ATLANTA—Suburbia has very much become the dominant face of metropolitan areas, according to Georgia State geographer Jan Nijman, director of the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University. In most metro areas, four of five people live in the suburbs rather than central cities.
In The Life of North American Suburbs: Imagined Utopias and Transitional Spaces, Nijman invites readers to investigate the place of suburbs within metropolitan areas and the crucial role they play in the cultural, economic, political and spatial organization of the city. He does this through a series of case studies of recent suburban transformations in 15 metropolitan areas, including Atlanta.
Nijman recently discussed the book and how he experiences the relationship between urban spaces and their suburbs with host Taylor Olmstead in Episode 12 of the AYS Podcast series.
“The signature of most metropolitan areas is found in suburbia. The creation and constant evolution of suburban constellations reflect the shifting demographics, race relations, modes of production, cultural fabric and class structures of that particular metro and of society at large,” he said. “So in the book we ask, how have North American suburbs evolved since the mid-twentieth century and what does it tell us about society at large?”
In addressing the history, evolution and mythology of North America’s suburbs, the book reveals three important recent trends: the rapid growth of the suburban population relative to the central city, the growing diversity of metro populations due in large part to immigration, and increasing inequalities.
“If you add up these trends, the result is increased sorting of populations into diverse suburban patterns,” Nijman said. “There are many more types of suburbs even if most are highly homogeneous within. They vary a great deal in terms of well-being, race and ethnicity. The problem, of course, is the tremendous inequalities that are a part of this variety.”
Nijman illustrates this variety at the zip code level in Atlanta. “For example, in outer suburban zip 30305, life expectancy is 84 years, household incomes were twice Atlanta’s average, and most residents are white. Compare this to zip 30314, where life expectancy is 71, household incomes were less than half the Atlanta average, and most residents are Black Americans. Imagine that. You’re in the same metropolitan area, but they are like different worlds. If there weren’t any traffic, you could drive from one world to the other in 10 minutes.”
“We often say cities are about diversity. It’s what makes them creative and combustible and exciting,” he said. “Too often, though at a finer scale, people of certain kinds are sorted into different types of suburbs. Sometimes by choice, often due to a lack of choice. In reality, most of us live in a suburban bubble.”
“What this book also tells us is that these suburban constellations are highly dynamic and most suburbs get a makeover in one or two generations. In the past, the myth of the suburb held that it was a stable, predictable, place, where families had ‘arrived’. Today, most suburbs are highly transitional places. Tomorrow, it could be somebody else’s bubble.”
To listen to the AYS Podcast with Jan Nijman, go to https://news.gsu.edu/podcast/episode-12-jan-nijman/.
Urban Studies Institute
Jan Nijman is the founding director of the Urban Studies Institute and Distinguished University Professor, Geosciences.
A native of the Netherlands and before joining GSU, he spearheaded urban research and teaching programs at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Miami. He presently holds a secondary appointment as Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam.