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Oases in the Exurban Desert

An Essay on Changing Identities in the Urban Field

In the past, spatial identities were never that complicated: there were urbanites and villagers, and cities and villages. Now, an intricate network of diverse spatial units has come into being, in which the old villages and downtowns are but one type of place within a multitude of subdivisions, office parks, warehouses and shopping malls. In contrast to the classic urban-rural hierarchy, none of these spatial units represent the core and none the periphery. Such a landscape is no longer a city and its hinterland, nor can it be regarded as a mere collection of larger and smaller towns. It is best viewed as an urban field.

What happens to spatial identities in this peculiar environment? Are terms like urbanites and villagers still relevant? What face, name or reputation is allotted to the new kinds of place and their inhabitants? And what becomes of the old inner cities and villages now that they are in the minority? To answer these questions I will focus on the Netherlands' ring of cities called the Randstad, which is often cited as an urban field (Batten 1995). The area contains four main cities – Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht. Between them lies an increasing number of relatively compact suburbs, new towns, office parks and warehouses. Still, the geographical center and the outer fringes consist mostly of villages and countryside. This variation in types of places makes the Randstad an interesting object of study when it comes to spatial identities.

About 6 million inhabitants live within its 50 mile radius, resulting in a very high density, and aside from the "green heart" there are no big gaps between the areas. Still, the population of the largest city, Amsterdam, does not exceed one million. It is therefore not surprising that the Randstad is perceived as an urban field. In other respects it might still be too early for such a statement. Research shows the commuting distance to be surprisingly limited. When daily travels are statistically processed, patterns result which better fit smaller spatial units, such as extended cities or "wings" within the Randstad (Cortie et al 1992). (1)

However, the Randstad does seem to diverge strongly from the classic urban-rural pattern when it comes to identity. Planned "new town"-like areas such as Hoofddorp, Zoetermeer and Alphen, may surely be considered suburbs, but since they never had a strong connection with one particular city in the vicinity, it is not clear what "urb" they are a "suburb" to. The Randstad has many of these suburbs without cities, which share this characteristic with some office parks and warehouse sites. But that is not all. Places that used to have a firm traditional identity change at the same pace. Many people living in the inner city stay there so briefly that it is doubtful whether they will ever become true urbanites. On the other hand, the inhabitants of suburbs and new towns seem to be the only ones left speaking traditional (Amsterdam, Rotterdam) accents. At the same time, former city dwellers increasingly move to old villages, but it is unlikely that they will ever become true villagers – and conversely, whether these villages will ever become true suburbs.

1. Urban Fields and Non-places

Urban theorists have conflicting ideas about what is going on. Since the developments are inherently unclear and the theorists each seek to distinguish their view from the others, they devote much attention to issues of definition. But do not let this distract you. Their true interests lie not so much in precise description but in the social evaluation of the developments, urban theorists never cease to note that our very identity is at stake. Renowned scholars adopt the stance of cultural critics while uninhibited critics achieve scientific status. In the process, they have coined a multitude of terms to describe the new types of place that have come into being. Below, I will elaborate on some of these terms and their critical nature, but first it is important to get a feel for the new territory. No neologism will be introduced here – I will stick to the term which to me seems the most common and neutral: urban field. To highlight some key characteristics of urban fields, I will draw from the great many definitions found in the literature.

One of the first characteristics that comes to mind is that of the proximity of one urban area to the next. This can be expressed as the image on the map (see, for instance, Lambooy 1998). It might seem trivial, but nowadays almost everyone seems to need a map to get around – exactly because of the new intricacy of urban environments. In some ways, these maps have become as important as the landmarks on the ground. Proximity is however also strongly felt on the ground level of streets and highways. The experience of being lost is central to urban fields, as postmodernist writers often implicitly reveal (Soja 1992 is a typical example).

More traditionally, geographers and planners stress density. Gottmann for instance regards a density of 500 inhabitants per square mile as the minimum (a central feature of what he calls the "megalopolis", 1961: 27). Such measures are quite arbitrary, since the regions commonly cited as examples vary greatly in density. Moreover, when measuring density, too much emphasis is given to the limits of the urban field, which essentially does not have strict borders. Still, it is hard to call an area "urban" beyond certain levels of density. A precise measure is however impossible to give.

The same can be said of size. While an urban field should in some ways exceed the size of a single city, it is hard to exactly define the limits of an urban field and still harder to put a precise value to the number in terms of urbanity. Where a 100 mile radius makes sense in some areas in the US (Friedmann and Miller 1965; Sudjic 1992) this measure is hardly applicable to the much smaller European areas that are often cited as examples.

Though proximity, density and size can be regarded as important though arbitrary characteristics, they do not really account for the phenomenon. In this respect deconcentration of functions is a more useful characteristic. This refers not only to suburbanization of residence, but also to the deconcentration of business – industrial, commercial, services – and retail (see Fishman 1987; Garreau 1991; Palen 1995; Soja 1992). In addition to deconcentration, it is often argued that these functions do not spread randomly. New clusters of business, retail and residence take shape, which are at least partly capable of competing with the old core. Therefore polycentricity is regarded as an important characteristic of urban fields (Garreau 1991; Fishman 1987). In some urbanized regions, polycentricity occurs not only by way of deconcentration, but also by way of growing cities approaching each other, especially in some European regions. To distinguish this from the model with only one old core, the term "polynucleated urban regions" has been coined, but that does not necessarily make the non-merging variety any less an urban field. What is relevant here is that despite whether the "cores" are old or new, an urban field must contain more than one of them.

More complicated is the suggested occurrence of specialization between different areas in the field. According to some theorists, certain economic and cultural functions are – or should be – limited to certain areas (McKenzie 1933), so that urban fields can be distinguished from regions that function according to the central place theory (Christaller 1966), where the center offers all specialized functions, and the satellites offer only an elementary package for local use. In other words: non-core areas should be functionally complementary rather than functionally subordinate. In reality, such territorial specialization or differentiation is far from complete. The new "cores" surrounding old cities are not always that specialized. Moreover, they typically contain a mixture of various economic and social functions (Garreau 1991 reasons along these lines). Although the economic differences between gradually "merging" cities are often stressed, they are not as complementary as adherents to this functionalist ideal version of the urban field would have it. In fact, in comparison to other cities in the same country, the cities of an urban field are often strikingly similar, especially in their periods of growth and decline, indicating a common economic base, rather than functional complementarity. Still, a certain level of specialization is generally regarded as a requirement.

To almost every urban theorist, what characterizes an urban field the most is the presence of so-called criss-cross relations. Where all relations in the classic urban models revolve around a single core, relations in an urban field are meshed, interwoven, interlaced. This means that traffic increasingly flows from suburb to suburb, thereby supplementing and in part replacing center-periphery commuting. In addition, interrelations are expended through more fluid structures, such as economic and financial networks. Thus, crisscross flows of people, commodities, money, and information are typical of urban fields (emphasized for instance by Friedmann and Miller 1965). None of this is readily quantifiable and it is certainly not my intention to test whether particular regions qualify as an urban field or not. Indeed, depending on the rigor of the researcher, almost any heavily urbanized region in the western world can be made to fit the description. A definition is nonetheless useful to delineate urban field-like developments from the classical situation.

A particular region can be considered an urban field when the constituent parts stretch over a territory larger than a single city and are still proximate enough to each other to suggest an "urban" density. More importantly, there should be strong signs of spatial deconcentration of residence, business and retail, as well as a moderate level of territorial specialization of functions, to such an extent that the field can be regarded as essentially polycentric, bearing witness to crisscross relations in terms of the flow of people, commodities, money and information.

All this deviates strongly from the classic urban model, where a single central core is surrounded by subordinated satellite towns altered by some industrialized agriculture, with still further out the usual combination of meadows, farmland and villages. The essential difference lies in the blurring of centrality and the dividing up of the hierarchy that has been taken for granted in the entire history of urbanity.

If anything, this raises the issue of spatial identity. Now that the urban landscape has changed so dramatically, we can ask ourselves: where are we? Over time urban theorists have come up with different answers. The first concepts stressed new opportunities for modern life, while the more recent concepts highlight problems of identity.

Early and influential geography and planning terms include conurbation (Geddes 1915), regional city (Mumford 1938) and megalopolis (Gottmann 1961), as well as urban field in its original formulation (Friedmann and Miller 1965). Tired of trying to fit criss-cross relations into the old hierarchical model, these theorists took a radically different course. They wanted to show the world that something was happening that went beyond cities and countryside. It was time for the next phase in urban development and they hoped that problems of earlier phases could now be solved. Though worried about crowding, congestion and decentralized administration, the theorists regarded the new environment as potentially beneficial to modern consumers, and that was what counted. That the old urban and rural modes of life would fade due to the predominance of suburban and "interurban" development, was not considered a major problem (Friedmann and Miller 1965: 316; Gottmann 1961: 15). On the contrary, some went so far as to suggest that the blurring of urban and rural modes of life might bring an ideal "garden city" way of life closer to reality (Gottmann 1961: 765). (2) Clearly, these authors were driven by a rather optimistic view of society, a fair dose of belief in societal progress, a concern for consensus on urban development, and – perhaps deserving more appreciation – the inclination to actively contribute something to the environment in terms of planning. Behind these early concepts lies a much more "modern" ambition than many of today's theorists care to admit.

The ambitions were taken a step further in modern architecture and urbanism. There are many examples: cité contemporaire (Le Corbusier), broadacre city (Frank Lloyd Wright), città nuova (Sant'Elia), motopia (Jellico), new babylon (Constant). In contrast to the previous terms, the development of these concepts was not hampered by the need for empirical evidence, and the ideal "modern" identity could be stretched to the extreme. As in so many modernist utopias or dystopias, individualism went hand in hand with uniformity. Although the new kind of urban space would give everyone the maximum freedom of movement, it did not allow any deviation from the depicted "modern" way of life. No crowded cities and no backward villages.

But a landscape which is neither urban nor rural was to inspire urban theorists in a quite different direction, especially when deconcentration started to include business and retail. They began to doubt whether the new environments in urban fields had a tangible or meaningful identity. Non-place urban realm (Webber 1964) is one of the first terms of this type. Non-lieux (Augé 1993) are places of transport and transit which do not have an identity of any historical significance, thereby illuminating the gradual disappearance of the distinction between "center" and "periphery" and the diminishing role of space and place in general. Edge cities (Garreau 1991) encompass offices, dwellings and all other urban resources, without, however, containing a historical downtown core. They appear as clusters of urban activity along the highways that circle large American cities – which accounts for the "edge" in the term. Exopolis (Soja 1992) is a similar concept, meaning "the city without". In this case the main feature is not clustering, but endless sprawl, lack of structure and the absence of a core. Technoburb (Fishman 1987) is a terrible sounding term, which is precisely what motivated its inventor to coin it, since he intends to express a certain nostalgia for the classic (officeless) suburb. City à la carte (Fishman 1990) is a quite different term by the same author, suggesting that for the lack of any focal points of urbanity, the individual dwelling becomes the only type of "center" people will be able to experience. (3) Of these terms, Edge city is probably the most widely used. Recently, the adjective exurban is used to describe the new landscape.

First, people were thought to have the opportunity to realize a perfect modern way of life, between or rather beyond the congested city and backward village. Now we are being told that ways of life are not linked to spaces at all. The predominance of a postmodern "non-place" landscape has been proclaimed, drowning the classic identity of city, village and even that of suburb, without replacing it with something meaningful. At most, the places where they go have a "theme", a merely aesthetic and fleeting surrogate for identity. In general, people are thought to lead a nomadic existence (Virilio 1982) in a world where places no longer give them a true sense of identity, a sense of "where" they are.

There are exceptions to this bleak view. According to some, the flow of people, commodities, money and information, becomes "placeless" to such an extent that not only individual cities but even urban fields are considered too small a unit of analyses. Urbanism is worldwide. What used to be restricted to cities is now happening everywhere. Indeed, the whole world might be seen as a giant city. Early ideas are ecumenopolis (Doxiades 1972) and secular city (Cox 1965). This typically rejects the idea of global homogenization. The wordlwide flow reaches locales very differently and intermingles with local meanings. Therefore, unique new mixtures of culture come into existence, which in turn enter the global flow. According to a rather romantic vision, this is what shapes a new global ecumene (Hannerz 1992).

Most of the authors rightfully find such an exchange of identities much too optimistic an idea. More commonly they point to the a lack of true identity; the entire urban field is becoming a non-place-like exurban landscape. Without becoming too optimistic, it is fair to raise the question whether this bleak view of urban fields is justified. Are cities, villages and suburbs – which at least until recently provided true spatial identities – being replaced by exurbs; by members of the technoburb, edge city and exopolis family? I will argue that this is only partly the case. Many people seem to share these anti-exurban sentiments – and that their sentiments push urban fields in unexpected directions.

2. Identity in Urban Fields

Exurban development raises questions of spatial identity. What meanings do people attach to places in urban fields? Where do they feel at home? 'Where' are we? In an attempt to answer these questions a typology is introduced, which is based on qualitative research in various urban and surburban areas. One important aspect of the typology is that it is about types of places. Another important aspect is its relation to social structure. This view of spatial identity finds support in the literature.

Identity in this typology refers not so much to a specific locality (Greenwich Village, New York, East Coast), but to a particular family of places within the landscape, such as cities, villages or suburbs. This particular view is supported by findings in environmental psychology. According to Roberta Feldman, high residential mobility has an important effect on peoples' identities. With everyone constantly on the move, it is hard to develop roots in one particular place. Rather then becoming troubled 'transients', people are thought to become attached to particular types of places they are familiar with.

Experience shapes identity to a large extent. Anthony Giddens refers to "disembedding mechanisms" of a more structural nature than residential mobility, that have put people into a position where they are not simply shaped by traditions in a particular locale. They more or less write their own biographies. Though personal experience is important in shaping identity, it is not a passive process. People actively shape their identities in a strategic way. The formation of spatial identity is a fundemental part of geostrategic lifeplanning.

While identities are highly personal and increasingly shaped actively by the individual, it is not a completely idiosyncratic process either. Identity is strongly associated with social relations. Class relations are important structural influences on spatial identity. The influence of structural relations is described in broad terms by Pierre Bourdieu. First of all, peoples choices are constrained by the economic and cultural resources they have. Second, decisions that may seem personal and autonomous, are to a large extent informed the dispositions acquired in the lifecourse. This habitus is in fact highly structured by class relations, as the lifecourse is typically a trajectory through social structure in terms of education, employment and social networks. Another important structural force, which Bourdieu does not give much attention, are the complex relations between types households (strongly associated with gender and generation).

In summery, spatial identity is understood here as type-identity, not refering to specific places but to types of places. It is viewed as personal, shaped by experiences with places, as much as it is social, shaped by the resources associated with social structure.

3. Exurbanites and their Contemporaries

The typology introduced in this section derives from research in various urban and suburban areas. One piece research here is of particular importance (Reijndorp et al 1998). It was conducted in 1995 and 1996 in five different areas of the latest genereration of suburban development. The planning, urban design and architecture has been heavely criticised for its exurban character. The goal of the research was to find out whether the inhabitants of these areas was of a similarly exurban nature. At each location, about twenty households were subjected to in-depth qualitative interviewing. The interviews proved spatial identities a crucial factor in the respondents preferences and residential histories. The identities also turned out to be remarkably varied. Although a type of exurbanites could be distinguished, it was certainly not the only type that lived in this exurban environment.

The types are described in this section in order of their emergence in time. In general, the six categories presented here constitute a much more intricate structure than the old urban-rural model. We have come a long way from the simple dichotomy of urbanites and villagers mentioned in the opening sentence of this text. The first category mentioned here was the first to break with the hierarchy. In many ways early suburbanization meant a break with the strong urban identity of the business elite and spatial relations in general. (4) Today's business elite and high-status professionals still share the taste of the old elite and for that reason they can be termed classic suburbanites. They prefer the older, luxurious "classic" suburbs that were built by the old elite, though some of them feel tempted to live in spacious lots in suburbs of more recent date.

Though this meant a break with both urban and rural traditions, it did not fundamentally alter the hierarchy. Early suburbanization simply added another layer. What did break the hierarchy was the mass suburbanization of wage-earners not belonging to higher strata but to the middle classes. In the twentieth century the ideal of living space had become almost universally suburban. Cities and villages did not suit modern demands; they were deemed congested and functionally backward. The landscape came to be dominated by "modern" suburbs, a process that is now strenthened by deconcentration of other functions. What motivates the typical inhabitant of the areas of mass-suburbanisation and exurbanisation (5), the exurbanites, is illustrated in this interview quote.

"When I saw this, it was love at first sight. I fell for the house and the garden. I can park my car and the kids have plenty of space to play around. You don't find that in the city!"

Exurbanites have no need for specific urban or rural settings. They are perfectly happy with accessible malls, warehouses and office parks. From their point of view, inner cities are overcrowded and old townhouses are simply uncomfortable. They were often born in the wider vicinity – in the city or a nearby suburb. They have never had to move far for school or jobs. This enables them to develop strong ties with particular parts of the urban field, so that when they move, they tend to stay close to the previous area, often keeping in touch with former neighbors. Socially, they are satisfied with suburban living, and they have no cravings for urban diversity or rural traditions.

"I drop in at the couple across the street about once a week. But it stays there. In this row of houses here, twice a month it's someone's birthday. I think I go to one of these birthdays every month. But it's not like that I just walk in next door in the evening. There needs to be some kind of occasion."

They identify with suburban living, as it represents their autonomy and well-being, both financially and socially. With medium-level education and middle-income jobs, they usually have "moved up" the social scale in comparison to their predominantly urban and rural based parents. Exurbanites are oriented towards modern convenience. They are happy in an average suburban house, and never worried about the isolation and monotony that so many critics and theorists associate with it. They feel completely at home in the suburbs.

Eventually, the modern ideal of suburban living did not prove to be universal. As suburbanization achieved massive form in the nineteen fifties and sixties, a strong reaction followed, particularly among younger highly educated people. (6) A process of gradual urban and rural revaluation took place. Higher education comes with a transition from the home environment, both spatially and socially. During the study period or shortly after graduation, the higher educated usually move to a city. There, many of them acquire a taste for urban life, which they contrast with the environments they grew up in – mostly suburbs, exurbs and villages. (7) In this way they become new urbanites, who appreciate the inner city for its cafes and cinemas, the music hall and the opera, for the olive oil or exotic fishes which they get at the ethnic markets, and, most of all, for its apparent freedom.

"In the city there is anonymity and you enjoy a certain amount of freedom. So many things are possible. You can go to a movie, or a play, or a rock concert, you name it. The idea of the possibilities alone gives me a great feeling. You're free to pursue your own taste and nobody gets in the way."

When despite this newly acquired taste, they find themselves forced to move to an exurb, new urbanites compensate for it by radically distancing themselves from what goes on in the suburb.

"I always feel that I'm not really part of it. As long as they don't bother me, I don't find it important what they think of me. But I don't think many women go out without their husbands for instance. It's like "huisje boompje beestje" (suburban bliss)."

This distancing makes sense. If new urbanites move to a suburb they seem to belong to the mass of exurbanites, which is exactly what they have been trying to avoid. Although new urbanites have gained a large amount of cultural capital, they were never in the position to a more than average amount of economic capital. Outside of the city, they can not afford to live anywhere else than next door to exurbanites. Not all highly educated are in this position. As noted above, those with careers in medicine, law, corporate business or other relatively traditional sectors, acquire a great amount of professional prestige and sufficiently high incomes to join the ranks of the wealthy suburbanites. They have no need for added urbanity. By contrast, new urbanites typically operate in the lesser prestigeous social, cultural and communicative sectors.

Professionals who can not afford a classic suburb, do not all have to stay in the city or move to a modern suburb. Some of them find an alternative in the villages scattered around the urban field. In their eyes, these villages have a particular "authenticity". To exurbanites they are just inconvenient – they can get a bigger house for the same price in a modern suburb. The expected absence of exurbanites is probably part of the attraction for the increasing amount of new villagers. This is not a viable alternative to all professionals, since these villages have rapidly become expensive. The subtle differences in structural position between the categories are graphically illuminated in a diagram [click here]

New urbanites and new villagers are indeed "new" types to the cities and villages in the sense that they are very different from the original inhabitants. For instance, they rarely speak the local accent. This is related to a difference in both social origin and social position. In contrast to the new types, the remaining original inhabitants have both little cultural and economic capital. They grew up in the city or in the village and never had a high education or a high income. The ones that have had an upwardly mobile trajectory, have left the villages and inner urban areas in the process, to live elsewhere as one of the other types.

Consequently the original villagers are much less wealthy then the newcomers. Despite the strong ties with the villages, some find themselves compelled to move to adjacent exurbs, where they have difficulty in adapting.

"When you go shopping in the local mall you feel just like a number. It's very different from the village where my parents live. You know him and them and the baker and the butcher."

Similarly, original urbanites are much less affluent than the new highly educated urban type. They too find themselves compelled to move, and in the suburbs the are confronted with similar problems as the original villagers. In social position and lifestyle, original urbanites and original villagers resemble each other closely.

"You know, we turn up the music and dance in the house. But you never hear the neighbors next door. And on the other side it's always quiet too. I don't know why, but they don't make a sound. Nothing. They are not "gezellige mensen" (good friendly company). It's really different from Amsterdam. There, you just walk onto the street and start talking to someone. Here, you can talk to them alright, but not in the way I like to. There I had a neighbor... He'd call me in the street: Jimmy! He was a real "gangmaker" (friendly guy). I like that, I really like that. Its alive."

The remaining original urbanites and original villagers are reminders of a recent past with strongly embedded identities, local traditions and typical accents. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine that villagers and urbanites were once opposites.

4. Exurbanization, Urban and Rural Revaluation

Exurbanization has broken the logic of urban and rural landscapes. As the phenomenon became increasingly massive, a "revival" of cities and villages followed. This should not be interpreted as a countertrend in the sense of a return to the old situation. It creates types of urbanites and villagers that are quite distinct from the original inhabitants of those places. It only adds to the complexity of the population in cities, villages and suburbs. This section focuses on the population and identity changes in the places themselves.

Of all these places, classic suburbs have probably changed the least. The traditional business elite has to share the space with an increasing number of high-profile professionals, and "nouveau riche" businessmen who posess little cultural capital but large amounts of economic capital. As a result of the pressure on the local market, some "old money" has to move out. These dynamics are not at all new and may be considered typical for classic suburbs.

The villages present the clearest case of shifting identities. Where the new villagers stand firm because of their high economic and cultural capital, the original inhabitants gradually lose ground. The new villagers have relatively well paid jobs in office parks or downtowns, in economic sectors that will continue to grow. Meanwhile, the original villagers have lost their traditional means of substance. Local trade and shops have mostly disappeared due to the development of nearby retail and warehouse sites. Agriculture is literally losing ground to new development, and increasingly to new environmental zones, while the remaining agriculture is highly tertialized; only a handful of farmers has been able to make the transition – often leaving the village in the process. With their low cultural capital, the original villagers have to find jobs in warehouse strips, industrial areas or local tourism. In this way, the villages become "deruralized", and usually the new villagers take control of the local politics. Though deruralized, the villages are not likely to lose the identity of a village. The new villagers have made high investments to avoid living in an exurb. They want to keep the village as "authentic" as possible, prevent new development and take pains to keep more of their own kind out. Original villagers and their offspring usually get priority over outsiders when a house comes available. Many villages are thus bound to stay "villages" of a non-rural variety. In the long run, some villages do succumb to market pressures. Both original and new villagers find it hard to resist selling their houses to wealthy outsiders, so that the village starts to resemble an exclusive suburb, attracting the wealthier category of suburbanites. In still other villages, the local government has not been able to withstand eager residential development, so that the expended village assumes the appearance of an exurb, with exurbanites as the dominant goup.

In the cities, similar but more intricate population shifts take place. Here too the original inhabitants have lost most of there traditional means of substance. Positions in local trade, retail, industry and bureaucracy have decreased – what remains of employment in these segments has largely moved to the suburbs, as did many original urbanites themselves. They are partly being replaced by newcomers: the new urbanites. As many new urbanites do not have high incomes, especially when they just arrive, they often move to relatively inexpensive urban areas. Gradually, some of these areas develop into more exclusive areas, even rivaling the old remaining "gold coasts" nearby in the inner city. This has blurred the view in some ways. Many theories on what has become known as "gentrification" treat the most exclusively gentrified areas in the most expensive cities as the necessary outcome of the process. In most urban areas where new urbanites are to be found, however, gentrification remains far from "complete". This suggests that urban revaluation, as a reaction to exurbanization by educated but not very rich members of the middle classes, is the main process of which the formation of genuinely expensive inner city areas is an extension, just as only some of the deruralized villages develop into classic suburbs.

Quite different from the villages, the cities still attract large amounts of newcomers with low education or income, primarily from rural areas in other countries. While cultures now span the globe in the form of "imagined communities", the local and economic pressures to become part of a local urban "working class" have become weaker. Therefore, these new urban immigrants do not necessarily develop the ways or identities of original urbanites. They do contribute strongly to the dynamics in urban fields, as they initially have to rely on urban areas for inexpensive housing. Spatial identities vary greatly among immigrants in the city. Most immigrants interviewed for this particular research project assume a typical exurban stance to places and were thus categorized as exurbanites.

The increased pressure on the inner city by new urbanites, original urbanites and urban immigrants, brings some of them to settle in the exurbs, even though this does not reflect their preferences or identity. One development has been nicknamed "trouble in paradise", which refers to older suburbs or exurbs subjected to downgrading, with the arrival of urban immigrants and original urbanites with lower incomes. In the average exurbs, untouched by such severe downgrading, the shifts described earlier become apparent. Some original villagers and original urbanites move there, although they do not make a positive choice for the exurb and therefore try to retain their original identities once they arrive. The new urbanites and new villagers living there react in a similarly defiant way, as the exurb both socially and spatially represents the kind of environment they have always meant to avoid. They find themselves forced to move because of market conditions in the environments they identitify with. New urbanites who decide to have children face an additional dilemma. An inner-city are associated with all sorts of inconveniences, while an exurb would compromise their tolerant and cultured lifestyle too much. Facing such dilemmas, they do not simply surrender to the exurban way of life. Instead, they first look for a village, and if they are not able to become new villagers, they compensate a move to the exurb by radicalizing their urban stance.

4. Oases

Discussions about urban fields should not be restricted to densities, deconcentration, specialization, or the location of business and retail. The question of whether urban fields increasingly consist of non-places is equally relevant. From my research I conclude that although exurban areas have come to dominate the landscape, spatial identity has not been lost. One of the main characteristics of the urban field is the strong dynamism of spatial identities.

The nature and the extent of this dynamism depends on both the spatial structure – the types of place that are available in the urban field, their spatial distribution and abundance – and the social structure – the distribution of economic and cultural capital over the population and the limitations and preferences associated with it. Under current circumstances, this dynamism has been heightened further. Deconcentration and polycentricity complicate spatial relations in urban fields, as described in the opening sections. Social structure is becoming more intricate as well. Increases in welfare and professionalization are identified as driving forces behind changes in urban settings (Hamnett 1994). It needs to be stressed that the increasingly unequal distribution of these factors explains the new dynamism. Individual levels of welfare can be expressed as economic capital, and individual levels of professionalization as cultural capital. With these inequalities I do not refer to a new one-dimensional hierarchy in which a higher service class towers above a lower service class. (8) On the contrary, when it comes to spatial identities, it is the increase of diverse, subtle inequalities, that explains the dynamism.

Houses express one's social position; they are positional goods. As more and more people gain access to such a positional good, it loses some of its appeal. As the exurb becomes the average way of life, devaluation of the exurban environment is the logical outcome. The recent processes of revaluation of cities and villages illustrate this point. As viewed from this perspective, the cultural critics of suburbia and the non-place are representatives of a large group.

Due to this dynamism, the hierarchy of places has radically changed. First, there was a spatial hierarchy with cities on top and villages at the bottom. Then there were suburbs, and they seemed to represent a better, ideal residential environment. But now, suburbs have become exurbs and the dominant type of place. This has turned the classic urban and rural identities into scarce resources. Where city and village were once opposites, they now stand side by side against the exurb. They have become oases in the exurban desert.


(1)The traffic in these urban units does not resemble the old suburb-to-city commuting anymore – which could be considered evidence for urban field characteristics such as deconcentration of functions and crisscross patterning, albeit not on the scale of the entire Randstad. (back)

(2) In Howard"s original formulation, the garden city was to involve the "marriage of town and country", but since the concept mainly helped shape the suburban landscape that predates full fledged deconcentration of functions and polycentricity, it would be confusing to add it to the list of urban field concepts. (back)

(3) In Howard"s original formulation, the garden city was to involve the "marriage of town and country", but since the concept mainly helped shape the suburban landscape that predates full fledged deconcentration of functions and polycentricity, it would be confusing to add it to the list of urban field concepts. (back)

(4) Fishman (1987) emphasizes this point. (back)

(5) Note that the English 'new town' and the Dutch 'groeikern' are considered here as planned residential exurbs, rather than suburbs in the classic sense. (back)

(6) This reaction was lead by urban theorists such as Bahrdt, Sennett, Jacobs and Raban. (back)

(7) Fava and DeSena (1984) describe this process as "urban conditioning". (back)

(8) "Global cities" are cities in which world wide flows of business and finance converge. These are said to tend towards a polarized, divided or dual class structure (Sassen 1991; Fainstein, Gordon and Harloe 1992; Mollenkopf and Castells 1991). This does not seem to be the case in the Randstad, however (Hamnett 1994). (back)


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