02 July, 2008


Four years ago, the English historian Tristram Hunt signed up as a visiting professor at Arizona State University, Phoenix. In Fall 2004 he taught an Urban History 598 with three other lecturers; the reading list is a delight, moving from modern urban analysts—Robert E. Lang, Kenneth Jackson and Dolores Hayden—to Walter Benjamin on Paris, and Asa Briggs on Victorian London. (Hunt did the London stuff, as one would expect from his book Building Jerusalem, published that year.) In February 2005, he wrote a longing missive back home to the Guardian, describing his new home with expressions like 'master-planned communities', 'the brave new world of exurbia', 'McMansions', 'big-box discount stores', 'boomburbs' and 'technoburbs'. He quotes David Brooks, the conservative pundit best known for coining the word 'bobo': in Phoenix 'there are no centres, no recognisable borders to shape a sense of geographic identity'. Only Brooks didn't write that; he wrote that in Phoenix 'there are no centers, no recognizable borders to shape a sense of geographic identity'. Such are the practices of the copy-editor. Hunt adds to the picture:
It is a polycentric universe where the rhythms of the day are oriented around drives to the shopping mall, housing subdivision, gym, church or work. There is no downtown or inner-city; few civic landmarks or historic signifiers. Through the highways of Phoenix's boomburbs, Walgreens follows Burger King follows Kmart [sic] follows Starbucks.
Hunt is horrified. No marks, no signs; just roads and commerce—call that a city? The force of his article is to implore the British government not to go down the same route. He notes, with equal horror, being a good New Labour boy, that it was places like Phoenix that handed the 2004 election to Bush, and also that these areas are the fastest-growing:
In a movement known as 'natalism', those decamping to the zoomburbs are choosing to buck the US birthrate by conscientiously raising large families.
Boomburbs? Zoomburbs? From where was this baroque language? At a guess, Phil VanderMeer or one of the other faculty introduced Hunt to Dolores Hayden's little 2004 bibelot, The Field Guide to Sprawl, in which she identifies a number of the classic features of American suburbia, and assigns them their latest pop-culture buzzwords. Here we get McMansions and big boxes, boomburbs and zoomburbs. A boomburb, according to Hayden, is 'a rapidly growing urban-sized place in the suburbs', and she quotes the original source of the term, a 2001 report by Robert Lang and Patrick Simmons for Fannie Mae: 'places with more than 100,000 residents that are not the largest cities in their respective metropolitan areas and that have maintained double-digit rates of population growth in recent decades'. A zoomburb, she says, is a 'place growing even faster than a boomburb'. Technoburb is not here, but comes instead from Robert Fishman's 1987 study, Bourgeois Utopias: 'By technoburb I mean a peripheral zone, perhaps as large as a county, that has emerged as a viable socioeconomic unit.'

I think I like boomburb. It's a bit kitschy, for sure. But I've always found suburb to be unsatisfying as a trochee: sub- lacks punch as a stressed syllable. (Whereas suburbia is much more successful.) Boomburb rectifies suburb with good old-fashioned American moxie. (And boomburbia would be terrible.)

Two weeks ago Hunt wrote a piece for the Times on the current presidential election, contrasting the urban environments of Chicago (Obama) and Phoenix (McCain). Clearly, he is still reeling from the nightmare of the desert, and is fresh out of ideas. Thus, he resorts to self-plagiarism. He quotes David Brooks: in Phoenix 'there are no centres, no recognisable borders to shape a sense of geographic identity'. (Only Brooks didn't write that, etc.) Hunt adds:
It is a polycentric universe where the rhythms of the day are orientated around drives to the shopping mall, gym, church or work. In contrast to the great railway stations and art galleries of Chicago, there isn't much downtown or inner city; few civic landmarks or historic signifiers. Through Phoenix's boomburbs, Wallgreen's [sic] follows Burger King follows K-Mart follows Starbucks. I lived for a year in this exurban terrain of freeways and drive-thrus and at least once a week I would get lost trying to find my home through the sprawling, anonymous cityscape.
Does this sound familiar? He quotes the same Kerry statistics, the same figures from Steve Sailer, as he did three and a half years ago. He tells us again that 'those decamping to the zoomburbs are choosing to buck the US birthrate by consciously raising large families'. Only now he wants to say that Obama's got to watch out, and that whoever wins the presidency is going to have to court the vote of this conservative heartland, its natalist population pullulating and its myriad zoomburbs and strip-malls proliferating.
For all his love of metropolitan, liberal Chicago, it is grumpy old John McCain's Phoenix that represents the psephological future. And sooner or later, Mr Obama will have to join those tens of thousands of his Illinois compatriots swapping the icy winds of downtown Chicago for the sprawling embrace of metropolitan Phoenix, “Valley of the Sun”.
(He used the word 'psephological', or its variant, in his 2005 piece too. Hunt has an exquisitely small sesquipedalium.) This is interesting for a number of reasons. It is sort of a return to the climatic determinism beloved by Herder and his students in the nineteenth century. Back then, they said that Northern Europeans had a hard, harsh language, due to the cold, whereas Mediterraneans sang and danced gaily, with the rippling music of their Italian and Spanish, due to the heat. The heat, the sprawl—now that's the future. We are witnessing, again and again, and in anguish, the last half-hour of Annie Hall.


It is difficult for me not to feel some sympathy for Huntie. He and I are quite alike: young, handsome, bourgeois Londoners—his father went to my school, and for all I know he did too—who went to live in Phoenix for a year or three. I shared Hunt's horror of the low-rise and featureless monotony.

And Hunt is right to allude to the boomburbs and zoomburbs. All that not only applies to Phoenix, it comes from Phoenix. In 1984 Chris Leinberger wrote a planning document for the Phoenix region, advocating 'higher-density urban village clusters that mix high-rise offices, multifamily housing, and major retail stores.' In 1987 the Washington Post journalist Joel Garreau picked up on this term, 'urban village', and in 1991 he came out with his own version, the 'Edge City'. He describes its development across America:
First, we moved our homes out past the traditional idea of what constituted a city. This was the suburbanization of America, especially after World War II. Then we wearied of returning downtown for the necessities of life, so we moved our marketplaces out to where we lived. This was the malling of America, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, we have moved our means of creating wealth, the essence of urbanism—our jobs—out to where most of us have lived and shopped for two generations. That has led to the rise of Edge City.
In the chapter on Phoenix, he writes:
Phoenix is the first municipality in America to recognize formally, for planning purposes, that it is made up of a constellation of Edge Cities, locally referred to as "urban villages." It is logical that Phoenix came to this conclusion early. The urban village referred to as "downtown" historically never amounted to much. As recently as World War II it was the trade and government center for a rural area that did not add up to more than 185,000 people. Even as the Phoenix area erupted to an urban population of two million, downtown did not become grand. Two other cores with better parking and fewer derelicts grew larger. One was the area north, along Central Avenue, called "uptown." The other was the posh area along Camelback Avenue near the Frank Lloyd Wright-styled Arizona Biltmore. In fact, compared with older, Eastern metros, there is no sharp distinction between downtown Phoenix and those other centers. They all look and function like Edge Cities.
Garreau also discusses in this chapter another insidious feature of the Edge City, namely the 'shadow governments', powerful but unaccountable—homeowners' associations and the Salt River Project. Garreau concludes that the Edge City, which congeals out of sprawl, is actually a return to urban density, albeit in disparate pockets. As a description of a new urban pattern, the book was a hit. But not everyone was convinced.

One such person was Robert Lang, who helped to define 'boomburb' in 2001. In 2003 he published his book Edgeless Cities, arguing that most of the suburbia and exurbia around metropolitan cores was still low-density—an 'edgeless city' with no clear borders. He classified various important American cities by their distributions of office-space, citing Chicago as an example of a core-dominated, low-sprawl city, and Miami as high-sprawl, a continuous edgeless city. Phoenix, mysteriously, is left off the table.

But in 2007, Lang's Boomburbs, co-published with Jennifer LeFurgy, brought Phoenix right back onto the map. Here we find a thrilling list of failed buzzwords for the new, barely-classifiable suburban developments: anticity, city à la carte, disurb, outtown, penturbia, rururbia, servurb, slurb, stealth city, and my own favourite, net of mixed beads. But of Phoenix:
It is ironic that there are so few edge cities in Phoenix, considering that this is the region where the edge city concept began. . . While downtown Phoenix has a small office space market for such a big city, its buildings are much taller and larger (at an average 155,104 square feet) than the area's boomburb offices (with an average of 51,531 square feet). In fact, downtown Phoenix's offices are almost three times the size of those in Scottsdale, the boomburb with the largest average building size.
Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert are thus boomburbs; however, they are not high-density 'edge cities', as Garreau thought—he labelled Scottsdale as an edge city, Tempe and Mesa-Chandler as 'emerging' edge cities—but more akin to the edgeless, low-density sprawl characterised in Lang's earlier book. Mesa, in fact, would probably qualify as a zoomburb, as it is the biggest boomburb in the country, having outgrown Minneapolis and St. Louis. (Wiki counts it the 37th largest city in America.) And yet it has 'no centres, no recognisable borders'. As Hunt experienced, and as I did, you can drive straight from Tempe to Mesa without noticing any hiatus.

The boomburb—or boomburg, as it is delightfully typoed in an even more recent article—is big business, and it is specifically a feature of the West, or rather the Sun Belt stretching from California to Florida. Lang explains the phenomenon in terms of free, unincorporated land, and the problems of water regulation, as with the Salt River Project in Phoenix: 'Big incorporated cities are better positioned by buy water rights, providing an incentive for suburbs to join a large incorporated city.' And the sprawl of boomburgs between two cities leads to linear 'corridors', such as the Sun Corridor between Phoenix and Tucson. (Michael Crow, my old whipping-boy, drools vacuously about this here.)

So Hunt has applied the right label to Phoenix. And his British readership will be justified in its inevitable recoil from the image he paints. Garreau, despite his own intense dislike of the new suburbia, is forced to admit its massive appeal to the American man. He quotes Jack Linville:
In Paris, you've got roughly six million people living on maybe a hundred square miles, an area that would fit inside Loop 610 here. We have about 200,000 living inside that area. . .

The people in the United States are not going to live the way the people in Paris live. They will not live in a thousand-square-foot apartment and raise a family and go out and get the loaf of bread and the jug of wine and walk down the street and live their whole lives within one square mile. That is not the way Americans live. They have a different level of freedom, a different level of expectations. There's still a lot of Daniel Boone left in America. I don't know what the people in Paris want. But what they have is a very very small amount of space that is theirs, and a lot of public amenities. What we have is a huge amount of space that is ours and that we control, and very little in public amenities. We have much more individual life styles.
London, of course, could easily stand in for Paris. To Hunt, to me, this is awful. To Linville and David Brooks, it is wonderful. My wife, used to the authentic, old-fashioned suburbia of Fairfax, Virginia—with its archetypal Edge City of Tysons Corner—often remarks on the lack of space in our flat in Hornsey. (Hunt, incidentally, lives in our borough.) But that's what you give up when you want, no, need, to live on an organic, pedestrian-based street-plan like this:

Rather than a hierarchical, motor-based plan like this in Mesa:

Space is what you give up when you need to shop at corner-stores, or at worst High Street chains accessible by foot and public transport, rather than at giant Walmarts accessible only by car. The idea of these 'individual life styles'—and Hunt echoes this in his conception of Phoenix as 'profoundly individualistic terrain'—is frankly meaningless to me. Brooks has a similar fantasy that centrifugal movement to the suburbs and boomburbs represents a great, imaginative leap into the unknown, and that all the glittering consumerist attractions—the 'ampersand magazines', the faith healers, the mediaevalist or faux Wild West community names, the theme restaurants—are evidence that in America, 'material things are shot through with enchantment'. Nothing could be further from the individualist. Everywhere, the imagination is pre-packaged.

At the end of his Building Jerusalem—I read the chapter on Victorian London, and found lots of nice quotes but learnt very little about Victorian London—Hunt cries: 'Vibrant, living cities depend crucially upon people residing in their centres. The challenge for the former Victorian cities is to ensure that when singles become couples and have children they do not instinctively fly to the suburbs.' This was written before he went and saw for himself what happens when people instinctively fly to the suburbs: 'suburb' becomes inadequate to describe the result. At least, not in the sense that Hornsey is a suburb.


But Hunt, at least, can stop worrying about the forthcoming election, or so it seems. Despite being an urbanist, and despite having perused the glossy photos of Hayden's Field Guide, he still has a shallow notion of voting demographics.

Rather than parrot statistics already three years out of date, he should have attended Robert Lang's May 21 lecture in Paris on US voting trends. Or at least, like myself, looked at the online powerpoint. Lang examined the 2002 and 2006 mid-terms, and found a different story from Hunt's. He discovered that the 'megapolitans'—the huge cities composed of edged and edgeless boomburbs—were swinging Democrat. The denser a suburb became, and the more Hispanic, the more liberal its voter. Even in 2004, Bush's victories were narrowest in the fastest-growing boomburbs: Riverside, Dallas, and Phoenix. Lang told me by email that the 'booming states' of Virginia, Nevada and Colorado are 'turning Democratic as they grow'. Arizona itself would turn, he thought, if it weren't McCain's home turf. What Hunt fails to realise is that although the Republican territories are growing, their variety of growth is changing their political orientation. We'll have to wait and see what happens in November.


John Cowan said...

The people in the United States are not going to live the way the people in Paris live. They will not live in a thousand-square-foot apartment and raise a family and go out and get the loaf of bread and the jug of wine and walk down the street and live their whole lives within one square mile. That is not the way Americans live.

Well, of course it's the way Americans in New York City live: 8 million people in 300 square miles (in Manhattan, 1.6 million in 23 square miles, and that doesn't count the commuters). Of course, few of us actually get 1000 square foot apartments: half that size or less is more like it.

On the other hand, our energy efficiency is huge, and our per capita gasoline consumption matches what the rest of the country was using in the 1920s, so the $4 a gallon prices don't affect us so much. Let that keep up, and sprawl will be a thing of the past soon enough.

John Cowan said...

Oh, I forgot to mention: using "Democrat" as an adjective is a deliberate act of contempt. I excuse you this because you are a Furriner.

Anonymous said...

Being a native Arizonan, I quite understand Hunt's horror at our excuse for urban planning; being an occasional self-plagiarizer, I might give him a pass on that practice too; but he needs a better excuse than making the Phoenix street grid into a metonym for McCain, who was a proper Arizona resident for all of two years between his Navy career and his Washington career. My understanding is that his visits back to his adopted home have since centered around Arizona's fantasy zones for the wealthy - Scottsdale golf courses, Prescott ranches, cabins in the White Mountains. Of course these might be symptoms of the same problem that produces the Cartesian grid of Burger Kings, but they aren't the same place.

On the other hand, I will admit that it's sort of appropriate for Hunt to use "psephological" as a crutch, seeing as the basic landscaping unit of Phoenix is in fact the gravel pebble. Anyway, being in Europe right now, I'm off around the corner for some bread.

R J Keefe said...

The recent steep increase in the price of gasoline has altered, possibly forever, the frame of this discussion. Americans may love their freedom, but they've grown rather used to not walking. It may, furthermore, not snow in Phoenix, but the climate is hardly more accommodating to lugging bags of groceries for ten or twenty blocks.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: Yes, of course; but we both know that NYC is not in the United States. I'm afraid your remark about 'Democrat' is rather lost on me.

MM and R. J.: Yes, I agree. I'm rather curious to see what will happen if oil prices continue to rise in this manner.

Anonymous said...

Before there were suburbs, let alone boomburbs and zoomburbs, there were faubourgs - from appending 'faux' to 'bourg', hence 'false city'.

One of the odd differences between the United States and much of the rest of the world is that here, 'suburban' is a term associated with an economic position in life that is at least middle-class and perhaps considerably higher - the 'country club set'. On the other hand, 'faubourien' has a distinctly lower-class character. As we recall from the reportage of car arsons in Paris, the new faubourgs of that city are the welfare slums, whereas the affluent continue to live in the older parts of Paris as they have always done. The only faubourg with any haut ton is the faubourg Saint-Germain. The same pattern of settlement may be seen in many Latin American cities, which are ringed with 'favelas' of the most squalid poverty.

I suspect it is an artefact of the differing legal and political arrangements in the U.S. vis-à-vis France and countries that have modelled theirs along French lines. In the United States, mayors and city governments have relatively a great deal of autonomy. Because the underclass constitute a substantial voting bloc, they can instal municipal governments that offer generous welfare benefits and tax capital assets at high rates to pay for them. This drives the middle and upper-middle classes to suburbs that fall under jurisdiction independent from that of the city they surround. At some point even large businesses depart for places more hospitable to them. What is left, as seen in many American cities, is a necrotic center surrounded by booming suburbs. I live in a county adjacent to a large city and we have experienced this type of growth here. Commuters now are as likely to live in one suburb and to travel to another for their employment, as to work in the city itself.

Why is the pattern reversed in France and in Latin America, with the central city remaining prosperous while the faubourgs or favelas are the dens of the underclass? I am not sure this is still the case, but it used to be that French mayors and city governments were more-or-less powerless, and the real authority was held by municipal prefects appointed by the central government. No doubt such personages are much less susceptible to local political pressures generated by a large underclass population, because they don't answer to a local constituency. I'm not sure whether the Latin American states have the equivalent of French prefectures, but it would be interesting to find out.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Michael, thanks for your comment. There is a little confusion about terminology. The TLF gives this etymology of faubourg:

"Alteration, under the influence of 'faux' (cf. medieval Latin falsus burgus), of Old French forsborc in the same sense, composed of prefix 'fors', 'outside of' (from lat. foris) and borc (bourg*)."

The car riots today are not in the faubourgs, which are now part of the expanded central city, but in the banlieues—another word translated 'suburb', but really more comparable to slums or 'projects'—such as, notoriously, Clichy-sous-Bois.

I suspect the explanation for the difference is somewhat simpler: the construction of the modern Parisian banlieues was a deliberate act from above, just like the projects; whereas American suburbia is a product of natural forces: people wanting to get away from the dense inner city—inevitable in any major centre, regardless of political machinations—to raise children and have a garden, ie. 'white flight'.

Pretzel Bender said...

I really liked this post.

Despite the fact that I live in the dreaded Mesa (and your map was uncomfortably close to my house!).

In regards to Phoenix's future, I'd be more worried about the water.

Incidentally, although I agree with the post and commentary about varying reasons for the differences...I want to add another dimension.

A lot of what is also driving American love of large houses is also the love of large yards and associated private "green space".

Even in climates like Arizona...folks want their grassy patch and assorted vegetation. It's not just the competitive elite aspect of yard grooming, most of the country folks I grew up with Bogalusa, Louisiana had their own vegetable garden and it was a source of competition (literally at the parish fair).

Of course, I would say that...that's part of the idea for why the area I study in Lowland Veracruz has something more like a "suburbia" form of urbanism. I do prefer your term, "boomburg" but it seems to american and modern to apply it prehistorically.

Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

For John: I have attempted, at some length, to explain the "Democrat"/"Democratic" debate to Mr. Roth. Although I am an independent, I understand the wrath of the insulted Democrats with our current president's derogatory term of address. And yes, I agree it is intended to be deliberately insulting. However, Mr. Roth just doesn't get it. He is, moreover, generally rather uninterested in political currents.

For RJ Keefe:
Mr. Roth and I are all too aware of the difficulty in lugging groceries even 8 blocks away from home. For our first year in AZ (Tempe), we had no car and when my sister wasn't able to drive us to get groceries, we struggled with a big duffle bag on wheels. We couldn't buy any freezer items, needless to say, and it was horribly inconvenient and difficult. Even Mr. Roth agreed that we needed a car in AZ, but he disliked the necessity. He doesn't drive and like all urbanites, prefers to be able to get around without one.

In general, I think it is difficult to make generalizations about America or "American living" because it is such a huge place with such a wide variety of climate. Obviously people in New York city live very differently from people in Tempe, AZ, and much of their lifestyle is driven by outside factors over which they have little control.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, PB. People want gardens and greenery in England too; the major difference is that, by and large, they still come into town to work and go out--which is why British suburbs are still suburbs, still ancillary to the city core, rather than supplanting it. It would be interesting to compare / contrast your findings on pre-classical Mexico.

Lily: "it is difficult to make generalizations about America"; well, that's what statistics are for!

Sid Leavitt said...

Sorry to be coming in late, but I hope Mrs. Roth has explained that the use of 'Democrat' as a pejorative adjective significantly predates our president, who has not even that amount of imagination in English, which seems to be his second language if only we could discover his first.

The simple explanation is that 'Democrat' became an adjective some time ago for Republicans because they see nothing 'democratic' in Democrats -- or at least that's what they'd like the masses to believe as they try to undo Franklin Roosevelt's social programs and move our nation back into the 19th century (but not as far as Lincoln, a Republican president who secretly embarrasses them).

Guess what party I belong to?

Conrad H. Roth said...

The OED gives 'Democrat' as an adjective in Coleridge (1817) and in 'Democrat Party' in an 1890 Spectator.