Suburbanite 2.0 - by Yannis Tzaninis

Publication date 11-06-2015

Almere is becoming international more rapidly than Amsterdam. The past few years one out of four new inhabitants that moved to Almere came from abroad, departing from more than 100 countries. Currently almost 40% of its total population has some familial connection originating from outside the Netherlands. The town’s demographics continue to diversify but the population has not been increasing for a while. In contrast, Amsterdam is most popular lately and these last few years the city has seen its largest population increases since WWII. At the same time, the number of native Dutch who have been moving to the capital since 2011 is steadily increasing; very many newcomers to the city are white, native, middle- and upper-class parents, traditionally expected to suburbanise. Where is then the 1970s Dutch dream of the family house, the picket fence, the garden and the garage?

In Almere for instance the Dutch suburban dream is still very much alive among many natives, and can be contagious to the international migrants whose mobilities and aspirations are diversifying. Yet others are experiencing quasi-urban Almere as a city in its own right, while natives living in Amsterdam are experiencing suburbanities that aren’t that different. So, among this diversity, who is the new suburbanite, or urbanite for that matter?

Almere

Almere (photo by Yannis Tzaninis)

In the 1970s, Amsterdammers were moving to Almere as proclaimed pioneers into empty land to live their own utopia. Being a ‘pioneer’ was not as perilous as it sounds as the state was taking care of most things, but people were still moving with a vision, leading the compartmentalisation between work and living, family-raising and career-building. The lines have blurred since to be sure, considering the rising international mobility within Europe and the re-merging popularity of inner-cities for capital and residents, but suburbanity is acquiring urban features while holding onto its compartmentalised culture. Today’s suburbanite is not only the owner of the picket fence-garage combo, but she might be tomorrow’s urbanite. The mobility of households within the metropolis emerges with settlement-‘shopping’ where housing space and price ratios are appraised vis-à-vis commuting distances and social amenities. Here I would re-evaluate the ‘polycentricity’ discourse and whether it gives to the concept of ‘centres’ a too significant role; there is too much diversity within settlements to attribute a clear role to each of them. Instead they resemble a web, a fabric which oscillates with highways, the built environment and human bodies in space, and a dialogue between physical planning and social aspirations. The suburbanite is dead, long live the sub/urbanite!

Almere 1

Almere (photo by Yannis Tzaninis)

The new suburbanites may not be living where we think they do, and may very well be within Amsterdam. Why I call them suburban is simply a historical reflection; the same type of persons, young white, middle-class parents, were dominating (what is commonly known as) the suburbs until a couple of decades ago. Now the same people are moving to (what is commonly known as) the city. Does that mean that the city can go on as a city with suburbanities among its midst, and vice versa? Have the cities crept into the suburbs or is it actually the reverse, that after decades of suburban living, the powerful classes are bringing their suburban socio-cultural baggage into the formerly helter-skelter city? A few years ago Neil Smith and Deborah Cowen hinted that even New York City is suburbanising, the ‘grunge’ mixing with the ‘chic’ in a motley bricolage of city and suburb. Never really a utopia and far from being a dystopia, Almere is then perhaps another creature altogether: the new egalitarian city but with the neoliberal twist. It is a place for realistically pursuing individual aspirations and dreams, where the fantasy of  making it is still alive and kicking. What could help us approach its tumultuous dynamics is to shout ‘we are all suburbanites’! 

Yannis Tzaninis

Is PhD candidate at the Political Sociology: Power, Place and Difference. In his research he examines the relationship between the transition of formerly suburban Almere to something yet unformed and the experiences of persons who have settled there during the town's different phases. With a focus on the geographical-historical conditions which produced this 'new town', he explores the relation between people's resettlement and their experiences of symbolic spaces and of social mobility.

Published by  CUS

3 February 2016