1. Suburbia, as we know it, does not exist.
I hoped to find a simple, one-phrase answer to suburbia once I had completed my travel. And in retrospect, I realize that it is a rather impossible expectation. It is an expectation that is reflective of the general attitude toward the observation of suburbia where it is preferable to simplify it into a banal sprawl of junkyard and bedroom communities. After three months of documentation and compilation in the months that followed, I have been overwhelmed by the complicated intricacies that create and sustain suburbia, often even more so than any hyperdense and diverse urban centers. In the end, if I could sum up the observations into one sensible phrase, it is that suburbia, as we know it, does not exist. It is a reaction to the changes in the bigger realm of urbanism, a symptomatic reaction to the expansion and shrinkage of cities.
The fact is less apparent in developed countries where the fluctuation of the city boundary has reached its finite line. But in Chinese suburbia, the boundaries among urban/suburban/rural fluctuate on a daily basis; turnover from rural to suburban to urban happens so rapidly. What was considered a suburb could be integrated into the city proper the next day. Perhaps it is more accurate to identify these areas as “periurban” as many scholars of Chinese urbanism refer to such phenomenon.
2. Infrastructural networks determines the shape and the future of suburbia.
Infrastructure is limited to roadways in typical American suburbs where many still solely rely on personal vehicles. It is probably impossible not to rely on cars due to the sheer size of this country. But even at the regional level, American suburbs lack public transportation infrastructure.
Most suburbs in Sweden and France have well connected public transportation networks, and one can get to most places solely relying on the public transportation system. In Sweden, where the suburbs are an extension of the city, buses and metro lines radiate from the city center. In French suburbs, each commune acts as an autonomous machine. In addition to the central transportation network that connects to and from the city center, each commune has its own network of buses and trams.
Even in Tokyo suburbia, the main metro lines within the city continue and connect to the outskirts. And with additional bus and rail connections between each outer community that intricately weaves through the centers and the periphery, cars are often not a requirement, but a luxury. And this level of connected intricacy in infrastructural network shapes the suburbs into a more intimate scale. One rarely finds a typical image of endless highway with box stores with huge parking lots in these small-scale Tokyo suburbs.
In China, where rails and roadways are in the process of being designed and constructed at the moment, there is a potential danger of sparse infrastructural network that may encourage sprawl without sustainable means. Coupled with newly found purchasing power and fetish for car ownership, cars are taking over the roadways as mass bicycling becomes a faded image of the past. As with other developing landscapes, less developed Chinese suburbs with empty roadways without cars are stuck somewhere between the past and the future. But at the present moment, they exist as ghost towns.