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Rob Shields: Feral Suburbs / Cultural Topologies of Suburbia: Notes on Social Reproduction and Global Oil Circuits in Fort

McMurray, Alberta Creative Commons non-commercial copyright 2011 Abstract
Through case studies drawn from Ft. McMurray (Alberta, Canada) near the Athabasca Tar Sands, builders', residents' and public officials' attempts to develop neighbourhoods in the midst of an oil boom and bust economy are considered. Drawing on interviews with these actors, photographs and participant observation, this theoretical paper considers the circulation of 'cultural forms' across a novel cultural and economic 'topology' in the production of new suburbs through crown land release and development. Within a highly constrained planning context, the adaptation of land development policy and practice as well as attempts to stabilize a highly dynamic economic environment create 'works-in-progress'; built environments that attempt to materially render the circuits and forces of a global petro-economy habitable in the name of social reproduction. The label 'feral' is advanced to highlight how these ‘'burbs’ transfigure preconceptions of North American suburbia as a cultural form. Residents of Ft. McMurray perform novel syntheses which impact on the actualization of cultural forms, including household and community. Keywords: suburb, cultural form, flow, topology, community, social reproduction, planning, Fort McMurray June 19 2011 Contact: This paper was developed from a presentation at the Creative Cities Symposium, Queensland Univ. of Technology, Brisbane Australia, Oct 2010 which is podcast at A revised version is submitted to International Journal of Creative Studies and further versions have been presented at Peripheral Visions Conference, Kingston Univ. UK June 2011.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun By the men who moil for gold. (Robert Service The Cremation of Sam McGee (1956 [1917]) A more recent rush for 'black gold' in the Canada's boreal north has driven the expansion of Fort McMurray, Alberta through a series of boom and bust cycles over the last thirty years despite its isolated location, a four hour drive north of the nearest city, Edmonton (see Figure 1). As in Robert Service's poem about the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, strangeness vies with normality as cultural and economic forms of shift-work and suburban life are transferred to this distant setting. They remain recognizable but are transfigured in the process, 'pushing the envelope' of normal forms, recasting the understanding of local and global dwelling, community and labour markets in ways that reverberate back into everyday life under capitalism elsewhere, touching all of us. This paper is focused theoretically but derives from four years of ethnographic, photographic, participant observation and interview research with local informants done by a team of researchers from the University of Alberta.1 It considers the circuits of cultural form as they 'touch down' and are actualized in Fort McMurray's expanding suburbs. These circuits are presented as part of a temporal and spatial 'topology'; a spatialization that is dynamically warping and folding. Even the notion of circuit is too fixed a model. Cultural topology uses topological understandings developed in mathematics to approach networks that become knots, social spaces that are irregular, uneven and continuously deformed under external forces. It models the cultural universal and globally-shared experience of relating to a world and environment as a time-space that is changing by the year, rather than in units of lifetimes (Shields, forthcoming; Hall 2010; Wegman 2008; Blackwell 2004; Hetherington 1997). New proximities emerge between geographically distant points; time speeds up (Jones 2009). New conjunctions of time blur memories and promises together – just like what would
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be, for most, the lived antinomy of a 'midnight sun'.2 This 'strangeness' affects a wide range of practices, understandings and frameworks for action today: global transportation links are routinely created and cancelled depending on economic cycles meaning that relations to other locations and centres has flickers in its intensity; the porosity of borders changes; relationships with landscapes and landmarks are re-imagined, where shorelines and high ground lies must be re-adapted to. These articulate not just a never-resting rescaling or even 'trans-scaling' not only of spaces of governance and economic action (cf. Brenner, 2003; Rouhani, 2003; Warner & Gerbasi, 2004; Gualini, 2006), but a reconfiguration of the temporalities and spatialities of social reproduction (Gregson & Lowe, 1995; Marston, 2000; Marston, Jones, & Woodward, 2005) and of self-understanding of subject and communities. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, shifts in the notion of presence imply corresponding de-individualizing and de-socializing changes in individual's self-understandings as egos or subjects present to themselves. Rather than comparing and contrasting a limited local scale (suburban life) against the flows of the global petro-economy, this paper envisions these scales as integral to circuits that can be usefully seen from below in an embedded manner (Jones, Woodward, & Martson, 2007:265). These circuits, however, are not only circulations of actual materials such as workers and their families flying in and out or massive pieces of equipment towed up Alberta's Highway 63 to the mine sites. They also include more ideal representations and intangible goods that must be actualized in place or evoked in absentia through stylistic and cultural references. These include digital transfers of money and technical information, and even the stereotyped conception of North American suburbia (see Figures 2, 3 and 4). [Figure 1 about here. Caption: Aerial photo of Fort McMurray area (bottom left) from the South east, showing nearby oil sands mines (top right) to the north, downstream along the Athabasca River. Less visible is a grid of cuts through the forests for pipelines to in-situ extraction wells (Source: Rob Shields)] Fort McMurray (pop. 85,000 plus or minus 15,000)3 is a regional administrative centre, located just south of the controversial Athabasca Tar Sands, one of the largest deposits of bitumen – an oil resource on the scale of a Saudi Arabia4. It is transforming the Canadian economy and balance of power while sucking in tens of thousands of construction, mining and oil workers from around the world. Respondents foresee expansion: 'we know we are going to grow. We’ve targeted 250,000 people by 2030. Workers often commute for two week shifts on non-stop company Airbus flights to private mine-site airports from across the continent. However, in response, locals have aspired to develop community by expanding suburbia as a family-oriented community form: If these people brought their families in, all of a sudden you’re in more of a family orientated community again like it was when I first moved up. And you see that where people are renting out rooms and basements and that kind of thing because of accommodation issues that we had. I think that part of that loneliness, that distance apart, gives you some dysfunctional families as well which doesn’t make a lot of sense. We had that discussion with my son-in-law and my daughter as well because they wanted to move… he said I can sell my house for so much, move somewhere else for less money and just commute. I said, how long are you going to do that for? You’re going to be gone, your shift is six on, six off you know…you’re three days, three nights, six off you know first of all you need a place to stay up here. I’ll live in camp. Okay, so you live in camp. I said, you’re driving up all the time or taking the bus. Now you’re on the highway
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constantly and my daughter’s down there, in a house, by herself. While over 20,000 live in work camps,5 others have settled despite the boom and bust economy. When asked what they would like to see happen for the place, one of our interviewees puts it this way: 'Better housing opportunities. I’m going to be depressed here myself. I’ll probably have to rent for a few years.' 'Your $1400 a month isn’t doing it for you there?' 'It gets me a room in a trailer. A 6x6 room. I’ll be lucky if I get a window...' Many rent basement suites and rooms in the new suburbs laid out on newly cleared land, bulldozed into the pine forests and muskeg bogs of the plain above the downtown of Fort McMurray, which is situated in the valley at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers (see Figure 1). At this time, Parson's Creek and Saline Creek areas have been released for development (see Map, Figure 2). The Province is acting as developer, investing more than $166 and $75 million to drain these areas and prepare basic access routes and utility trunk lines. By 2012, Phase 1 of Parson's Creek covers over 450 acres and will house 24,600 people in 2000 new homes and 6000 apartment units, of which 20% will be rented out by the Wood Buffalo Housing Authority at below market rates.6 [Figure 2 about here: please print full page size for readability. Caption: Land Release Options Map for Fort McMurray including Parsons Creek (upper left) and Saline Creek areas (lower right) (Source: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Council Report)] Suburbia as Flow and Cultural Form Suburbs stand not only at the expanding edge of cities but at the intersection of the transnational and the domestic; they are internationalized architectural and planning forms, but act as the contexts of affective emotional life, intimacy, household accumulation and social reproduction. Global and local scales are often thought of as in tension, but they are engaged by local developers, leaders and residents to form a novel synthesis, a new kind of place-making that impacts on the actualization of other cultural forms including 'community'. The suburban synthesis of family life, consumption practices, the tying of housing to household accumulation strategies, commonsensical state schooling and organized sports for citizenship is not only a built environment. It is also a social apparatus for constituting subjects who are as placeless as their surroundings and whose allegiances are no longer to a village or locality but to an abstract global economic system (on the relational political dilemma of these citizens see Masuda, McGee, & Garvin, 2008). Suburbia is thus not simply a low density urban form, but also a cultural form of community (or interhousehold sociality). By 'cultural form', I mean the contingent formatting of social forces and flows onto local conditions. In this process, forms are neither completely reinvented nor are they simply derived or copied from pre-existing originals. In ways that may be minor but are still significant, as they circulate, they are 'transfigured' as Iain Chambers once put it in discussing the need to acknowledge the different cross-cultural histories leading to a complex and syncretic present (Chambers, 1994: 74). This shifts away from interpretations of meaning toward comparative approaches which privilege the materiality and circulation of forms and the transfigurations they undergo in being actualized in social space (cf.Gumbrecht & Pfeiffer, 1994; Gieryn, 2006).
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In a speculative ethnography of these circulating forms, Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli argue that cultural forms carry out the important 'ideological labour of constituting subjects who can be summoned in the name of a public or a people' (2003:386), such as a community or citizens. They do this by creating circuits in which information and abstractions, such as representations of a place or of groups, circulate (cf B. Lee & LiPuma, 2002:192), and through which they recognize themselves and develop a spatialization and social imaginary of their relation to others in other places and times. In the context of suburban living, despite the typical inadequacies of explicit markers and institutions of community, there is nonetheless a coordinated labour of place making, constant upkeep, exchange of favours, and the constitution of a sense of home that is not only a household matter, but takes place in a social context. Private property militates against consideration of long-term implications and effects on neighbours unless countered by planning restrictions (cf. Oestereich, 2000) that in turn make development of public areas complex and often beyond the reach of local residents (cf. Heller, 1998). Nonetheless, there is a broader oikos of suburban dwelling that can be glimpsed across the hypostatized objects of property: it is virtually part of this symbolic circulation of encounters and avoidances, gestures, glances and small talk. According to one respondent, the size of Fort McMurray seems to foster rapid integration and community events: 'You mentioned Santa Claus parades. Are there other kinds of public events or public places...?' It’s ongoing. At any given point and time. Like I heard on the radio this morning and I must admit I didn’t hear about it before but there’s some sort of family skate… You heard about it? ...There’s always that kind of stuff going on. And there’s some pretty big take up on it... there was just blocked you couldn’t…it was hard to find a place to stand, let alone sit. These circuits or assemblages are virtual7 matrixes; assemblages in which culture, subjects and a people are continually synthesized. They are constitutive of identities and how things manifest, not performative realizations of an original code or ideal type.8 These 'circulations' (cf. D. Gaonkar & Povinelli, 2003:358) are not objects or institutions, but flows: circulatory systems relating, mediating, distributing and allocating. Gaonkar characterizes this approach as an 'ethnography of forms [that], for want of a better term, can be carried out only within a set of circulatory fields populated by myriad forms, sometimes hierarchically arranged and laminated' (Gaonkar and Povinelli, 2003:391).9 This builds on the more urban and material interest of Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma (2002; LiPuma & Koelbe, 2005). Their programmatic focus on circulation represents one strand in a shift toward cultural flows (Canetti, 1992; Deleuze & Guattari, 1987; Rob Shields, 1997) and mobilities (Sheller & Urry, 2006; Urry, 2010). Paying attention to how forms and objects change in circulation, one can start to uncover the politics that influence them, that is, the power dynamics that constitute and calibrate publics in and across localities. 'A Fort McMurray of the Mind' Unlike most single-industry resource towns (for which there is a significant sociological literature not surveyed here), Fort McMurray sits astride a 100-year petroleum resource, and this time-frame has belatedly forced governments to focus on the social issues raised by such fluctuating migrations. Workers circulate between distant hometowns, importing regional and foreign cultures into a local mix of diasporas. Because most are temporary residents or even just passing through en route to a nearby oil sands mine camp, there is little time to form diasporic communities. Instead, cultures are 'sampled' and remixed with the local vernaculars, such as trucks with safety flags on tall antenna-like
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'buggywhips', or jackets and overalls with reflective tape. Both are part of work site safety requirements that have become a habit, an unselfconscious but streetwise marker of belonging on this frontier. [Figure 3 about here. (Source: Where is Fort McMurray? Youth Photo Project, A. Lozowy (University of Alberta). More information: Where is Fort McMurray? Group on and Copyright 2009) Indeed there are residents who can count themselves as amongst the first employees of the enormous corporations that pioneered the development of the oil sands – 'I was Syncrude employee number --' [number removed] cracks an elderly man and a respectful hush falls over the coffee shop. This is a claim to more than history: it situates this person as one of the founders of a community – ur-labour – a prime mover of the subsequent and future flows and wealth, locally, nationally and throughout the global petro-economy. Fort McMurray's suburbs are part of a switching point where financial capital is exchanged for labour that is housed, harnessed and reproduced in the name of oil as potential, power and action. It is more strategic than any board room or trading floor; one might read the presence of Canada's largest and most active military base near Cold Lake on the south eastern sections of the Oil Sands as an indicator of its geopolitical destiny: energy superpower. Rather than approach Fort McMurray as a study in globalization to be ranked in relation to an archetype, such as Tokyo or New York, and to be analysed for how it conforms to a pre-established model, it should be approached as a case history that stands on its own merits as an instanciation of the circulation of cultural and economic flows that relate the local to the global. Local shifts in forms have implications for the ways in which forms are transfigured elsewhere and at other times. Any one case history has analytical implications for all others because each demonstrates what motivates and transmutes the flow of forms across a global weave of relations. This is a topology quite distinct from the physical distances mapped by geographers. For example, any Fort McMurray can be drawn close into the energy security calculations and instantaneously-relayed decisions of a distant geopolitical player: a state, such as China, or non-state actors, such as Greenpeace or Imperial Oil. A sense of the world shrinking as workforces become globalized and families becoming spatially distanciated as parents leave children in Manilla, Houston, Halifax, and Aberdeen and Caracas to work in such places suggests that a new spatialization of the world as a normative space of distance and difference is being constructed and with it a new social imaginary (Shields, 1992). What then is one to make of Fort McMurray's mode of land and community development that is so patently 'suburban' (see photographs – using the language and images of the North American middle class rather than in any local, working class terms, or in the village rubric of the surrounding Métis and Cree settlements? In interviews, our respondents refer to distant cities when discussing Fort McMurray, such as referring to boxy houses as 'Calgary houses' or using arrows to indicate that 'home', 'fun', or 'out' exist off the pages of sketch maps (discussed in Dorow & Dogu, 2011). Following Lee and LiPuma, forms such as 'the suburb', or 'the domestic' or 'home' within suburbs, are 'fetishized figurations' of the underlying performativity of particular types of landed and financial capital and community (2002). As Park (2011) shows, although most writings about suburbs describe houses, roadways and so on, any suburb is less manifest in representative objects than as space-time structures of circulation and flow, or topologies of relations (Shields, forthcoming). These topologies are spatially characterized frames of reference that include not only land and construction. They area set of public spheres or time-spaces of collective
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engagements. They unfold their own temporalities and spatialities at a socially meaningful level of action – whether this be schooling, auto-mobility or fund-raising for disaster relief in Haiti. Topologies are the conditions or the structures or cultural landscapes of circulation and flow. What is most useful in cultural topology is the break with a static present that is set up in a sovereign relation to the past and future as points on a line of progress, and a break with Euclidean space that understands the world in simple terms of nearness and distance that are measures of absolute presence and absence. Instead, the topological present is heavy with the promissory tales of future wealth, of 'making it', and is populated by memories of distant places that twist time and space into knots. These unfamiliar patterns confound cultural categories of time and space. Many of our respondents are motivated to earn money for families left far away yet constantly in their minds. Such presences have a flickering quality, both present and absent. In response categories have to be reconstituted, reactualized, in part through the stress n active participation in community life. Describing Fort McMurray's suburbs only in terms of Euclidean three-dimensional space (see Figure 2) or the perspectival space of the streetscape (see Figure 4) does not do them justice. Given that its suburbs are extremely heterogeneous in population and that they offer mixed tenure (rental and owneroccupied), a mixture of households (single, shared apartments and houses, couples, families and so on) and housing forms (low-rise apartment buildings, row housing, detached houses), qualities such as neighbourliness and the clashing space-times of different oil migrants inflect the distances and intimacies of this lived space. What appear to be conventionally-rooted new developments are themselves nodes at which distant, disjunctural spaces and homelands are knotted into provisional social spaces. These communities reflect peoples' different degrees of commitment to place as undecided newcomers, temporary economic migrants, or immigrants making a new life and actively constructing social networks around themselves (Dorow and Dogu 2011). Suburbia as a reified form is a superficial and ambivalent mask for these engagements with place and with others (Park 2011) that seek to carve out and re-establish the dominion of dwelling and domesticity in the Boreal North. Fort McMurray's feral suburbanism Set up above the river valley, suburbia in Fort McMurray is independent of the pre-existing downtown. Even the definition of the place as a city is elided into the equivocal term ‘urban service area’. People are highly mobile, travelling hundreds of kilometres to Edmonton to shop or flying out for weekends in Las Vegas (Dorow & Dogu, 2011). The households of single-family homes are extended with migrant workers as lodgers, and almost no one escapes the temporariness of the Tar Sands as a place to work, but not an ideal place to grow old in. Builders, residents and public officials have attempted to accommodate a population which has fluctuated dramatically, expanding rapidly over about 5 years, then contracting during 2009, and returning to expansion at maximum velocity by late 2010. Both suburbia and what it means to 'live' somewhere, or to form a household, are transfigured in Fort McMurray which is shot through with flows of people, capital, technology and the logic of commodity consumption as well as the demand for oil driven from China and the United States. Fort McMurray's suburbs are simultaneously well-planned suburban developments and inadequate, or unsatisfying, places to live. Hence the term 'feral': suburbia escapes from a taken-for-granted tameness or ceases to be domesticated. The photographs clarify the strong juxtapositions, and also reduce the tendency to see Fort McMurray's suburbs as 'less than' others. This case is not an icon of some ideal or typical suburb elsewhere. Instead its meaning is indexical of a circulating form that is actualized differently in each case (see Straw, 2010) – and with a particular singularity in Fort McMurray.
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'Feral' hints at the ferocity of the forces of petroleum resource exploitation that so dwarf other forms of engagement with the region's resources as to push other industries such as forestry aside, not to mention trapping or subsistence activities.10 The synonym, 'wild', reminds us of the almost impenetrably boggy forest at the end of the street, which exists in striking contrast to the vinyl-clad exteriors of suburban houses and their vehicle- and RV-filled driveways which could be almost anywhere. There are no agricultural fields to expand over: residential suburbia collides with a vast ecological totality that retains its complex otherness despite the surveyors cuts through the forest. For example, suburban life in Fort McMurray means to be melancholically governed most of the time by the isolation imposed by the expanse of wilderness, to be fatally forced to respect its climatic extremes, to grimly wrest oil wealth from the strata of the area, or to joyfully respond to its beauties. Suburbia is not a homogeneous form, but a manner of characterizing certain social and built environments topologically. That is, it turns on assumptions and stereotypes that are as much about the materiality of the place as they are about the virtual, ineffable aspects of the place as a social world. Fort McMurray, like any suburb, is not only constituted by what is present, but also by what is absent and what is far away – indicated by those lines of flight on respondents’ sketch maps. Understood as a form, suburbia is only an intensive ordinate of broader forces and flows. Forms may be instanciated merely by performative quotation. For example, when a neighbourhood is not literally but 'as if' a suburb. Rather than fulfilling all the defining elements one would expect, a material context (e.g. houses) is set in relation to a conceptual typology (e.g. suburb) that constitutes a normalizing context for certain actions but not others, thereby spatializing a locale as, for example, primarily domestic or (perhaps appropriately) lacking the full complement of urban services. One of the key qualities of suburbs is limited consumption opportunities. Responding to team-member's comments about the lack of commercial space in one area of Fort McMurray, an interviewee says: 'Oh yeah, when they laid out this area, they really underestimated what they should…this is what you call…this is suburban. And a real suburb is you drive out of it to get your commercial, whereas what we were pushing is we want a more urban feel to it, which means you should be within your five minute walk/hike/drive/bike whatever. You could do your weekly things. And here you can’t even do your daily things. You have to get out of it.' Some needs and aspirations are displaced elsewhere to places such as Las Vegas (Shields, 2011), where a pure spectacle of consumption reigns, or to the hometowns of the many temporary migrants, where family life carries on in their absence, or where society awaits their reintegration as community members. These relationships manifest themselves in multi-layered flows of messages, hopes, dreams and mobile bodies in the many flights 'out' and 'south' that are the vectors of escape. In turn, these circulations mark Fort McMurray's suburbs like the tire tracks of the heavy duty pickups, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and 'quads' favoured by the oil workers. [Figure 4 about here. Caption: Apartments at Eagle Ridge, Timberlea area, Fort McMurray (Source: Rob Shields)] Land Release: Creating Real Estate from Natural Space Part of the spatialization of Fort McMurray is to rigorously separate the spaces of social reproduction from spaces of production – the forested rural region that is the site of resource extraction. New housing in Fort McMurray has developed through a slow process of the incremental release of parcels
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of land to private development from the surrounding Crown Land controlled by the Provincial Government (see map, Figure 2). This takes place on the basis of requests from the local government, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) which also controls the 'urban service area' of Fort McMurray since its dissolution. The RMWB has tended to operate partly as a surrogate city council, and partly as a regional industrial development authority, with many complaints from the actual residents of the vast rural area surrounding Fort McMurray (Lagendijk, 2007). Even if it is gridded by surveyor's lines and has been minutely assayed by mobile seismic units looking for the characteristic echo of subterranean oil deposits, land release is a process of bringing space like boreal forest into the property system where it becomes real estate. Divided into lots, it will be interchangeable with suburban lots in Minnesota through the medium of money. The process surpasses the creative as it is almost alchemical: the sovereign sets in play a ritual of legislative fiat by which earth itself is transfigured, pulled out of one semiotic system of nature to be reborn as capital in the form of land. Many respondents have expressed anxiety about the involvement of multiple levels of government in this process, which entails cross-jurisdictional collaborations with which few have extensive experience. The production of these suburbs is through a mixture of public-private oversight committees, outsourcing to private developers and a syndicalization of risks of development to large private sector employers, such as CNRL who wish to encourage skilled workers to remain with the firm. As a form of company town, public-private partnerships in infrastructure and recreational facilities are extended into families' everyday lives not only through awareness of the importance of the oil sands industry, but through financial ties and other bonuses which go beyond remuneration. They are also extended through the formation of family life via the structure of time and the production of suburban housing and neighbourhoods, where diversity is limited by the sheer fact that all residents share in the same economic fate and fortunes of the oil sands. Despite the rushed urbanization of Fort McMurray, the government prides itself on the parsimonious amounts of land allocated for development, its diligent review of public interest and the careful extinguishment of any native claim in the process of ‘land release’. However, the process is anything but clear and transparent. An earlier organization of the forest through the trap lines of clans and individual trappers that formed a sovereign traditional land use before industrial scale forestry or oil development is erased in the land release process and only vaguely recalled in the network of wooded trails through and around the new suburbs. What Lefebvre (1974) views from a European perspective as 'Natural Space', Aboriginal peoples understood as spatializations of the land in which they saw themselves as an integral element of the forest, or as shamanic stewards of natural cycles. Such a spatialization is part of a body of traditional knowledge that is almost impossible to recode into the alienated language of property and objects (see Thornton, 2010; Taylor, Firedel, & Edge, 2009; Nadasdy, 2002). This web of relations and circuits of harvesting and offering is forcibly interrupted by a transnational regime of flows: global-scaled capital, first the fur trade, then timber, then continental oil production-refining and consumption networks. Suburban development is a case in point where old models of the company town are reprised in the form of new public-private partnerships and co-governance by collaborating levels of government. Different jurisdictions and scales of government, as well as private sector partners, are yoked together around the project of the locality (a very condensed form of new regionalism (Paasi, 2009)).11 Much of the frustration of local builders is in the meddling of the Province or the arrival of national scaled
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development firms as the first movers of development in the form of development zones and plans. Main developers service large tracts of land, sometimes on behalf of the Municipality (RWMB), installing sewers, electrical service, main roadways and new interchanges with arterial roads. In recent cases, the provincial government has become more involved as not only a facilitator, but also a developer by taking the role of guarantor and partner to land developers who ready the area for development. In turn, subdivisions are zoned, planned and roads and services established. Further down the development feeding chain, builders buy specific tracts to construct homes, apartments and retail strip malls. The resulting landscape in completed developments such as 'Eagle Ridge' or in new land parcels such as 'Parson's Creek' is not only suburban but a branded space with particular design mannerisms (e.g. fake 'Tudor' posts and beams, plasterboard simulations of more massive elements of historical styles), colour schemes and so on, which become a shorthand for the normative zoning of particular types of occupancy and thus of family units. The slow pace of land release means that land is always in short supply despite the miles of surrounding forest. 'Look at all that land...' we naively comment in an interview, and are corrected: What do you mean you’re [we are] surrounded by land... the fact remains we’re surrounded by Crown land . . . the land the municipality controls right now is becoming very, very small...we have something like maybe 22 hectares of available commercial land if that...when we need probably something close to 1,000...based on projections. Fort McMurray is like an island of 'property' amidst a boreal ocean of oil and gas exploration leases and raw, treed 'land'. As 'land is released' into the legal property system, each parcel is developed independently of other areas, resulting in a series of relatively disconnected 'pods' on the plain above the river valley site of the original settlement (Waterways) and the downtown where administrative services are still mostly centred (see Figures 1 and 2) . While some apartment buildings were built in the city-centre in the first boom of the late 1970s, single family homes 'in suburbia' are the preferred model, with densification happening through the private development of basement suites for let to individual temporary workers provided with a 'living-in allowance', rather than work-camp accommodation. This is often a grey market of private rental arrangements, contributing to the difficult-to-count 'shadow population' of the town. It is incorrect to treat this as a transition from natural space to suburbia as Lefebvre suggests (Lefebvre, 1974). A Marxian approach cannot account for the complexity of alternative modernities, settler societies, postcolonial topologies or the existence of cultural and ethnic bases for conflicting spatializations. In the sites of resource extraction, nature is reduced to a form of non-human bare life (cf. Agamben, 1998). This crude resource status, emphasizing the raw caloric capacity of hydrocarbons, could be called 'bare nature'. Reduced to its energy capacity the supplementarity of values in the landscape – nature as beauty, for example, or as a complex ecosystem, including other forms of animate life – is repressed. This form of natural bare life can be consumed without responsibility for the collateral damage to these repressed aspects of the ecosystem. 'Place' may literally be consumed by being dug up and strip mined in resource extraction – a disruption for decades of flora, fauna and any habitation before meaningful remediation and renewal of the local biosphere is possible. In this manner, denial of any relation to the non-human is spatialized onto the re-organization of land as suburban property despite the increasing human and social dependency on resources extracted in the most crude manner. This exclusion deprives bare nature of participation in semiotic systems which give meaning except as a point of contrast, or as the Other to the spaces of everyday
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life. The landscape without meaning or semiotic form is technically monstrous. In stark contrast with this suburban mindset is the detailed knowledge of geological strata, of flora and fauna, the sense of natural cycles and long-term geological time that laid down the bitumen resources which characterizes interviews with elderly long-term residents. The affective relation to the surrounding forests is a felt element of Fort McMurray. The forest and 'bush' margins of the town are sites of informal camps of the most notorious elements of the shadow population. Whether employed or not, these sites are characterized as a type of hobo jungle, a shadow suburb of drug addicts and others who have failed as labour and as citizens. The reality is that these encampments represent both the newly-arrived and the destitute who cannot afford the exorbitant rents. These tents and campfires are shadow suburbs, fractals of the officially planned suburbs. Along with small trucks filled with possessions abandoned in community centre parking lots by laid-off workers who have returned home (generally to other parts of Canada), but hope to return one day, the bush camps bring the transient population to the edges of everyday perception (on the hidden margins of foreign temporary migrants see Dorow & Dogu, 2011; see Fort McMurray Housing Needs Count Committee, 2006). Unique to Fort McMurray is the sense of boundless wilderness mixed with the constrained development space and compressed sense of development time. Our respondents refer to 'Fort McMurray Years' with a 1:4 ratio compared to a metropolitan North American extent and pace of development. Because more is built in a short time, this is a place where a lifetime of experience can be gained in short order. This leads to fewer planning stages and the risk of less consultation. The local paper reported the General Manager of Planning and Development's presentation on Parson's Creek to the Municipal Council: ‘One of the most critical things from our perspective, and by that I mean the planning department, is that time is really essential to the process,’ Peck said. ‘We feel by directly going into an outline plan process, we can save six to eight months in terms of the whole regulatory process.... ‘I think there’s always a concern when we look to stray outside the box, but I think one of my concerns is that we’ve broken pretty much every box we’ve got because we pretty much have to,’ Peck said (Cilliers, 2010). Fort McMurray's hurried time-space is thus doubly compressed and constrained even if its rhythms are cyclical – ordered by times of premium demand for oil at the peaks of economic cycles when synthetic crude of the type extracted from the shale deposits of the Athabaska basin is most economically viable. Interviewees commented to the effect that, you’re gonna get to do anything you can imagine in planning. I mean you’re gonna be involved in quick like I would estimate that three years experience in Fort McMurray would be the equivalent of…maybe even 15 years in a place like’d have a file that you’d baby along for four years... Here it’s gonna happen fast and you juggle piles of things. Everything will be different and it’s unique. On a diurnal basis, the cycle of work shifts dominates both family life as much as traffic jams circulation, with corporations building their own overpasses costing hundreds of millions of dollars to ease congestion at entrances to their mine sites north of town. Shift work for both parents permeates
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family time resulting in patterns of shift parenting with attendant sociopathologies reported in interviews, such as unsupervised teens left with money to fend for themselves. Respondents reported a sense of meaninglessness attached to non-work time. Adolescents, in particular, criticized the community for warehousing youth until they were of legal working age at which time many would quit school for apprenticeships and quick money. As one interviewee put it in reaction to international political and ecological criticism: if I had to put my finger on it, you have an environment where . . . eyes of the world are focused on this region good and bad. Some people think we are the economic generator and some people think we’re the next…we are Mordor...was it? Cultural Topologies of Suburbia: Circuits of Social Reproduction Community life is founded on denials of absence; it constitutes a circle of people who are more or less present, remembered from the past and projected forward as faith in the future. Any resource-based city faces the challenge of newness, temporary residents and the exhaustion of the resource in the future. Residents are brought together defensively against outside critics of what they see as local success. The oil sands industry anticipates economic viability in the future and the technology remains a promissory note on consistent profitability. What is to come? This is the question on our minds leaving many of the interviews. The future is always a promise, but one that is in doubt. This future is mastered through extending rational planning and calculation to all spheres and levels. In Fort McMurray everyone – planners, global oil corporations, individuals – has a plan: a financial plan, a game plan, or a development plan. Given the dominant role of work, gratification is deferred and the postponement of satisfaction is upheld as a social virtue. Saving and hoping repress the present in the service of the future. This results in differential attachments to place that transfigure suburbia and its single-family developments into tracts of rooming houses (see Dorow & Dogu, 2011). However, given the long term scale of the oil sands, the development of the suburban infrastructure and scaffolding of community is a material intervention into the usual circuits that characterize unstable relationships between resource peripheries and metropolitan centres. The rush to build housing leads to awkward juxtapositions, incomplete retail infrastructure and a lag in the provision of amenities – these are feral, not quite comfortable, wild 'burbs where the pace of life and the fractured, multiplying household formations seems at odds with expectations of domesticity and social reproduction. Here, the absences that are a common feature of new suburbs seem to resonate with the presence of distant homelands, reference points, places and foreign economic and energy imperatives. In part, tensions are managed through a concerted effort to separate domestic space from the production environment of the oil sands without integrating or conceding to the surrounding boreal forest. This is done by 'creating' land and constructing suburban tracts that are as typical as possible to North American cities, resulting in neighbourhoods that are not ecological or naturalized. Fort McMurray's 'burbs are spatialized as a community against the ex-centric, de-centred spatialization of the oil industry and its migrant employees. They are works-in-progress. Satisfaction is located off the map in distant places beyond everyday life. Not only distant homes and families, but Las Vegas or the beaches of Cancun lie in wait, promised futures. Yet these suburbs are sites of exchange, switching points that embody the full richness of contemporary neoliberal petro-economies and render the urban developments of this economy 'habitable' (Roderick, 1998). They are hinges where uncomfortable forces held at arms length under the rubric of 'the global' crash into the local and into the intimacies of family and community life. This represents a new
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topology, a landscape of circulations in which lives are lived in one location, but on multiple scales and via engagements with multiple places. Feral 'burbs knot together these different flows. Suburbia is then a diagram of the tensions that are set up in everyday life. Residents draw on resources from radically different contexts and scales to weave for themselves a novel synthesis that in turn impacts on the actualization of cultural forms including 'community', public spheres and the modes by which they are represented and critiqued or consolidated. Fort McMurray and the Oil Sands proclaim their uniqueness, promise and superlative size. However, if they are something to wonder at, they are nonetheless only the latest instalments in a mode of frontier boom and bust development which stretches back over 100 years in Canada to the Klondike Gold Rush which drew migrants hoping to 'strike it rich' through hard toil and return home to live well. Dawson City, Yukon also became a boom town of 100,000. As its poet, Robert Service, wrote 'strange things' continue to be done in the land of the midnight sun. References Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (D. Hellen-Roazen, Trans.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. Blackwell, B. (2004). Cultural Topology: an Introduction to Postmodern Mathematics. Reconstruction, 4(4). Brenner, N. (2003). Metropolitan institutional reform and the rescaling of state space in contemporary western Europe. European Urban And Regional Studies, 10(4), 297-324. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. (2006). Saline Creek plateau sustainable community design charrette. Ottawa: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Canetti, M. (1992). The Crowd Crowds and Power (pp. 15-105). London: Penguin. Chambers, I. (1994). Migrancy, culture, identity. London: Routledge. Cilliers, R. (2010). Parsons Creek fast-tracked for 2012. Fort McMurray Today, p. online. Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). Mille Plateaux: A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Dorow, S., & Dogu, G. (2011). The Spatial Distribution of Hope in and beyond Fort McMurray Ecologies of Affect: Placing Nostalgia, Desire and Hope. Waterloo Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press. 271-292. Fort McMurray Housing Needs Count Committee. (2006). Report on Housing Needs in Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray, Alberta: Homelessness initiative Steering Committee, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Gaonkar, D., & Povinelli, E. (2003). Technologies of public forms: Circulation, transfiguration, recognition. Public Culture, 15(3), 385-397. Gaonkar, D. P. (2002). Toward New Imaginaries: Introduction. Public Culture, 14(1), 1-9. Gieryn, T. (2006). City as Truth Spot: Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies. Social Studies of Science, 36(1), 5-38. Gilbert, R. (2010). Expandable wastewater treatment plant finished in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Journal of Commerce, online. Gregson, N., & Lowe, M. (1995). Home-Making - on the Spatiality of Daily Social Reproduction in Contemporary Middle-Class Britain. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20(2), 224. Gualini, E. (2006). The rescaling of governance in Europe: New spatial and institutional rationales. European Planning Studies, 14(7), 881-904.
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Notes 1 Fort McMurray has not yet found a voice to equal the Klondike's Robert Service whose poem, ‘The Creation of Sam McGee’, opens this paper (Service, 1956). However, the University of Alberta team, led by Dr. Sara Dorow, hopes to begin to give voice to the place. The project has benefited from doctoral researchers, Goze Dogu and Andriko Lozowy, as well as the complementary efforts of Dr. Michael Haan (University of New Brunswick) and other team members. This research has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada and a Killam Foundation Cornerstone grant through University of Alberta. A previous version of this paper was presented at the Urban Affairs Association Conference, Honolulu March 2010 in a session organized by Sara Dorow. Some of the material in this paper has been presented at the Creative Suburbia Conference, Queensland University of Technology, September 2010 ( Elements have been 'workshopped' with planners and community representatives at 'Unwrap the Research' a community-research symposium organized by the University of Alberta City-Region Studies Centre (CRSC) and Keyano College in Fort McMurray, which was funded by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, October 2010. Further information: I acknowledge also the useful conversations of the
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Space and Culture Research Group hosted by CRSC. 2 Due to its latitude, the sun is up late during the summer months in the Fort McMurray area (56N, 111W). However, technically, 'midnight sun' is reserved for descriptions of locations further north, above the Arctic Circle. 3 'Fort Mac' as it is known, is the administrative capital for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta (the largest by area in Canada at 63,343sq km – between the size of Ukraine and Afghanistan). Fort McMurray dwarfs all other settlements (mere hamlets) in the region and lies 4 hours drive north of the provincial capital, Edmonton. It is a 'bedroom community' to the Athabaska Tar Sands, a deposit of bitumen from which oil can be extracted. Technically, it is not a city but an 'urban service area' that dissolved itself into its surrounding municipality in 1985 to access the tax revenues generated by the oil sands developments that have made Fort McMurray and its surroundings the fastest growing industrial area of Canada and probably of North America. 4 The substantial journalism and environmental reports are not the focus of this short paper but are widely accessible via internet search. Fort McMurray, its isolation and the scale of the operations to extract oil from the Athabasca 'oil sands' is a case of superlatives. The city has recently repeated a boom-bust cycle of the early 1980s. These cycles are in response to the expansion and slow down of oil sands development, in particular, the construction of upgraders (initial refining plants) and other infrastructure which attracts large numbers of construction and engineering tradespeople during their initial construction. Capital, labour and prefabricated sections of refineries travel the highways north, a mixture of solvents and bitumen (the first stage of synthesizing oil from the tar sands) flows south to refineries in Ohio through multiple pipelines. These cycles are governed by the price of oil which increased to over US$100 per barrel in 2007-8 and dropped in 2008-9, leading to a consolidation amongst some of the energy corporations active in the area (notably the acquisition of Syncrude by Suncor). It has now returned to levels which have allowed development to recommence. Oil prices over US$40-$50 per barrel make the extraction of oil from sand and shales in the Athabasca Basin economical, but prices over US$75 are required to cover the inflated labour costs of rapid development. New 'in situ' drilling technologies inject steam into underground strata to liquify tarry bitumen deposits which is then forced up another well bored nearby. The resulting water-bitumen mixture must then be sent by pipeline to refineries in the United States in order to be extensively upgraded and remixed to be useful as any form of fuel. Locally the contaminated water and wastes have not been reclaimed. The result is a set of 'tailing ponds' that are some of the largest man-made objects and have attracted international condemnation. 5 Estimated based on trucked sewage from work camps. See Gilbert, 2010. 6 Our sources include Government of Alberta and Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo reports as well as interviews and data presented in public planning and local council meetings. The key documents include: Government of Alberta Land Use Frameworks such as Lower Athabasca Regional Advisory Council, 2010; Regional Plans for the expansion of Fort McMurray, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, 2008; Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 2006 for an example of the urban design process; Tekla Structures, 2007 for an example of construction methods and apartment building types (see same building pictured in Figure 4). 7 In this cultural anthropology of circulation, cultural form as a theoretical object for research constructs form not as a material object but as a virtuality, that is, an ideal but real thing. These are not abstractions but intangible objects such as 'community' or 'the urban'. However, they rarely appear independently. Objects are thus both material and virtual – they have both substance and style. They are both static entities (material) and processual sets of capacities (virtual),
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simultaneously developing, entering into relations with other objects and subjects, and aging or degrading. This shift to circulation and form renders two sets of virtualities 'researchable' within cultural studies: circulatory processes, such as economic markets, and ephemeral but crucial mediating forms, such as community or artistic and literary genres. These virtualities are enabling matrixes within which social forms emerge and become recognizable and appropriable. 8Terms such as actualization and realization reference Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between the virtual and actual, or material, and the transit from the abstractly possible to the real (see Shields 2003) . Lee and LiPuma make performativity an aspect of circulation, that is, of actualization. They note that 'performativity has been considered a quintessentially cultural phenomenon that is tied to the creation of meaning, whereas circulation and exchange have been seen as processes that transmit meanings, rather than as constitutive acts in themselves' (Lee and LiPuma 2002:192). 9 My thinking on this has been inspired by discussions with doctoral students such as Heather Jiang and others over several years in the Virtual and Material Cultures Sociology seminar at University of Alberta. 10 By current estimates the local oil and gas industry contributes 7% of Canadian GDP, 30.8% of provincial GDP with no other sector in the Province contributing over 10%. 11 The integration of levels of government with private sector actors and even government-appointed community advisory boards accomplish governance actions (Vigar, 2009), but in so doing, they tend to resolve disputes in the allocation of resources and entitlements to authority behind closed doors. They leave in their wake debates about democratic accountability and transparency. Some research has found that understandings of social processes and the power dynamics of long term development are over simplified, and the asymmetrical impacts across the social fabric is poorly understood (Frisvoll & Rye, 2009). Furthermore, an analytical framework which places localities and regions in global economic networks may be missing. This leads to a confusion over localized growth factors (endogenous) and globalized, external drivers (exogenous – see Y. S. Lee, Tee, & Kim, 2009). Here circulation models can bring some clarity.

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