In 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. This installment features McMaster University professor Richard Harris , discussing his forthcoming works.
Q: Can you talk about your background and how you became involved in the Global Suburbanisms project?
A: I grew up in a rather stereotypical English suburb and escaped to university, where I read David Harvey's 'Social Justice in the City' hot off the press. This made me into an urban historical geographer, with an interest in suburbs and residential development.
I became involved in the Global Suburbanisms project serendipitously, through conversations with Roger Keil.
Q: What's so important about suburbs?
A: They are where so many people live; for good or ill. They shape our social experience, embody staggering amounts of capital investment, and can have enormous environmental implications.
"Many places have no single word for what North Americans call suburbs. We argue that language matters, as both an embodiment of the way people view their cities but also as a force that shapes their actions."
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 main aim has been to take stock of the amazing diversity of forms of suburban development worldwide, and the varied ways in which they have come into being. I am supposed to be writing a book about suburbs, worldwide, but keep finding reasons why I'm not yet ready to do so.
Q: Looking at your recent article/book, what's the most important point you wish to convey?
A: Let me mention one book and one article, both 'forthcoming'. The article, due to appear in Environment and Planning A, interprets suburban development in Toronto since 1945. I argue that it has never conformed to the prevailing stereotypes of suburban form, intentions, or criticism, but these stereotypes are still useful points of departure.
The book, co-edited with Charlotte Vorms at the University of Paris, and hopefully to be published by the University of Toronto Press, looks at the very varied ways in which people speak about urban fringe areas around the world. Many places have no single word for what North Americans call suburbs. We argue that language matters, as both an embodiment of the way people view their cities but also as a force that shapes their actions.
Q: How do you hope this article and your research will change the conversation both in terms of further research and in affecting policy?
A: I hope the article will encourage people to think about suburban stereotypes in a more subtle way, and not just go on about how they fail to conform to reality, and then proceed to invent yet another word to replace 'suburbs'.
In an era when we are coming to terms with the global dimensions and processes of suburbanization, I hope that the book will encourage writers to be more sensitive to local meanings.
Q: Beyond just your own work, what are your hopes for the MCRI in terms of changing how we think about suburbs?
A: My main hope is that the project will help solidify the emerging understanding that suburbanization is a worldwide process, in part by encouraging the development of worldwide networks of scholars who are interested in the subject.
Q: What do you with your time when you're not thinking about suburbs?
A: I'll give you the answer that's printable! In no particular order: reading fiction, to help me understand how people think; playing squash; finding solace in the company of my partner and children; cycling & walking.