Sprawling Places

By David Kolb (University of Georgia Press, 2008)

In , philosopher and place theorist deploys unconventional thinking in the service of what turn out to be commonsense ideas. Kolb finds distinctions where others assume homogeneity; his baseline act of discernment is to recognize that suburbs are neither small villages nor large cities, and therefore should be approached as unique phenomena. Kolb rejects the many critics who, because they are looking through the lens of arcadia or the metropolis, find America’s sprawling zones devoid of intricacy—or, worse yet, “nonplaces” unworthy of consideration. Instead, he marshals many theoretical sources to argue that such places have inherent “complexity” worth amplifying. He employs this term in several ways: the structural, which largely encompasses the natural and man-made environments; the social, in which citizens negotiate with each other and the structural backdrop; and what might be called the technological-economic-political, that (mostly) invisible network of links that underpins connected life in the twenty-first century. Acknowledging these forces requires active engagement: “Places should be inhabited with more lived sense of their complex internal multiplicities and linkages, and with more self-consciousness of the multiple forces and pressures at work.” The book seems aimed primarily at the community of thinkers with whom Kolb engages, as well as architects and urban planners, and on occasion it is tough going, particularly in the first two chapters. But Kolb gains momentum as he begins a sustained analysis of themed places and suburban environments. This investigation draws in particular on the work of British sociologist Anthony Giddens, and extends to suburbs some of the claims made by Manuel Castells (for networked societies) and Henri Lefebvre (for cities). Discussing Disney parks, New Urbanist villages, and haphazardly planned suburbs as they currently exist, Kolb puts forth brief suggestions, from creating architectural follies in pocket parks to altering zoning and tax regulations, for “grasp[ing] creatively the possibilities offered by contemporary places, without undue nostalgia or elation.”

A available at Kolb’s website offers further considerations of the topic.

, a writer based in Brooklyn, is editor of and coeditor of (Sternberg Press, 2006).