This special issue of M/C Journal has been prompted by the "Creative Suburbia" symposium held at the Queensland University of Technology in September 2010. The symposium brought together researchers from cultural studies, communication and media studies, cultural geography, urban planning and cultural policy to share research and perspectives while collectively exploring issues around understandings of suburbia and suburban life.
The word “suburbia” is almost automatically associated with homogeneity and dullness. But we ask does this "imagined geography" of suburbia match suburbia’s material and experiential geographies? If not, what suburban cultures, economies, and movements might it obscure? Where, and what is suburbia, and how does it work?
Despite a renaissance in critiques of the city, attention has largely been focussed on city centres and their inner core, with far less attention paid to the suburbs. As urbanism intensifies across the world—for the first time in history the majority of people live in cities—concerns about environmental degradation and management, social cohesion and the cultural diversity of cities are firmly on the agenda. In Australia, as in many other countries, the suburbs are where most people live and work, and, while metropolitan centres have undergone major changes, so too have their suburbs. Shaping the suburbs today are influences such as technological innovations enabling more people to work from home or to work flexibly. Many suburbs are now busy commercial centres offering a wide range of activities and services. The increasingly multicultural nature of Australian suburbs, enhanced access to mortgages and consumer credit fuelling speculation and consumption, have all contributed to the development of a suburban geography that is very different from the suburbs’ 1950s antecedents.
The rise of the "creative city" agenda (Florida) has also contributed to re-positioning cities as creative and cultural powerhouses, where cities are measured by their cultural assets and their creative, innovative workforce. The ARC funded "Creative Suburbia" project, questioned the inner- city focus of the creativity discourse, and looked at the creative workforce and creative activity beyond urban centres, to the outer suburbs of Brisbane and Melbourne. Researchers found plenty of evidence of a creative workforce and local creative communities which challenged the assumption that creative industries are best fostered in a dense inner-urban milieux.
In this special issue, we include several papers that examine the experience of creative workers in the suburbs, bringing to the fore implications for urban and cultural policy and suburban community capacity building. The first article in this edition, Terry Flew’s “Right to the City, Desire for the Suburb?,” discusses the rise of research into cities and points out that the paradox here is that much of the recent urbanisation process is in fact suburbanisation. The focus on developing inner-urban cultural amenity has been overplayed, and greater attention needs to be paid to how better enable distributed knowledge systems through high-speed broadband infrastructure.
Suburbia has become more multicultural. Maree Pardy’s “Eat, Pray, Swim—Women, Religion and Multiculturalism in the Suburbs” discusses multiculturalism and its intersection in the public spaces of cities and suburbs, raising questions around multicultural democracy. An event organised by Islamic women at a public swimming pool in a Melbourne outer suburb raises tensions around cultural differences in urban public space. As urbanisation intensifies across the world, Australian cities are becoming denser, creating different morphologies of the suburbs and inner-cities. Brisbane, once a low-density, suburban city, has undergone intense urban development since the early 1990s. In “Urban construction, Suburban Dreaming," Emma Felton examines the shift to new, denser forms of living in Brisbane and how this shift is played out in discursive accounts of the city in marketing material during the years of urban renewal in Brisbane. She identifies the ways in which suburbanism is re-asserted in cultural discourses of the “new” city.
New research methodologies provide new ways of understanding cultural and social activity. Chris Brennan-Horley’s “Reappraising the Role of Suburban Workplaces in Darwin’s Creative Economy” provides further evidence of creative industries in suburban locations through the lens of a participatory mapping exercise using GIS software. His data and methodology reveal a more complex and nuanced portrait of the creative workforce than that of census statistics on employment, and identify distinct spatial patterns used by creative workers. Such changes and trends illustrate the ever-changing relationship between the experience of place, creativity, and social life. Aneta Podkalicka explores this theme through a case study of a Melbourne-based youth media program called Youthworx to analyze the processes at stake in cultural engagement for marginalised young people. Her research opens up an opportunity to understand "suburbs" empirically, rather than treating "suburbs" as abstract, analytical constructs.
In China, as elsewhere, the suburbs provide lower rent and offer a conducive creative ethos. Angela Lin Huang’s “Leaving the City: artists villages in Beijing” shows how artists locational preferences are often overlooked in policies that are aimed to support them. Government policies have either protected or dismantled artists’ settlements and Huang reviews the history of artists’ villages, tracing their migration routes, and investigates artists’ lives on the edge of the city. The logic of government policy causes a distinction between cities and outlying districts that overlooks the basic needs of artists, needs that are not only for a free or affordable place, but also a space for creativity.
Belinda Burns in “Untold Tales of the Intra-Suburban Female” tells of the flight of Australian woman from the suburbs in literature. Fictional narratives of flight occurred in narratives women embarked upon journeys of self-realisation previously reserved for men.
Alan Davies upturns the idea that the suburbs are places of leisure and retreat with his study of changes to the suburban workforce. Davies's research identifies the suburbs as the location for the majority of the Melbourne workforce, a fact applicable to other Australian cities such as Sydney and Brisbane. Finally, Apperley, Nansen, Arnold, and Wilken in "Broadband in the Burbs" raise questions around the rollout of the NBN and its impact on people living in the suburbs. Their research suggests that, despite claims to the contrary, there will be a "patchwork geography" of media and communication access and use in peoples' homes across the country.
Collectively, the articles in this edition address the many changes in life and work occurring in the contemporary suburbs, in the contours of suburban experience, and their shifting cultural value, reflected in suburban representations. What the articles share in common is the recognition of the suburbs as complex and dynamic places that have undergone a significant transformation, undermining an established view that not much happens there. For some writers, this raises questions for urban and cultural policy makers, for others it points to new geographies of creativity, collaboration, and community. As the suburbs continue to grow in scale and complexity, it is evident that their story is still unfolding.
Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books, 2002.