suburbs, Sub(urbanisms), Blandscapes, Blendscapes, Brutalscapes, Brownfields

Making Sense of Twenty-First Century (Sub)Urban Landscapes

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 49 – Number 1


Blandscapes, Blendscapes, Brutalscapes  and Brutopianscapes

This paper makes a call for a more nuanced reading of the dynamic kaleidoscope of (sub)urban landscapes that characterize contemporary metropolitan regions. Within this metropolitan context, there is a need to move beyond perceiving the ‘suburbs’ as distinct and separate from, and, subservient to the ‘city’. If anything, the suburbs are in a deep symbiotic relationship with the ‘city’ – (sub)urban entanglements. Such entanglement means that the suburbs and the city simultaneously exhibit suburban and urban elements. Hence, the terms (sub)urban, (Sub)urban, (sub)Urban, and (SUB)URBAN are used as a framework to denote the varying degrees of intermingling and scale of suburbanity and urbanity that characterize (sub)urban areas. Although suburbia has long been framed as a fundamental facet of the ‘American dream’ and the ‘great Australian dream’ the suburbs have been the object of much criticism, and derided for their conformity, domesticity and uniformity. In short, the suburbs have been stereotyped as a blandscape. However, as metropolitan regions have grown in physical and demographic terms, an array of (sub)urbanisms have emerged, and continue to do so, thereby creating a (sub)urban blendscape in terms of housing morphologies, densities, land uses, socio-cultural diversity, and governance at the metropolitan, sub-regional, local government, and suburb level. Simultaneously, an array of (sub)urban brutalscapes have also emerged as metropolitan regions have expanded. Suburbanization, extended urbanization, gentrification and (sub)urban regeneration are all contributing processes to the (re)production of brutalscapes that manifest at a range of scales and assume a variety of forms – e.g. infrastructural, socio-cultural, housing, and environmental. Despite the criticisms of and problems with suburbia the idea(l) of the suburban dream prevails as metropolitanism expands. This points to the metropolitan region constituting a brutopianscape.

According to the latest United Nations (2019) World Urbanization Prospects report, more than half (55 per cent) of the global population (7.63 billion) lived in urban areas in 2018. This is up from 30 per cent of the global population (2.54 billion) in 1950. By 2050 when the world’s population is estimated to reach almost 10 billion people, some 68 per cent or 6.7 billion people will live in urban areas. The pace and scale of urbanization has led Gleeson (2014, p. 1) to note:

The urban age has been declared. A chorus of expert and popular commentary welcomes a golden age of prospect. A new conversation welcomes the fact that humanity is now preponderantly an urban species, Homo Urbanis.

Such is the size of the urban population and the socio-spatiality of urbanization and its impact as a social, economic, cultural, and political force, that it has led scholars such as Brenner and Schmid (2011; 2014) and Merrifield (2013), drawing on Lefebvre (1968; 1970), to proclaim that we are now living in an era of planetary urbanization. More recently, Keil (2018a, p. 9) has noted that ‘under the current trends in technology, capital accumulation, land development and urban governance, the expected global urbanization will necessarily be largely suburbanization’. In other words, future population growth in the Global North and, moreover, the Global South, will be accommodated in a dynamic constellation of spatial realms that might be more commonly referred to as suburbia. That is, those spaces and places in peoples’ geographical imaginations ‘out there’ beyond the ‘urban core’ but contained in-between by ‘the rural’.

Over time, future suburban environments built on the periphery will most likely be subsumed within ever-expanding amorphous metropolitan regions or megalopolises (Gottman, 1964; Vicino et al., 2007; Lang and Knox, 2009). For this reason, as well as others, the terms (sub)urban, (sub)urbanization, and (sub)urbanisms are used here to convey the idea that those spaces perceived to be urban and suburban are not distinct and separate spaces/ places per se. Rather, these two socially, politically, and economically constructed spaces are so intimately intertwined they are effectively one and the same thing. That is, as a result of the deep symbiotic relationship between the urban and the suburban, within a metropolitan context, each carries the socio-spatial relational DNA of the other. As Gottman (1964, p. 217) commented over half a century ago:

In Megalopolis in the 1950s the interpenetration of urban and rural had achieved a complexity and a size yet unknown anywhere else on the globe. In this gradual symbiosis two seemingly conflicting trends have worked together: urban people and activities have taken on more rural aspects and traditionally rural pursuits have acquired urban characteristics. Some sectors of an urbanized region have come to look the way rural countryside used to, while districts specializing in agricultural have begun to resemble built-up suburbs.

The paper adopts a broad historical lens to make sense of the concepts of suburban bland/blend/brutalscapes and is in three inter-related parts. First, a thumbnail sketch of the evolution of suburbia and critiques levelled at the suburbs is provided to give analytical context. Next, discussion turns to the socio-spatial DNA of (sub)urban landscapes and the symbiotic relationship that prevails between ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ spaces. Hence, the term (sub)urban is used to highlight the socio-spatial entanglement between both spaces. Third, a conceptual framework outlining what essentially defines a bland/blend/brutalscapes is set out. Finally, the conclusion provides an overview of the themes that cut across the various papers in this special issue.

A Thumbnail Sketch of the Chronology of  Suburbia

Cities and metropolitan regions and their constituent socio-spatial components have been in a constant and rapid state of evolution since the commencement of the ‘longue durée history of capitalist urbanization’ in the 1700s (Brenner, 2014, p. 17). The trajectory of (sub)urbanization over the last three centuries is pock-marked with a series of ‘implosions/explosions’ that has resulted in the ‘[re]production and continual transformation of an industrialized [sub]urban fabric’ (ibid.). This constant making (development), unmaking (demolition) and remaking (regeneration/gentrification) of (sub)urban space within the metropolitan context means that there are common socio-spatial DNA traits as well as a plethora of socio-spatial mutations across different (sub)urbanisms. Hence, the (sub)urbanisms of today and into the future are/will be characterized by an increasingly vast, complex, dynamic array of formal and informal housing morphologies, land uses, infrastructures, economic activities, mobilities, communities, and ecologies. Alexander and Gleeson (2019) echo Keil’s (2018a) thesis that the future of urbanization is suburban. While re-asserting that this is the era of homo urbanis, they highlight that we are now in the ‘epoch of the great sub urban dispensation’ (Alexander and Gleeson, 2019, p. 3). In other words, traces of our (sub) urban futures are already here. The majority of people in Britain (Goldsworthy, 2009), the United States (Duany et al., 2000), Canada (Gordon et al., 2018), and Australia (Gordon et al., 2015; Hamnett and Maginn, 2016) now live in suburbia and have done so for some time. As Maginn and Anacker (2022) have recently noted, it might be more accurate to describe the human species, at least in the aforementioned countries, as being more homo (sub)urbanis.

The emergence and evolution of modern suburbia from villa suburbana in the eighteenth century; garden city suburbs in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century; the mass of so-called ‘ticky-tacky boxes’ produced by Fordist development processes during the late 1940s through to the end of the 1970; the rise of the McMansion within gated communities or master-planned estates in the 1980s and 1990s; and, more recently, the TOD-ification of strategic activity centres along major transit corridors, and the apartmentization/condoization of the periphery, help illustrate the broad evolution and thus mutations of the suburban genus in the Anglosphere. These mutations are the product of complex interactions between market actors (investors, developers, bankers, and builders), consumer preferences, and changing planning theories and practices about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spatial and built form – e.g. garden cities, neighbourhood unit, Broadacre City, linear city, la ville radieuse, Radburn layout, regional planning, new towns, new urbanism, master-planned estates and gated communities (Hall and Tewdwr-Jones, 2011).

Altogether this has resulted in a patchwork quilt of (sub)urban landscapes. These landscapes are, by default, diverse in terms of vintage, scale, morphology, land-uses, demography, densities, aesthetics, quality, sustainability and so on. Put simply, then, as reflected in the title of this special issue, we identify three broad inter-connected (sub) urban landscape typologies: (i) blandscapes; (ii) blendscapes; and (iii) brutalscapes. These typological categories act as descriptors, labels and/or signifiers as to the character and condition of the world of (sub)urbanisms that exist within metropolitan regions (Forsyth, 2018; Harris, 2010; Keil, 2018a).
The suburbs have a long history. Much longer than many or most people probably think. Taking inspiration from how geologists represent deep time – eon, era, period, and epoch – a simplified chronology of the evolution of (sub)urbanisms since antiquity is presented in table 1. Arguably, there is a general tendency to think that the suburbs emerged in the late 1940s/early 1950s as this marks an extended period of major implosions/explosions in terms of the emergence of a new world order (decolonization, superpowers, and the erection of the iron curtain), end of austerity and rationing, plus scientific advancement, economic expansionism, creation of the welfare state, and social mobility. As Harris and Larkham note, ‘… two of the most pervasive, and influential, myths about suburbs are that they are a recent phenomenon and that they take the same form everywhere’ (Harris and Larkham, 1999, p. 1).
On the former observation, Mumford (1961, pp. 549–550) long ago noted that ‘the suburb becomes visible almost as early at the city itself’. He highlights that evidence of the ancient origins of suburbia are depicted visually and textually in Egyptian drawings and the bible. For Bruegmann (2005), ancient Rome offers the best example of ancient suburbia, not least because the space occupied by those that lived just outside the walled city was referred to as suburbium – a transitional space that was home to those that could not afford to live within the walled city, and included various noxious land uses and economic activities that, ultimately, posed a threat to the health and wellbeing of Rome and its citizens. Beyond this ancient zone of transition wealthy Romans established ‘elegant villas near the sea or in the cool hills east of Rome near places like Tivoli and Frascati’ (ibid., p. 23). These spaces were basically the birthplace of ancient residential suburbs – suburbium antiqua.
Used primarily at weekends to escape the calamitous life within the walled city, suburbium antiqua represented a space of privacy, relaxation and recuperation for the wealthy. In other words, these ancient suburbs may be viewed as the genesis point of early modern suburbia, symbolized by the emergence of the villa suburbana (Archer, 2005) and bourgeois utopias (Fishman, 1987) in the eighteenth century which were also weekend escapes from the industrial city. As Fishman (1987, p. 39) notes:
The modern suburban began when the merchant elite shifted its primary residence to the weekend villa allowing the women and children of the family to remain wholly separate from the contagions of London whilst the merchants themselves commute daily from their villas to London by private carriage… The weekend villa was thus the crucial bridge between traditional bourgeois living patterns and the new era of suburbanization.
This weekend escape practice resonates with the contemporary trend of multiple home ownership amongst a small, but increasing, number of urbanites (Paris, 2011). Such second homes may range in size and quality from: (i) simple beach shacks located on the edge of coastal towns in Western Australia or Victoria; (ii) cabins situated on a lake outside cities such as Toronto and Vancouver (Canada), Copenhagen (Denmark) or Helsinki (Finland); (iii) single-family homes and/or apartments in coastal, peri-urban and rural locations. Moreover, for those wealthy second homeowners whose primary residence is a luxury apartment/condo in ‘downtown’ New York, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver or inner London their weekend escape homes signify atomized suburbia (Silva and Maginn, 2022) and latent or extended suburbanisms. The lives of those that already pursue a suburban way of living in the city/metropolitan region, but own a second, third or more home used as a long-term rental property, short-let accommodation via on line platforms such as Airbnb and/or a weekend/vacation getaway for personal use, bring to the fore the idea of hyper-(sub)urbanism on account of owning and/or consuming so much suburban space.

(Sub)Urban Landscapes 

Harris and Larkham’s second observation about the myths of suburbia (i.e. same form everywhere), speaks to the notion of suburbanization producing homogenous and monotonous spaces typified by ‘dullness, blandness, and an impoverishment of the quality of life’ (Harris and Larkham, 1999, p. 7). Mumford articulated similar sentiments almost forty years earlier – commenting that the suburbs were basically ‘a low grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible’ (Mumford, 1961, p. 553). This echoes with comments made by Nairn (1955, np) a few years earlier about the rapid suburbanization taking place in the Britain and the emergence of a landscape that he referred to as Subtopia:

This issue is less of a warning than a prophecy of doom: the prophecy that if what is called development is allowed to multiply at the present rate, then by the end of the century Great Britain will consist of isolated oases of preserved monuments in a desert of wire, concrete roads, cosy plots and bungalows. There will be no real distinction between town and country. Both will consist of a limbo of shacks, bogus rusticities, wire and aerodromes, set in some fir-poled fields… Upon this new Britain the REVIEW bestows a name in the hope that it will stick – SUBTOPIA (Making an ideal of suburbia). Visually speaking, the universalization and idealization of our town fringes. Philosophically, the idealization of the Little Man who lives there (from suburb + Utopia). Its symptom will be (which one can prophesy without even leaving London) that the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.
The modern suburb and suburban ways of living that most people recognize today in the Anglosphere – Australia, Canada, the UK and USA – have their roots in eighteenth-century Britain. For Fishman (1987) London is the birthplace of modern suburbia. In short, the initial suburbs were not the product of any grand masterplan. Rather, they emerged due to what might be considered a form of ‘spontaneous order’ (Hayek, 1961) or ‘order without design’ (Bertaud, 2018). That is, collectively fashioned by London’s bourgeois elite in response to rapid industrialization and urbanization and the attendant problems that stemmed from these two processes.
As with the Ancient Romans, London’s bourgeoisie, who had long lived and thrived in the urban core, sought sanctuary from London in their weekend villas as urban life became increasingly overcrowded, polluted, unhealthy, immoral, and dangerous. These weekend villas were located in rural areas and offered tranquillity, privacy and respite (Fishman, 1987; Archer, 2005). Crucially, the physical, aesthetic, moral and cultural attributes associated with this weekend suburbanism course through the DNA of more permanent forms of suburbanisms such as garden city suburbs of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and the mass suburbanization that took place after the Second World War. Of course, successive waves of suburbanization have given rise to new suburbanisms, essentially mutations of the previous wave. Notably, however, each successive wave was increasingly more accessible to a diverse mix of people, an outcome that perturbed many critics (Beauregard, 2006; Keil, 2018a). 

Figure 1. The Anglosphere suburban genus. (Source: Authors)

If Britain is the birthplace of modern suburbia, what place do Australia and the US/Canada have in the evolution of the Anglo suburban genus? Figure 1 provides a simple schematic to illustrate the core attributes of the suburban genus and convey the (sub)urban entanglements that bind the Anglosphere together. However, with the passage of time and transformations in society, policy, governance, and technology there have been all manner of (sub)urban mutations between and within Australia, Britain and the US/Canada. Both Australia and the United States lay a claim to being the first suburban nations (Horne, 1964; Jackson, 1985). For Davison the pursuit of this accolade is a pointless exercise. Instead, he contends it is more productive to think about what ‘is both distinctive and more general in our national urban histories’ (Davison, 1995, p. 41). Moreover, given the historical and colonial connections between Britain, Australia and the United States, adoption and adaptation of neo-liberalism and the development of their own sense of identity, practices, and culture, we can expect convergences and divergences in their (sub)urban genealogies.
Again, as Davison (1995, p. 46) notes, ‘… the “bourgeois utopias”, which were appearing under private and religious auspices in London and New York, had their distinctive antipodean counterpart in the villa estate created by vice-regal edict on the edge of Sydney town’. This is an example of the mutation of the Anglo suburban genus. Other signs of (sub)urban mutation are evident in the broadly similar morphology of Australian and US cities – dense urban core surrounded by an ocean of largely low-density residential suburbs interspersed with industrial and retail suburbs – which is not common in Britain. The array and geography of major cities and metropolitan regions are more voluminous and complex in the United States compared to Australia which has been dominated by six coastal hugging capital cities – Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney – more or less since the establishment of their respective colonies.
Whereas the inner-city in large British cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, and American cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia has been synonymous with urban blight, poverty, and ethnic/racial minorities, this has never really been a feature of Australian cities. A key reason for this is because Australia has been so highly suburbanized since early settlement (Davison, 1995; 2013). In fact, residential suburbs at the edge of the CBD such as the ‘eastern suburbs’ in Sydney and Melbourne, North Adelaide, and the ‘western suburbs’ in Perth were and continue to be wealthy enclaves (Freestone et al, 2018). And, finally, in the wake of the Second World War through to the 1970s, mass suburbanization commenced in Britain, Australia and United States. Initially, in both the United States and Britain the post war suburbs were largely the domain of the white middle-classes. In the United States, Taeuber and Taeuber highlight that after the war ‘the rate of suburbanization increased rapidly, especially for whites … many central cities lost white population’ (Taeuber and Taeuber, 1965, p. 3). This white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s/1960s resulted in, on the one hand, freeing up much needed housing for African-Americans who lived in over-crowded conditions, and on the other hand, confining many of them to inner-city areas. Over time the suburbs have increasingly, albeit at different paces and unevenly, opened up to those from other socio-economic and ethnic/racial backgrounds. In Australia, the post-war suburbs, which comprised a mix of homes for sale and public housing, were built for the many not the few (Stretton, 1989).
In short, the three broad strands of the Anglo suburban genus and their respective evolutionary pathways, which have resulted in mutations in terms of housing styles, form, density, tenure, social mix and spatial extent, conveys the fact there are a multitude of different (sub)urbanisms across and within Australia, Britain and the United States/Canada (Vaughan, 2015). 

(Sub)Urban Symbiosis 

As metropolitan regions have expanded, the social-spatial lines between the urban and the suburban have blurred (Brenner, 2014; Keil, 2018b). As noted earlier, this is because the urban and the suburban are in a deep symbiotic relationship with one another. Hence, it makes little analytical sense to see the urban and suburban as distinct and separate phenomena per se. Rather, they are conjoined spatialities, co-dependent on one another. As spatial ecosystems, the evolution of metropolitan regions and their constituent urbanisms and suburbanisms over the last 100 or so years have witnessed an endless series of spatial mutations, thereby creating a multitude of spaces/places that exhibit varying degrees of urban and sub urban traits. In simple terms, single-family homes can be found in urban cores, and apartment/condominium complexes can be found on the periphery. Relatedly, nuclear families live in downtown apartments/condos, and single/double-income households with no kids yet (SINKYs/DINKYs) reside in single-family homes out there in suburbia. Apartment/condominium complexes have rooftop and/or vertical gardens to afford residents privatized green space and to help make high-rise buildings more sustainable and temper urban heat island effects; and suburban homes are losing garden space as lot sizes get smaller but houses get larger and are built to the lot line. Privacy and exclusivity have become more pronounced within urban cores as land and property values have increased through densification and gentrification. The luxurification of the CBD, as denoted by the increasing number of luxury apartment/condo complexes, has resulted in established lower-income residents and ‘nuisance’ night-time economy land uses being displaced or closed down. Conversely, the suburbs have become more accessible, open and diverse spaces as many homeowners and renters seek lower cost housing.

Given the symbiotic relationship between ‘the urban’ and ‘the suburban’ we propose a conceptual framework that conjoins these two terms in an effort to illustrate that they are essentially one and the same thing albeit with varying degrees of urbanity and suburbanity. Our conceptual framework is a starting point for opening up further conversations about the idea of (sub)urban symbiosis and the make-up of (sub)urban spaces. In short, a set of core variables – density, household structure, socio-economic/ cultural diversity, geography of jobs, and mobility – commonly used to inform general understandings of what constitutes the urban and suburban lie at the heart of our conceptual framework. Different blends of these variables point to the idea that metropolitan regions are comprised of spatial realms that are (sub)urban – i.e. they may be relatively more urban than suburban and vice versa (Moos and Mendez, 2015; Airgood Obrycki, 2019).
Four basic varieties of (sub)urbanism are presented as ideal types – see figure 2. The first variety – (Sub)Urban – represents a perfectly balanced urban and suburban spatial realm in terms of the core variables. The next variety – SUB(urban) – signifies those spaces/places that exhibit relatively more sub urban traits. This is reflected, for example, in the higher proportion of low-density housing, family households, residential land-uses, ethnic/racial homogeneity, suburban-based employment and car ownership and usage. Unsurprisingly, the third variety – sub(URBAN) – signifies areas where densities are higher, and more diverse in terms of household types, ethnic/racial composition, land uses, geographies of employment and modes of transport used. The final variety of (sub) urbanism – (SUB)URBAN – speaks to the massive (sub)urbanisms, individually and cumulatively, within and across metropolitan regions. That is, the array of residential, commercial, industrial, retail, distribution/warehousing, tourism and recreational developments plus all their necessary infrastructures that perpetuate horizontal and vertical sprawl and the creation of a mosaic of bland/blend/brutalscapes across metropolitan regions. The ratios assigned to the different variables to delineate the varieties of (sub)urbanism are used as indicative values.

Conceptualizing (Sub)Urban Bland/Blend/ Brutalscapes 

At the macro and micro levels, then, sub urban landscapes across the Anglosphere are by default a blendscape. From an aesthetic perspective, the somewhat uniform design of suburban homes and spatial layout of subdivisions, initially using the grid street pattern and then latterly curvilinear streets, meant that the suburbs were perceived as blandscapes. This blandness was reinforced by the socio-cultural stereotyping of suburbia as a space of domesticity, conformity, and homogeneity. As Mumford (1961, p. 553) stated:

In the mass movement into suburban area a new kind of community was produced, which caricatured both the historic city and the archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waster, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, confirming in every outward and inward respect to a common mould, manufactured in the central metropolis. Thus, the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time in, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.

Figure 2. Ideal types of (sub)urban symbiosis. (Source: Authors)

The aesthetics and physical extent of suburbia led Nairn (1955) to describe the suburbs as Subtopia: that is, a ‘thing of terror, which will get you up sweating at night when you begin to realize its true proportions’. In other words, suburbia represented a brutal scape that posed a existential threat ‘over the whole social scene, over the mind of man, over the land surface, over the philosophy, ideals and objectives of the human race’ (ibid.). This perception of suburbia as a brutalscape lies at the heart the ‘anti suburban crusades’ throughout the twentieth century which have been the preserve of various intellectual, social and cultural elites and premised on ‘a set of class-based assumptions and aesthetic preferences’ (Bruegmann, 2017, p. 34).

Academic and popular ‘suburb bashing’ has come in many guises over the years. In one particular guise suburb bashing most apparent in Anglophone liberal market economies of Britain, the United States and Australia is apparent in the rendering of suburbs as a blandscape of systemically produced uniform buildings – typically detached single-family houses – the poster child for which might be Levittown.1 However, such residential blandscapes were never the majority part of a diversity of suburbs with varying trajectories of growth, stasis, and decline (Phelps and Wood, 2011). The wealthiest stable dormitory suburbs had a diversity of housing sizes, styles and lot sizes while ‘regular’ dormitory suburbs quickly transitioned as post-suburbs to have mixed uses and housing offers (Teaford, 1996). Moreover, the housing element of many suburbs is itself something that has undergone a remarkable transformation – from the initial enchantment of the mass provision of relatively uniform single-family detached houses, to disenchantment with that particular landscape and its attendant land-use separation hassles to re-enchantment with the suburban home – in an expanding diversity of housing niches that include social and multifamily housing, apartment blocks, but also ever larger more exclusive and vulgar forms (Knox, 2008).

In Britain, large, sometimes massive, state initiated social housing projects marked important discontinuities in a fabric of otherwise infinite and incrementally-produced homes of varying batches, styles and size – a good example being London (Phelps et al., 2017). Search further afield – to northern and eastern mainland Europe but also China and India – and it soon becomes apparent that suburbs are just as notable for their brutalscapes of concrete social and now gleaming private housing blocks or what Guney et al. (2019) refer to as ‘massive sub-urbanization’. In fact, what these, ostensibly historical, forays of governments into the development of social housing blocks and ensembles into the suburbs reveal is a ‘brutopian’ variant on the idea of the brutalscapes of suburbia. Remarkably, the same scale of blocks, albeit with shinier though likely of no longer a life than their brutopian counterparts, have now become a major part of suburban development models. This is suburbia’s mass market brutalscape and it appears in liberal market, mixed and post socialist economies alike. Here it seems likely that every lamented ‘Krushkovka’, banlieu or other variety of state tower block – will have its modern-day commercial developer equivalent shorn of the utopian trappings often in the same individual suburb as discussed by Hirt (2017) in the case of Sofia, Bulgaria.

Finally, of course, the sheer extent and population and employment share of our suburban nations (Phelps, 2010) and world (Keil, 2018a; Phelps and Wu, 2011) would suggest that the majority order of the day is landscapes that are fundamentally mixed in their morphologies and the scale, massing, design and materials of individual buildings found within, and the suburban ways of life associated with, them. Moreover, different vintages of development along with the piecemeal retrofitting of past vintages of suburban development (Dunham-Jones and Williamson, 2009) generate a continuum of new suburbanisms or suburban morphologies (De Jong, 2013). This continuum of new suburban landscape elements – or blendscapes of suburban form – is paralleled by a continuum of suburban ways of life (Walks, 2013).

Figure 3. Constituent elements of suburban bland/ blend/brutalscapes. (Source: Authors)

In summary, then, the conceptualization of suburbia as a bland/blend/brutalscape is premised on notions of quality and/or the degree of homogeneity/heterogeneity across a number of primary variables – demography, housing morphology, land use(s), mobility, aesthetics, infrastructure, governance, and scale – see figure 3. As such, it is possible that a suburb may exhibit all three landscape traits. For example, a suburb that has a fairly uniform and monotonous housing style might be described as a morphological blandscape. If that same suburb was ethnically/racially diverse it would constitute a cultural blendscape. And, finally, if that suburb suffered from high levels of social exclusion and disadvantage it could be defined as a socio-economic brutalscape. At a broader spatial scale, Maginn and Keil (2019) highlight that the brutalscape can also be infrastructural in nature. That is, the suburban way of life is dependent on a vast network of hard (and soft), above and below ground infrastructures – road, rail, water, gas, electricity, telecommunications – see figures 4a and 4b. As suburbanization continues to grow outwards stretching the boundaries of metropolitan regions so too do the infrastructural networks. Hard infrastructure such as road and rail leave in delible marks on the landscape creating both opportunities and challenges for metropolitan regions especially along economic and environmental lines:

Although often overlooked, the endless web of hard infrastructure appears as a brutalscape of landscape defining monstrosities of concrete, steel, rock and plastic. The brutalscape can be understood as the exoskeletons of suburbanization. Holding up suburban life, the brutal scape is the visual opposite of the idealized private house or apartment.

Figure 4a. Infrastructural brutalscapes – Kwinana Freeway and Mandurah rail line (southbound) Perth, Western Australia.Photo (: Paul J. Maginn, 2022)

Figure 4b. Infrastructural brutalscapes – electricity pylons, Cockburn, Perth, Western Australia. (Photo: Paul J. Maginn, 2022)

Ultimately, then, within the metropolitan context a range of urbanisms and suburban isms prevail. Historically, the urban and the suburban were constructed, stereotyped and treated as distinct spaces (Harris, 2018). The evolution of metropolitan regions within the context of wider processes such as capitalism, globalization, and neo-liberalism combined with shifting planning theories and idea(l)s and technologies has given rise to a plethora of (sub)urban landscapes that exhibit varying degrees of blandness, blendedness and brutalness. Throughout all of this one of the most enduring aspects of suburbia has been its portrayal by developers, housebuilders and marketing departments as a ‘dreamscape’, a place that offers a better way of living (Maginn and Anacker, 2022). The great suburban dream remains very much at the heart of the national psyche in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. In light of the massive scale of (sub)urbanisms that currently define metropolitan regions in the Global North (and Global South), the psycho-social significance of suburbia and the ongoing perpetuation and pursuit of the suburban dream, a fourth dimension to the (sub)urban landscape matrix (see figure 5) can be added – i.e. brutopianscape.

Contributions to Special Issue 

Each of the contributions to this special issue offers a rich and diverse interpretation of the concept of suburban bland/blend/brutalscapes within different national and metropolitan contexts – Australia (Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney); the European Union (Amsterdam/Milan, Barcelona and Dublin) and the United Kingdom (London). A number of cross-cutting themes and are identifiable across the various papers and are discussed briefly below.

Figure 5. The (sub)urban landscape matrix. (Source: Authors)

The In-Betweeness of the Suburbs 

Underlining a theme by now well recognized if not always well-theorized (Sieverts, 2003; Phelps, 2017), the identity of suburbs and the dynamics of suburbanization as lying somewhere between ‘the urban’ and ‘the rural’ are noted across the various contributions to this special issue. The papers on Barcelona (Pagliarin, 2022), Melbourne (Phelps et al., 2022a), London (Natarajan et al., 2022) and Sydney (Troy and van den Nouwalent, 2022) in particular, exemplify the idea of metropolitan regions defined by an array of suburban in-between spaces along governance boundaries. That is, all the aforementioned metropolitan regions comprise a mix of ‘inner-’ and ‘outer-metropolitan’ local councils. Outer metropolitan local governments are by default the outer-most in between suburban spaces on account of their distance from the urban core and being adjacent to peri-urban and rural areas. Although inner-metropolitan councils, especially in London, Melbourne and Sydney, may exhibit relatively more urban characteristics (e.g. medium-to-high density housing, transit stations/infrastructure, and diverse land uses), they also comprise varying suburban characteristics and many border the inner boundaries outer-metropolitan councils. The borders between inner- and outer-metro local councils and outer-metropolitan councils and peri-urban/rural councils defined by an array of suburban in-between spaces along are porous and may be perceived as confluence zones. Such confluence zones will invariably contain areas where the urban and suburban inter-penetrate within one another and thus create all manner of (sub) urban entanglements that produce spaces that comprise varying degrees of urbanism and suburbanism. Suburban in-between spaces can also manifest within (as well as at the edges of) metropolitan regions under unitary governance arrangements such as Brisbane (Darchen, 2002) and Dublin (Lawton and Kayanan, 2002). In this instance, suburban in-betweeness manifests at the micro level in the form of brownfield sites. These sites are often former or declining industrial suburbs once located on the periphery of the city but increasingly subsumed within it as a result of (sub)urban expansion.

The peri-urban demographic and governance dynamics playing into the suburbanization of Barcelona are described in detail by Sofia Pagliarin where the blendscape concept is used to denote the vertical and horizontal governance arrangements bet ween local, regional, and national government bodies. This provides the basis for fruitful planning and governance conversations going forward where much suburban housing has been in the form of extensions to small settlements.

The Blandness of Organization Space and the  Blends of Incrementalism 

There remains more than a grain of truth in the rendering of suburbanization in terms of a blandscape since the systemic production of suburban housing at scale can exemplify the features of what Easterling (2001) termed ‘organization space’. And while Nicholas Phelps, Michael Buxton and David Nichols (2022a) are careful to point out some of the variety of greater Melbourne’s suburban landscapes, they also depict how the planning and design of population and employment growth has been replaced by the administration of that growth in an extensive outer suburban blandscape. In contrast, Laurence Troy and Ryan Van den Nouwelant (2022) focus on the stealthy small-scale, incremental, development of suburbs as blendscapes via an analysis of the growth of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or ‘granny annexes’ in Sydney, New South Wales. They highlight some of the contradictions of incrementalism as a deliberate planning strategy aimed at increasing the density of development and population in the suburbs, noting how the blendscapes produced may take on the worst of both urban and suburban landscape elements as a result. A sense of the incremental is also present in Sofia Pagliarin’s (2022) detailed empirical analysis of the tacking of (sub)urban extensions onto numerous small settlements across the Barcelona region with all of the attendant challenges related to the servicing and governance of suburbanization processes.

Valuing Suburban Land and Property 

A third theme apparent across the various contributions is the (differential) value placed on suburban land and property.

Elsewhere we have highlighted how there is always and everywhere an interest in urban peripheries (Phelps et al., 2022b) and that interest comes as much as anything from the development industry. Developers can draw windfall profits from development opportunities, mobilizing simple narratives when land is converted from raw land to developed land for the first time (Phelps and Wood, 2011). However, the many different vintages of suburbs that exist in almost all national contexts present a more complex challenge in terms of leveraging differential values from land and property by way of similarly sophisticated planning and real estate development narratives – as in the city proper (Weber, 2016).

Sebastien Darchen’s paper on the renewal of the industrial suburb of Salisbury in Queensland, Australia (Dachen, 2022), plus Philip Lawton’s and Carla Maria Kayanan’s paper on the City Edge development site in Dublin, Ireland (Lawton and Kayanan, 2022) reveal some of the maturity of suburban real estate and development dynamics and variety and sophistication of associated public–private planning and development proposal narratives and imaginaries. In the case of City Edge in Dublin, Ireland, the landscapes of suburbia – however much they be bashed – are also ripe for gentrification under the guise of best and highest use and reference to images of urbanity from across Europe. Suburban land has value including in its bland and brutalist guises. In the establishment of a café in a seemingly unpropitious location in Salisbury, Darchen traces some of the small individual, perhaps unwitting, acts of gentrification can signal to developer and local government interests the underlying and unrealized value that can exist in the seemingly greyfields or bland/ brutalscapes of suburbia.

The More than Suburban Social Relations of the  Suburbs 

Elsewhere we have drawn attention to the metro-wide and even national centrality of suburban social and economic relations (Keil, 2018c; Phelps, 2010; Phelps et al., 2006). These necessarily have shaped as much as they have been shaped by metropolitan scale politics and development processes as the literature on the ‘new suburban history’ has reminded us (Kruse and Sugrue, 2006). One notable development across the Global North is the emergence of suburbs in many metropolitan contexts known as ethnoburbs (Li, 2008) – the reception zones or gateways for national and international migration – in ways that exceed received notions of the suburbs as a localized affluent escape from the city. There are important but complex, layered, effects of migration on the politics of major suburban communities (Phelps et al., 2015) and metropolitan regions as a result.

This theme is also one that Lorenzo de Vidovic and Yannis Tzaninis (2022) high light with respect to the dynamics of migration to suburbs – the cases highlighted being Almere adjacent to Amsterdam and in Pioltello within the Milan metropolitan area. That Almere and Pioltello are reception zones or ports of entry for national and international migration means that local politics has been reshaped in ways that also have repercussions metro-wide. Some of the politics of the same recognition of the gravitas of the suburbs within their metropolitan context has been recognized in policy terms since former London Mayor and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Outer London Commission’s work from the 2010s and a recent Parliamentary Taskforce on Suburbs. It is the work of this Taskforce, its motivations and findings that Lucy Natarajan, Dimitrios Panayotopoulos-Tsiros and Jonathan Manns (2022) focus on in their paper. Drawing on the cases of the London Boroughs of Sutton and Waltham Forest, they show how the newly-recognized social, cultural, and political-ecological importance of London’s suburbs among policy makers and politicians demands careful attention to the management of future population and employment growth that may be desired as part of the intensification of London’s development.


To the extent that some of the distinctiveness of suburban landscapes has been newly recognized, it is a particular type of suburban beauty and fragility even that we might say has come to be better appreciated as Natarajan and colleagues (2022) allude to in their discussion of London suburbs and the deliberations of the UK Parliamentary Task Force on suburbs. Slowly but surely, older vintages of suburbs appear to have acquired some of the architectural merits of cities. However beyond these gentrified, typically inner-metro and transit-rich, suburbs are larger expanses in which the (sub) urban landscape is brutalist in some of its architecture, a ‘drossscape’ (Berger, 2007) in its discordant mixing of land uses and building styles or else a less visually and experientially jarring blendscape of uses and forms.

This paper has sought to frame an appreciation of suburban landscapes in a longer historical sweep and within a wider geographical context of metropolitanization as ones that are a function of elements such as demography, housing morphology, land use(s), mobility, aesthetics, infrastructure, governance and scale. Of course, the three Bs offered here – conceptually and empirically – hardly capture the potentially very large number of distinct combinations of (sub)urban landscapes that exist out there in the ever expanding and mutating metropolitan regions within the Global North and Global South. That said, we hope that this framing of (sub)urbanisms as bland/blend/ brutalscapes will provoke further critical analyses along theoretical, empirical, and policy lines.


  1. See 


  • Airgood-Obrycki, W. (2019) Suburban status and neighbourhood change. Urban Studies, 56(14), pp. 2935–2952.

  • Alexander, S. and Gleeson, B. (2019) Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Archer, J. (2005) Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690– 2000. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Beauregard, R.A. (2005) When America Became Suburban. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Berger, A. (2007) Drosscape: Wasting Land Urban America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

  • Bertaud, A. (2018) Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Brenner, N. (2014) Urban theory without an outside, in Brenner, N. (ed.) Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. Berlin: Jovis, pp. 14–35.

  • Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2011) Planetary urbaniztion, in Gandy, M. (ed.) Urban Constellations. Berlin: Jovis, pp. 10–13.

  • Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2014) The ‘urban age’ in question. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), pp. 731–755.

  • Bruegmann, R. (2005) Sprawl: A Compact History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Bruegmann, R. (2017) The anti-suburban crusade, in Berger, A.M, Kotkin, J. and Balderas Guz man, C. (eds.) Infinite Suburbia. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 26–37.

  • Darchen, S. (2022) Regeneration and ‘placemaking’ without governance in a greyfield context: the transformation of Salisbury, Queensland, Australia. Built Environment, 49(1), pp. 115–131.

  • Davison, G. (1995) Australia: the first suburban nation? Journal of Urban History, 22(1), pp. 40–74.

  • Davison, G. (2013) The suburban idea and its enemies. Journal of Urban History, 39(5), pp. 829–847.

  • De Jong, J. (2013) New Suburbanisms. London: Routledge.

  • De Vidovich, L. and Tzaninis, Y. (2022) Emerging post-suburban blendscapes in Metropolitan Milan and Amsterdam: comparing Pioltello and Almere. Built Environment, 49(1), pp. 75–93.

  • Duany A., Plater-Zyberk E., Speck J. (2000) Sub-urban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press.

  • Dunham-Jones, E. and Williamson, J. (2009) Retro-fitting Suburbia, Updated ed: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

  • Easterling, K. (2001) Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways, and Houses in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Fishman, R. (1987) Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books.

  • Forsyth, A. (2018) Defining suburbs, in Hanlon, B. and Vicino, T.J. (eds.) The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs. New York: Routledge, pp. 13–28.

  • Freestone, R., Randolph, B. and Pinnergar, S. (2018) Suburbanization in Australia, in Hanlon, B. and Vicino, T.J. (eds) The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs. New York: Routledge, pp. 72–86.

  • Gleeson, B. (2014) The Urban Condition, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Goldsworthy, V. (2009) Suburban identity, in Hackett , P. (ed.) Housing and Growth in Suburbia. London: The Smith Institute.

  • Gordon, D., Maginn, P.J., Biermann, S., Sisson, A. and Huston, I. (2015) Estimating the Size of Australia’s Suburban Population. Perth, WA: PATREC. Available at:

  • Gordon, D. with Hindrichs, L. and Willms, C. (2018) Still Suburban? Growth in Canadian Suburbs, 2006–2016. Toronto: Council for Canadian Urbanism.

  • Gottman, J. (1964) Megalopolis: The Urbanized of the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Guney, K.M., Keil, R. and Ucoglu, M. (eds.) (2019) Massive Suburbanization: (Re)Building the Global Periphery. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • Hall, P. and Tewdwr-Jones, M. (2011) Urban and Regional Planning, 5th ed. London: Routledge.

  • Hamnett, S. and Maginn, P. (2016) Australian cities in the 21st century: suburbs and beyond. Built Environment, 42(1), pp. 5–22.

  • Harris, R. (2010) Meaningful types in a world of suburbs, in Clapson, M. and Hutchison, R. (eds.) Suburbanization in a Global Society. Bingley: Emerald, pp. 15–50.

  • Harris, R. (2018) Suburban stereotypes, in Hanlon, B. and. Vicino, T.J (eds.) The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs. New York: Routledge, pp. 29–38.

  • Harris, R. and Larkham, P.A. (1999) Introduction, in Harris, R. and Larkham, P.A. (eds.) Changing Suburbs: Foundation, Form and Function. London: E & FN Spon.

  • Hayek, F.A. (1961) The constitution of liberty. Philosophical Review, 70(3), pp. 433–434.

  • Hirt, S.A. (2017) O Sofia, where art thou? Suburbs as stories of time and space, in Phelps, N.A. (ed.) Old Europe, New Suburbanization? Governance, Land, and Infrastructure in European Suburbanization. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 66–84.

  • Horne, D. (1964) The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties. Sydney: Penguin.

  • Jackson, K.T. (1985) Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Keil, R. (2018a) Suburban Planet: Making the World Urban from the Outside In. Cambridge: Polity.

  • Keil, R. (2018b) Extended urbanization, ‘disjunct fragments’ and global suburbanisms. Environment and Planning D, 36(3), pp. 494–511.

  • Keil, R. (2018c) After suburbia: research and action in the suburban century. Urban Geography, 41(1), pp. 1–20.

  • Knox, P.L. (2008) Metroburbia, USA. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

  • Kruse, K.M. and Sugrue, T.J. (eds.) (2006) The New Suburban History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Lang, R. and Knox, P.K. (2009) The new metropolis: rethinking megalopolis. Regional Studies, 43(6), pp. 789–802.

  • Lawton, P. and Kayanan, C.M. (2022) From edge city to City Edge. Built Environment, 49(1), pp. 58–74.

  • Lefebvre, H. (1968). Le droit à la ville. Paris: Anthropos.

  • Lefebvre, H. (1970) La révolution urbaine. Paris: Editions Gallimard.

  • Li, W. (2008) Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

  • Maginn, P.J. and Anacker, K.B. (2022) Suburbia in the 21st century: from dreamscape to nightmare, in Maginn, P.J. and Anacker, K.B. (eds.) Suburbia in the 21st Century: From Dreamscape to Nightmare? London: Routledge, pp. 1–22.

  • Maginn, P.J. and Keil, R. (2019) The suburbs can help cities in the fight against climate change. The Conversation. Available at:

  • Merrifield, A. (2013) The urban question under planetary urbanization. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(3), pp. 909–922.

  • Moos, M. and Mendez, P. (2015) Suburban ways of living and the geography of income: how homeownership, single-family dwelling and automobile use define the metropolitan social space. Urban Studies, 52(10), pp. 1864–1882.

  • Mumford, L. (1961) The City in History. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.

  • Nairn, I. (1955) Outrage. Architectural Review, 117(702), pp. 361–460

  • Natarajan, L., Panayotopoulis-Tsiros, D. and Manns, J. (2022) The blended landscapes of outer London. Built Environment, 49(1), pp. 23–38.

  • Pagliarin, S. (2022) Institutional blendscapes: the suburban governance role of the Diputación de Barcelona. Built Environment, 49(1), pp. 94–114.

  • Paris, C. (2011) Affluence, Mobility and Second Home Ownership. London: Routledge.

  • Phelps, N.A. (2010) Suburbs for nations? Some interdisciplinary connections on the suburban economy. Cities, 27(2), pp. 68–76.

  • Phelps, N.A. (2017) Interplaces: An Economic Geography of the Inter-Urban and International Economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Phelps, N.A. and Wood, A.M. (2011) The new post suburban politics? Urban Studies, 48(12), pp. 2591–2610.

  • Phelps, N.A. and Wu, F. (eds.) (2011) International Perspectives on Suburbanization. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Phelps, N.A., Parsons, N., Ballas, D. and Dowling, A. (2006) Post-Suburban Europe: Planning and Politics at the Margins of Europe’s Capital Cities. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

  • Phelps, N.A., Vento, A.T. and Roitman, S. (2015) The suburban question: grassroots politics and place making in Spanish suburbs. Environment and Planning C, 33(3), pp. 512–532.

  • Phelps, N.A., Mace, A. and Jodieri, R. (2017) City of villages? Stasis and change in London’s suburbs, in Phelps, N.A. (ed.) Old Europe, New Suburbanization Governance, Land, and Infrastructure in European Suburbanization. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 183–206.

  • Phelps, N.A., Buxton, M. and Nichols, D. (2022a) Melbourne’s suburban landscapes administering population and employment growth. Built Environment, 49(1), pp. 132–149.

  • Phelps, N.A., Maginn, P.J. and Keil, R. (2022b) Centring the periphery in urban studies: notes towards a research agenda on peripheral centralities. Urban Studies.

  • Sieverts, T. (2003) Cities without Cities: An Interpretation of the Zwischenstadt. London: Routledge.

  • Silva, C. and Maginn, P. (2022) From Rurality to ‘Atomised Suburbia’: Re-defining the Dispersed Rural Settlement Pattern of Northern Ireland. Paper presented at the 10th Nordic Planning Symposium, Aalborg University Denmark.

  • Stretton, H. (1989) Ideas for Australian Cities, 3rd ed. Sydney: Transit Australia Publishing.

  • Taeuber, K.E. and Taeuber, A.F. (1965 [2009]) Residential Segregation and Neighborhood Change. New York: Routledge.

  • Teaford, J.C. (1996) Post-Suburbia: Government and Politics in the Edge Cities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • Troy, L. and Van den Nouwelant, R. (2022) Accessory swelling units and incremental urbanism: becoming ‘urban’ or just ‘intensive suburban’? Built Environment, 49(1), pp. 39–57.

  • United Nations (2019) World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights. Available at:

  • Vaughan, L. (ed.) (2015) Suburban Urbanites: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street. London: UCL Press.

  • Vicino, T.J., Hanlon, B. and Rennie Short, J. (2007) Megalopolis 50 years on: the transformation of a city region. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 31(2), pp. 344–367.

  • Walks, A. (2013) Suburbanism as a way of life, slight return. Urban Studies, 50(8), pp. 1471–1488. Weber, R. (2016) Performing property cycles. Journal of Cultural Economy, 9(6), pp. 587–603.