From the West Coast, there's more evidence that the definition of "suburbia" has been stretched so much that it's practically useless. The blog at the California Planning and Development Report summarizes a fight between the Brookings Institute's Christopher Leinberger, an advocate of what he calls "walkable urban places," or WUPs (you can get the idea from his piece in the Atlantic), and self-styled suburban champion Joel Kotkin (interviewed in CommonWealth magazine in 2006). In fact, both Leinberger and Kotkin seem to favor the same kind of development, which is most common in older, inner-ring suburbs. As the CPDR's Bill Fulton explains:
Leinberger, like practically every other advocate of urbanism in America, agrees with [Kotkin]. In a Brookings paper last year – admittedly qualitative in its approach – Leinberger took a stab at identifying WUPs in the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas. He came up with 15 existing or emerging WUPs in the Los Angeles area, including … Burbank, Glendale, Century City, Westwood, Culver City, and Beverly Hills. In other words, he included all the “suburbs” that Kotkin is always defending against the “city”.
The trouble is that the strict definition of suburb -- which is any community outside a major city -- is obsolete and useless. It encompasses both densely populated, mass-transit-heavy communities and sprawling towns that prohibit homes on less than an acre of land. Leinberger argues that many places in the latter category will become the "new slums," as people abandon them for places with more affordable housing and shorter commutes. Kotkin argues that Americans don't like the "urban core" and won't move back there, but urbanists such as Leinberger have never taken a "high-rise or nothing" attitude, instead saying that many older suburbs are fit perfectly into the New Urbanism model. (Check out the two-panel illustration with Kotkin's piece in the Los Angeles Times. Metropolitan Boston is full of places that have the greenery and single-family homes of the second image, but in orderly rows like the skyscrapers of the first image.)
So are we all going to agree that "suburbs" and "exurbs" are completely different animals? Or do we still need another word to describe city-like communities that happen to fall just outside the boundaries of Boston, Los Angeles, etc.?
(See my recent Boston Globe column for an example of how the word "suburban" has lost its meaning in politics as well.)