The Frontiers of Commodity

A theoretical approach: the suburban fractionation, the structural transformation, and the reinterpretation of citizenship

Written by Carlos Vigo, under the supervision of Jorge Lizardi Pollock and Carmen A. Pérez Herranz.

The City has always been an object of multidisciplinary analysis because of the diversity of mutations that it has suffered that distances it from its fundamental and original structure. These mutations are non-static, in constant change, propelling new kind of perceptive interpretation of the functions of the City, in contrast to its “traditional roles and functions”. Changes of this kind, structural changes, can break the solidity of the framework, the experience of the City and its meaning. Inhabitants are the backrest of the city, in first place, followed by the relationships that tie them together, creating a collective that share a common space.

This theoretical approach seeks to portray a specific phenomenon caused by sprawl and decentralization. The rupture of the City into isolated instances that mimic its functions, a destructive growth, that unfortunately has been the model to follow since the automobile boom. Suburban housing follows strictly the monstrosities of sprawl growth. These enclosed developments amount to innumerous problems of fragmentation and disconnection from the City core. These create boundaries that affect the outside as well as the inside.

The Frontiers of Commodity are conceptual boundaries that represent the multiplication of social fractures in the structure of the City, produced by the physical fragmentation of suburban sprawl. A frontier is a border between countries, a marginal region that separates, or a divider between contradictory entities. The Frontiers within the fractionated suburbia greatly limit the experience of the city, praising social fractures and weakening the integrity of the City’s structure. The purpose of this work is to portray by what means these disconnections, product of sprawl, translates to loss of city activity, or more cruelly stated, extinction of roles of citizenship. The combination of this condition, that reveals a structural frontier, and the physical fractionation, greatly increases the chances for a “medievalization” of the suburbia, in the case of a systemic collapse of the structure of the City.

The Suburban Fractionation


The fundamental characteristic that promotes the vanishing of the City in the suburbs is the physical fractionation. The closed environment of the suburb development is the protagonist of the rupture with the immediate context. The suburban fractionation has two main components. The main component is the physical rupture of the entrance and exit access roads. Suburban housing developments usually have only one road of access, enclosed with high walls around the perimeter. This rupture of the road infrastructure complicates the movement and flow within and outside the frontiers of the perimeter, also greatly limiting social communication by traditional means. The second component is the physical distance of the suburban structures with the natural nucleus of the City. This generates a loss of essential formative contact. They do not belong nor contribute to the network of activities of the city; they work independently of the other. Both components form structural isolation in the face of the city. This is a physical and social isolation, which makes the situation even more severe.

Public and Private Spheres


To understand how the does the structure of the city behaves, public and private spheres must be represented. According to Jürgen Habermas, the spheres are a cluster of people in an private environment that conform a social group that is specially motivated by its regional environment and context. These are divided in two, the public sphere, which encompasses the structure of public government authority, and the private sphere that encompasses the structure of economy, society and family. The public sphere arises from the private sphere, which was the only one that existed in ancient times. For this reason, the public sphere continues to have exclusivity in the face of society. Habermas emphasizes that the spheres have as a role to demonstrate the interests of its civil society. These interests are geographically motivated, so the significance varies depending its location.

Structural Transformation


Structural Transformation refers to the change of hierarchy of the public and private sphere’s structures. This has a parallel effect of role exchange in society. The exchange is possible because of the structural permeability created by the social-democratic system. The key to identify the structural transformation is the loss of distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere.

The problem with structural transformation lies in the excessive exchange between structures. Rights and duties are redistributed and dispersed through the spheres without pre-determined control. This redefines the physical form of the sphere and its primordial function. In the urban framework, this is considered a phenomenon of modernity, because the roles make balance with the information networks. The fractionated suburban framework cannot recompose its balance, generating inequalities between the structural influences and the rest of the city.

Jürgen Habermas calls this process, when the structural sovereignty erases between the state and society, the re-feudalization of the city. Habermas defines it as a process that embodies a fusion of the state and society, the public sphere and the private sphere, and this fusion is close to the conditions of a feudal state. The fractionated suburbs suffer in various levels of severity, contrasting greatly with the urban city experience.

Micro-Spheres: The Frontiers of Commodity


The suburban environment limits the quotidian functions of the individual. These aspects are redefined depending the inscribed context. Micro-spheres have the same definition as the aforementioned spheres, but are directly influenced by its immediate local context, not by its regional context. The micro-spheres also affect indirectly the context outside the suburban perimeter. These double layers of regional and local boundaries outline the Frontiers of Commodity. Zygmunt Bauman, with his Liquid Modernity theory, suggests the feel of the fractionated suburb experience influenced by the multiple forces that conspire against its framework. The idea of the theory can be interpolated as an “echo” of its physical condition on to its social condition.

Citizenship and “Suburbanship”


Citizenship is a concept of identity of the individual and its context. The feeling of belonging relates directly with the functions of the individual with the city. Jordi Borja presents it as a status, a social and legal, by which a person has rights and duties, responding to its inclusion to a territorial and cultural community. The “citizens” are equal between each other and cannot be discriminated. In the same territory, submitted to the same laws, they have to be equal. Citizenship accepts diversity, but not inequality. To coexist in the city, a minimum of common bouts are required, as well as tolerance to diversity. Without equality, this commitment is not possible. Citizenship originates in the cities, characterized by the density, diversity, auto-governance, non-formal standards of coexistence, apertures to the exterior, etc. In other ways, the city is exchange, commerce, and culture.

When we analyze this definition, comparing it with the quotidian experience in the fractionated suburbs, we realize that there are aspects that are simply not congruent. The atmosphere of citizenship dilutes given the conditions of enclosure and the redistribution of the individual roles (structural transformations). In addition, the Frontiers of Commodity (micro-spheres) conform the invisible layer that has as a role to prevent the entrance of the citizen experience. The city territoriality is lost in the fractionated suburbs. Social inequality exists; there are no minimum bouts; exchange, commerce, and culture are limited. The Frontiers of Commodity serve as protagonist, effectively precluding the experience of the city in the suburbs. For these reasons, a proposition of reinterpretation of the term “citizenship” for the fractionated suburbs is presented. The term “suburbanship” is the concept of the “limited citizenship” inside the conditions of social isolation and physical perimeter boundaries of the fractionated suburbs. Its definition portrays micro-spherical reference: the status or social recognition by which an individual has rights and duties sustained by its inclusion to a community, circumscribed to the local perimeters of the territory and the culture embodied within the Frontiers of Commodity.

Technology, Information Networks, and Globalization


The age of information, technology and spaces of flow today are aspects achieve flexibility in space organization for a city. Fundamentally this defines a transformation in our geographic space. Information networks offer new mediums of communication that are omnipresent, interconnected and diversified, but are also unstable and individualized. These transformations of spatial flow defy the solidity of the cities structure by granting importance to a constructed virtuality. Globalization has a tight relationship with contemporary information media. The commodity of doing instant transactions, transfer unlimited funds to and from any part of the world, connect to information databases with invisible infrastructure is a factor that impacts suburbs greatly. Not having to go out of the enclosed suburban cloister to do any type of transaction atrophies even further the possibility of social interaction with the exterior community. This becomes a reality when almost all basic life-supporting services are automated, riding on the omnipresent infrastructure.



The suburban fractionation, the structural transformation and the reinterpretation of citizenship makes us rethink the idea of continuing these tendencies that disconnect and isolates us from social activity and the city community. This involution will direct us to the total failure of the suburban project, until we reach a state of “medievalization”, the process of excessive segregation and inaccessibility, a micro-society that reaches conditions similar to the middle ages. With a sudden collapse of the sustaining networks of information, a systemic failure will occur as described by Umberto Eco:

“… the degradation of the great typical systems of the technological age; these for being too vast and complex to be controlled by a central authority… [they] are destined to collapse and in consequence of their reciprocal interdependency, to produce a retrogression of all civilization…”

This citation emphasizes the ungovernable character of these complex structures. This is one of the reasons for the autonomy of power within the micro-spheres. The necessity of auto-governance, in an event of collapse, could serve as an immediate response if resources within the micro-sphere support it. This is not the case in the fractionated suburbs, which do not enclose exploitable resources, but depend on resources external to their enclosure.



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