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The End of Suburbia : A New Kind of City Is Emerging--the 'Technoburb'

August 02, 1987|ROBERT FISHMAN

IF THE 19th Century could be called the Age of Great Cities, post-1945 America would appear to be the Age of Great Suburbs. As central cities stagnated or declined in both population and industry, growth was channeled almost exclusively to the peripheries. Between 1950 and 1970, American central cities grew by 10 million people, their suburbs by 85 million. Suburbs, moreover, accounted for at least three-quarters of all new manufacturing and retail jobs generated during that period. By 1970 the percentage of Americans living in suburbs was almost exactly double what it had been in 1940, and more Americans lived in suburban areas (37.6%) than in central cities (31.4%) or in rural areas (31%). In the 1970s, central cities experienced a net out-migration of 13 million people, combined with an unprecedented deindustrialization, increasing poverty and housing decay.

As the central cities declined, the suburb emerged as a topic of national concern. For the first time in any society, the single-family detached house was brought within the economic grasp of the majority of households. For most, this development was a cause of celebration, but others were less optimistic about suburbia. In the midst of an unprecedented building boom in the 1950s, a scholarly debate over suburbia blamed the new patterns of living for the increasing conformity in American life. In the 1960s and 1970s that indictment was seconded by an analysis that held "white flight" responsible for the poverty of the inner cities. Yet both critics and proponents agreed that the most important aspect of the postwar environment was, in Kenneth Jackson's phrase, "the suburbanization of the United States." It was as if suburbanization began in 1945.

But perhaps the massive rebuilding that began in 1945 represents not the culmination of the 200-year history of suburbia but rather its end. Indeed, this massive change is not suburbanization at all but the creation of a new kind of city, with principles that are directly opposed to the true suburb. From its origins in 18th-Century London, suburbia has served as a specialized portion of the expanding metropolis. Whether it was inside or outside the political borders of the central city, it was always functionally dependent on the urban core. Conversely, the growth of suburbia meant a strengthening of the specialized services at the core.

The most important feature of postwar American development has been the almost simultaneous decentralization of housing, industry, specialized services and office jobs; the consequent breakaway of the urban periphery from a central city it no longer needs, and the creation of a decentralized environment that nevertheless possesses all the economic and technological dynamism we associate with the city. This phenomenon is not suburbanization but the creation of a new city.

Unfortunately, we lack a convenient name for this new city. Some have used the terms "exurbia" or "outer city." I suggest, with apologies, the "technoburb" and the "techno-city." By "technoburb" I mean a peripheral zone that has emerged as a viable socioeconomic unit. Spread out along its highway growth corridors are shopping malls, industrial parks, campus-like office complexes, hospitals, schools and a full range of housing types. Its residents look to their immediate surroundings rather than to the city for their jobs and other needs, and its industries find not only the employees they need but also the specialized services.

The new city is a techno burb not only because high-tech industries have found their most congenial homes in such archetypal technoburbs as Silicon Valley. In most technoburbs such industries make up only a minority of jobs, but the very existence of the decentralized city is made possible only through the advanced communications technology that has so completely superseded the face-to-face contact of the traditional city. The technoburb has generated urban diversity without traditional urban concentration.

By "techno-city" I mean the whole metropolitan region that has been transformed by the coming of the technoburb. The techno-city usually still bears the name of its principal city--for example, "the New York metropolitan area"; its sports teams bear that city's name (even if they no longer play within the boundaries of the central city), and its television stations appear to broadcast from the central city. But the economic and social life of the region increasingly bypasses its supposed core. The techno-city is truly multi-centered, along the pattern that Los Angeles first created. The technoburbs, which might stretch more than 70 miles from the core in all directions, are often in more direct communication with one another--or with other techno-cities across the country--

than they are with the core.

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