Imagining the future suburb

Blog by Cameron Johnson, Tom Baker and Francis L. Collins

13 Sep 2018, 10:30 a.m.
Cameron Johnson, Tom Baker and Francis L. Collins



Everyone accepts there is going to be increased demand for housing in Auckland in the future. What we should be asking is ‘what is most economically viable way of delivering that?’ […] So this [housing] density debate is really a technical thing. (Interview, Community Planning Group Leader, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, 2016)


Urban change is often assumed to be a functional outcome of expert knowledge, political-economic fundamentals, and formalised planning. As one of our interviewees suggested, urban change is “a technical thing” that involves the material rearrangement of urban space in a more “economically viable way”. While this view is widespread in public debates—and within parts of the academic field of urban studies—it fails to consider the crucial role played by imaginative practices.


The role of imaginative practices—particularly the work associated with creating socially legible visions, ideals and problematisations—has also been relatively overlooked in scholarly discussions of ‘post-suburbia’. Post-suburbia is a term referring to recent transformations in the form and function of suburban life, away from mono-cultural, dormitory suburbs towards a more plural, kaleidoscopic world of suburbia (Charmes and Keil, 2015; Phelps, 2015). Rather than a simple, objective equation of the most economically efficient way of accommodating ‘inevitable growth’, the growing emphasis on creating denser, more diverse suburbs involves both imaginative and material factors that make possible certain urban configurations and limiting others. To date, discussions of these post-suburban trends have foregrounded material-economic factors, giving much less attention to imaginative practices that are interwoven with, and propel, these material changes.


Our paper discusses the role of imaginative practices in the realisation of suburban change in Auckland, the largest city in Aotearoa New Zealand. We show how suburban change is necessarily situated in relation to imaginings of the present city, its challenges and politics, as well as the ideal form that future cities will take. By analysing different urban planning visions, the construction of ‘urban problems’ and the specificities of local context, we argue that new suburban forms do not replace traditional suburbs in a seamless, functionalist fashion. New suburban forms emerge through contextually coloured and contested imaginings of the future suburb. For those wishing to create more environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive suburbs, our paper highlights how the success of such efforts rest on the circulation and social acceptance of new imaginings of suburban life.


Charmes E & Keil R (2015) The politics of post-suburban densification in Canada and France. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39(3), 581-602.

Phelps NA (2015) Sequel to Suburbia: Glimpses of America's Post-suburban Future. Boston: MIT Press.


Read the paper on Urban Studies - Online First here



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