think about suburbs?

A: In terms of its academic outcomes, I hope our MCRI can rescue suburban research a bit from its often marginal position in the temple of urban studies. We believe that it is necessary to pay close attention to the actual living environments of literally billions of people around the world rather than chasing the dream of the walkable downtown as the only legitimate form of metropolitan life. There is work to be done in the Academy but also in policy making circles to increase our knowledge of the importance of the suburban for survival in the 21st century. This includes aspects of urban sustainability, community democracy, social justice and even resilience in an age of climate change and scarce resources.

Q: What do you with your time when you're not thinking about suburbs?

A: What? Is there such a time? Well, now after the World Cup, I will have to look for new ways of diverting my attention. Perhaps the Toronto FC will provide that outlet. But even here I drift to the suburban, as I am planning to follow the lads to the suburban soccer temples of the New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire in those cities’ suburban expanses later this fall. And I also fancy myself as closet musician and will keep on singing sad suburban songs when nobody is around to hear me.