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Beyond the 'Burbs

3 min read

It used to be that the names used by sociologists and geographers to label and describe populated areas were mostly related to their proximity to an urban center. A suburb is a community situated just outside the city, while an exurb or an edge city is a community that lies just outside the suburbs. Lately, however, areas now most often have labels that reflect their infrastructure, amenities, or population.

In recent years, for example, we've seen the rise of a new kind of exurb with a city-quality infrastructure and industries: the technoburb . This is an example of an accidental city , an exurb that, over time and without design, morphs into a true city, although with its amenities and services decentralized and spread throughout the community. Technoburbia forms part of what some call the middle landscape , the area between where a large city's suburbs end and the rural regions begin.

The word technoburb was coined by professor Robert Fishman, now with Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, in his book Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia . Why the techno - prefix for the citylike exurb? Because, as Fishman writes, "the real basis of the new city is the invisible web of advanced technology and telecommunications that has been substituted for the face-to-face contact and physical movement of older cities." This idea is reflected in some of the synonyms we're seeing for these emerging exurban cityscapes: post-urban city , centerless city , urban village, and suburban downtown .

Technoburb is also sometimes used to refer to an exurb that contains a disproportionate number of technology-based businesses. For this second sense of the word, other terms bouncing around are technopolis and ideopolis . The latter, though, is most often used with a broader definition: a postindustrial metropolitan area dominated by knowledge-based industries and institutions, such as universities and research hospitals.

Another type of post-urban city is the aerotropolis , a city in which the layout, infrastructure, and economy are centered around a major airport. It's also called an aviation city or an airport city . In its purest form, the aerotropolis is an economic hub that extends out from a large airport into a surrounding area that consists mostly of distribution centers, office buildings, light manufacturing firms, convention centers, and hotels--all linked to the airport via roads, expressways ( aerolinks ), and rail lines ( aerotrains ). This business-centered version of the aerotropolis is also called an air-commerce cluster or an airport cluster .

If the aerotropolis is located near a high-tech hub, then the flights in and out are often referred to as nerd birds . The original nerd birds were flights between Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, the home of Dell Computer Corp. and other high-tech firms. (A closely related term is Barbie bird , a flight between Silicon Valley and Los Angeles that often carries a high proportion of actresses and models who fly back and forth to work as "booth bunnies" in technology trade shows.)

Speaking of nerds, a term similar to technoburb is nerdistan (or Nerdistan ), an upscale and largely self-contained suburb or town with a large population of high-tech workers employed in nearby office parks dominated by high-tech industries. It was first used as a descriptor for regions like Silicon Valley by urban analyst and writer Joel Kotkin, now a research fellow in urban policy at Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles. (An earlier sense of the term, however, is still used waggishly to refer to any large collection of nerds.)

These Silicon Valley-like areas increasingly have Silicon Valley-like names, too. There's probably not a Board of Trade in the country that hasn't tried to "brand" their town or city as "Silicon Something." Here are some that have stood the test of time: Silicon Alley (New York City), Silicon Bayou (New Orleans), Silicon Desert (Phoenix), Silicon Dominion (Fairfax, Va.; also called Silicon Plantation and Silicon Seaboard), Silicon Forest (Portland, Ore.), Silicon Hills (Austin, Texas; also called Silicon Gulch), Silicon Mesa (North Albuquerque, N.M.), Silicon Mountain (Colorado Springs, Colo.), Silicon Parkway (Garden State Parkway, New Jersey), Silicon Rain Forest (Seattle), and Silicon Valley (Fairfield, Iowa).

Outside the United States, other Silly-Con monikers include Silicon Alps (Carinthia, Austria), Silicon Isle (Ireland), Silicon City (Bangalore, India; also called Silicon Plateau), Silicon Fen (Cambridge, England), Silicon Glen (Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee, Scotland), Silicon Saxony (Saxony, Germany), Silicon Valley North (Ottawa; also Silicon Tundra), Silicon Valley of the East (Penang, Malaysia), Silicon Vineyard (Kelowna, B.C., Canada), and Silicon Wadi (Jerusalem).

Clearly, these aren't your father's suburbs. You can describe them as accidental, centerless, even post-urban--you can brand them with a "Silicon Whatever" nickname--but these newfangled technoburbs are here to stay.

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