Suburbia Interviewed

“The suburbs can go toward death – or life. We will have decay if we do the same old things. We need to reimagine a sustainable future. Car-centered development is going to kill us. We need to work for walkable neighborhoods and beware of washed up shopping malls, and decaying strip malls that sit empty.”

–      Marvin Malecha, Dean of N.C. Design College speaking at the 8th Annual Urban Design Forum Feb 2011.

Abandoned Strip-Mall. Photo: Benjamin Simpson.

I have recently started a new position as Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta’s City-Region Studies Centre. In this position I will be curating a speculative design competition reimagining the potential of the strip-mall.

In many neighborhoods across North America, small 5-8 store strip-malls, once anchors of local retail activity, have become today’s suburban blights: envisioned as community hubs of consumption and services, many of these places are being abandoned, becoming underutilized and dilapidated as the services move out of local neighborhoods in favour of larger-scale shopping districts serving greater catchment areas.

This speculative design competition, and accompanying exhibition, intends to stimulate creative new visions for the rejuvenation of small-scale strip-malls that line the streets of virtually every suburban zone in Canada. Strip-malls and plazas have long played an important role in Canadian communities by providing neighborhoods with valuable services and products. However ‘big-box’ retail sites are increasingly making the strip-mall obsolete – often leaving strip sites either partially or totally derelict.

How might we re-think and newly envision the potential of the strip-mall (a building stock of which we have in abundance in Canada)? With creative thinking, collective energy and design innovation, I believe there are many ways to transcend the non-descript status quo of the strip-mall—ways that are aesthetically compelling, economically feasible and communally smart.

This design competition and exhibition aims to inspire city planners, developers and communities both here in Edmonton and elsewhere to rethink the suburbs.

While organizing the competition I have also been developing a unique method to conduct walking interviews with people to gather their “suburban memories” in order to produce a short film for the exhibition.

For Suburbia Interviewed I am developing a unique walking interview technique to record Edmontonian’s “suburban memories” as well as their future reimaginings of suburbia.

In my practice as an ‘experimental geographer’ I am interested in trying out experimental ways of recording people’s understandings of their local environment. Following the practice of Rescue Geography I am particularly interested in using mobile techniques and locative media for collecting stories and opinions from people whilst actually in the place they’re talking about.

One of the techniques I have been refining (with the guidance of John Acorn) is the use of walking interviews, using a Go-Pro Hero HD camera and sound recording equipment, where I actually get people to give me a guided tour of the area while recording them. I am particularly interested in using this technique to investigate people’s relationship with suburban environments.

Here are the results of recent experiments to refine the technique:

This clip shows us testing out the best mic to use to capture both the interview and the environmental sound at Laurier Heights strip-mall in Edmonton:

{more video coming soon!}

I will use this technique to interview and collect Edmontonian’s ‘suburban memories’ in the actual places that evoke these, and then ask them how they would like to experience these places in the future. The outcomes of these recordings would be presented as a short film in the exhibition.

Presented in a city (Edmonton), whose identity is forever entwined with suburban development, I will use Suburbia Interviewed to invite visitors to imagine intriguing recalibrations of the suburbs in 21st century form… what will be the future experience of suburbia?

Predictions of the suburbs demise are premature to say the least. Suburbs are the nexus of North American life, have been for decades, and will certainly remain so. Suburbs are where the majority of Canadians today, and in the future, live, work, shop, create, consume, recreate, educate and, perhaps most importantly, procreate.

Suburban population, business and job growth each outpace those of cities, have done so for decades and will likely continue to do so. Retrofitting suburbs of any density so that residents can shop, obtain services and work all within a mile or two of their home is key to making the suburbs more sustainable. The strip-mall site offers a unique opportunity to address these issues.

Welcome to the future: Reburbia.

In the following TED talk talk Ellen makes just this point.

The author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, Dunham-Jones fires the starting shot for the next 50 years’ big sustainable design project: retrofitting suburbia. To come: Dying malls rehabilitated, dead “big box” stores re-inhabited, parking lots transformed into thriving wetlands.

This entry was posted in Creativity in the City, Cultural Geography, Experimental Geographies, Spatial Encounters and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Suburbia Interviewed

  1. cityperson says:

    Hey Merle,

    This is a great idea! I can’t wait to see/read/hear your first reports. Very inspiring!
    It might also be cool to visit the archives on this, and look into the imaginations of suburbs as the future. In the US, during the 1930s and 40s, suburbs were presented as the shiny new future–a much needed escape from the city. In films like The City (1939), created for the World’s Fair in Queens, New York, urbanists like Lewis Mumford presented dismal images of the congested, polluted city, and contrasted them with the crisp modernity of the suburbs. I am not sure what the history of Edmonton’s suburbs are, but it might be interesting to look into old plans and promotional videos of the area. These might provide a nice contrast to contemporary images of the strip malls, and a supportive counterpoint to the locals’ narratives and memories.

    It is so funny to think that suburbs, these North American images of success and the future already have ruins, and need preservation and/or re-purposing. Suburbs are still the future, but a quite different future from the old one.


    You can watch The City here:
    part I:
    part II:

  2. Andy Wilbur says:

    Greetings from Glasgow! Congrats on the post-doc position and what looks to be a really fascinating project. I just decided to take a look at your blog after reminiscing about the EwG week in Edinburgh a while ago. I’ve long thought about trying to initiate some kind of ‘suburban psychogeography’ type of project, and while yours doesn’t exactly fit that bill it’s not a million miles off either. Modesto, California, where I grew up, is in many ways an archetypal surburban city, with a large population but completely horizontal distribution, with master-planned ‘communities’ always cutting deeper and deeper into walnut orchards, cornfields and dairy farms. It’s also designed exclusively for car owners, and my mental map of the place is almost completely configured by road signs, traffic lights and freeway junctions. That makes any attempt to navigate it on foot or bicycle a novel experience which almost always throws up surprises. Like your fellow pedestrians assuming the very fact that you’re on foot is code for looking to buy crystal meth.

    • Merle says:

      Cheers Andy! I too have recently been musing about EwG and how it has helped to shape my current interests and projects. It really was quite formative for me.

      I am currently residing in suburbia so all matters suburban are of interest. Also as a non-driver negotiating the car-centric suburbs is something I live through on a daily basis. The current house we are living in is on ‘death row’ – a row of detached houses due for demolition next summer to make way for condos. These houses, though a bit tatty, are still habitable and it’s interesting to the place we have made ‘home’ will be obliterated soon.

      As for ‘on foot’ being code for crack deals… Its funny as often drug deals in Edmonton are down round the back of strip malls… best for now Merle

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