The suburban scripts: Built environment and socioeconomic change in the American suburbs
The American suburbs are undergoing a profound transformation. In the last two decades, people and resources have been drawn away from many suburban communities. As a result, suburban inequality and poverty have spread. In recent years, mounting foreclosures have entered this picture, affecting the vitality and stability of neighborhoods built around homeownership. The majority of the country's poor now live in suburbs, but social research has been slow to respond.
As a result of the processes outlined above, changes are occurring in the way that suburban spaces are inhabited. Homes constructed for small, middle class families are housing extended families and single laborers. Streets designed for the automobile are accommodating people who walk to work. And millions of homes formerly occupied by owners are now lying vacant. These changes have something to tell us about how the built environment figures into social order. The physical landscape serves as a reference point for social infrastructure: people attach behavioral routines, social institutions and meanings to the places they inhabit. What happens when streets and buildings designed for a specific lifestyle are forced to accommodate new patterns of social use?
Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, I seek answers to this question in the changing suburban neighborhoods of the New York metropolitan region. In the first chapter, I investigate the physical consequences of mismatch between the built environment and the physical needs and capabilities of residents, finding that places where the suburban working poor inhabit sprawling, automobile-centered landscapes are associated with higher pedestrian risk and risk of fatal house fires. In the second chapter, I examine the political consequences of changes in the use of suburban space, finding that crowding and conspicuous use of public street corners are symbolically tied to themes of broad moral decline and deterioration. Finally, I examine institutional consequences of socioeconomic change, focusing on reactions to vacant housing in the context of the ongoing foreclosure crisis. I find that on an economically mixed suburban block with a growing stock of vacant suburban homes, neighbors see a basis for mobilization and dissent.
0999: Urban planning