Suburbs and the art of place blogging

Last week I attended the Right to the City symposium at the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture. The symposium sought to make connections between artists, activists, planners and architects in seeking ways to "remake" the city “in more socially connected and sustainable ways”, responding to the increasingly fragmented and complex nature of urban life by “developing critical spatial practices that engage in micro-political actions”.

The presentations were interesting if a little uneven in quality, not surprising given the symposium’s diverse range of perspectives and participants. It was more disappointing that there seemed to be (at least in the sessions I attended) relatively little emphasis on outer suburbs or the urban fringe. Most of the “micro-political actions” were targeted towards inner-city areas and predicated on a relatively dense population; for example, interventions that depended on high levels of pedestrian traffic.

An exception to this inner-city focus was Linda Carroli’s participation in a forum on place blogs. Carroli is a writer, researcher and consultant who works in the cultural/arts sector. She is particularly interested in the critical and cultural exploration of place, looking at the role of artists, designers, planners, architects and other urbanists in the process of change. An integral part of this project is her blog, Placeblog. While this is not itself strictly speaking a place-based blog, Carroli’s location in the Brisbane suburb of Aspley informs her wider work. 

The other panellists and presenters in this forum were involved with more “traditional” place blogs focussed on specific locations, all located in inner and middle-ring suburbs such as Kings Cross/Darlinghurst, Ultimo and Marrickville. The discussion was interesting, particularly when it touched on issues of class and gentrification.

As Jesse Adams Stein, who chaired the session states on her Penultimo blog, “Place blogs enact a very specific act of watching, witnessing, monitoring, recording, sometimes celebrating, sometimes protesting – on a very local level” (click here for her summary of the forum outcomes). In this context I raised the question, “why are hardly any place blogs written about specific outer suburban locations such as places in Western Sydney?” which produced a wide range of responses.

Some thought this was due to the lack of access to computers and/or a lack of familiarity with blogging software in these areas. However the consensus (and my view) was that while this may be applicable in some places, it was hardly a universal explanation. The same applies to assumptions about class differences, given the range of income groups represented in areas like Western Sydney.

It was also pointed out that many residents in these communities run and participate in blogs – it’s just that they are mainly about things other than place. Those that have a spatial focus tend to look at wider regions and to deal either with broader cultural, social and spatial issues or specific problems such as the lack of transport infrastructure.

Leaving aside my half-joking response that place blogs are the harbingers of gentrification, there may be other reasons for this discrepancy. First, the nature of suburban life means that the nature of place is different.

In the inner city, people can live, shop, relax and go to school all in the same location and often their workplace is nearby as well. In the suburbs, however, they may live in one suburb, work in another, shop in a third and send their children to school in a fourth.  

This means that outer urban areas are often less “fine-grained” than inner urban ones – I don’t mean this pejoratively, but in the sense that social activity takes place over a much larger geographic range in car-based low-density suburbs.

This makes it difficult to write about place without writing about a wider region (thus ending up with the sorts of “issues” blogs I mentioned earlier) – or conversely, writing about stuff that may be way too local, like what your neighbours are up to. Indeed, the “communities” that many suburban dwellers belong to are not spatially based at all – an outcome that ironically is now being facilitated by the same sort of technology that makes place blogging possible.

This should not discourage blogs about places in outer urban areas, but I suspect that they will always have a different “feel” to their inner-city counterparts. The exception may be place blogs centred on the old centres around Western Sydney (such as those located on the rail lines) or the new ones that are starting to appear in places such as Rouse Hill, documenting the rate of change occurring in many of these places.

A blog about one of the latter would be particularly interesting. Anyone want to take up the challenge?

This entry was posted in Cultural Development, Social Media, Sydney metro area, Western Sydney. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Suburbs and the art of place blogging

  1. penultimite says:

    Fantastic post, Alex. You’ve distilled these issues very clearly here — perhaps much better than I managed in the panel!

    This post brings to mind a comment that one audience member at the panel – Barbara Adams (who also happens to be my Mum), said to me after the panel… she said part of the issue was the difference between spatial experiences – that is, the experience of a place via a car vs. walking. (Or train vs. cycling, for that matter….)
    Different pace = different observations. If one is commuting twice a day, we’d be more likely to know roads and cars intimately, rather than footpaths and drain grates. Of course, this difference in daily experience is implicit in what you have said here, it’s interesting that we were so close to having that conversation during the panel (I just didn’t pick my Mum when she had her hand up). (Sorry Mum)

    I hate to say it, but I am the perfect example of what you suggest – someone who lives, works, shops and kick-boxes within a 1km boundary. In that sense I am very privileged, and while I am proud to celebrate such a theoretically low-carbon-footprint way of living, it would be foolish to suddenly expect that everyone else should (or can) access that sort of experience.

    In one sense, however, I’d disagree with the notion that inner city placeblogs have the same kind of “feel”. In fact, they are quite diverse. Moreover, many urban-urban place blogs deal with the same sorts of issues (and human needs) that affect people in outer suburbs too: access to shops, mobility, public transport, property developments, local gossip, traffic, gardens, rubbish. I don’t see why these issues wouldn’t / couldn’t be discussed in relation to both outer Australian city suburbs (and regional areas, for that matter).

    Isues such as urban sustainability, food security and state government planning legislation shouldn’t just be thought of as “inner city concerns”, even if, perhaps, latte sipping city dwellers make more noise about them. But maybe they don’t? Maybe they only make noise in a little neutral webzone. I always thought farmers were the noisiest, I bet there are some blogging farmers. Alright, I’m getting off topic.


  2. alexsg200 says:

    Thanks Jesse for your thoughtful response.

    I didn’t mean to imply that all “inner city” place blogs were all the same, as I recognise that even the handful we examined in the forum were quite diverse. However they all seem (at least to me) to share a common characteristic: a strong and very intimate relationship to each of the places they describe.

    My point was more that it is more difficult for outer suburban blogs to have quite the same sort of relationship with a specific place, simply because of the scale involved and as your mum suggested, the different spatial experience of places.Therefore most of the blogging about suburban areas tends to be at a broader scale and/or about policy issues.

    Incidentally all the three issues you cite (urban sustainability, food security and state government planning) are indeed active concerns in outer urban areas and indeed I’ve posted about them (eg my last post: ). WSROC (where I used to work) has also done a lot of work on these issues.

    Anyway, I’ll follow your blog with interest!



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