by Howard V. Hendrix

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

The language of exurbia

What does WUI (often pronounced “woo-ee”) mean to you? If you immediately recognize those letters as an acronym for “Wildland-Urban Interface,” odds are good you’re a Californian who does not live in one of our state’s urban cores. If the term WUI conjures images of CalFire and Forest Service firecrews fighting blazes in grasslands and forests, then you probably know firsthand some of the risks of living beyond the easy-access comfort zone of city services.

WUI (the “I” sometimes standing for “intermix” rather than “interface”) is part of a special vocabulary—the parlance of exurbiA&Mdash;that I’ve had to learn since moving into the Sierra Nevada. I didn’t move to the mountains to learn about urban or rural sprawl, the rural/urban fringe, or edge effects. I didn’t move here to learn about the WUI as that space where buildings (usually residences) face off or intermingle with wildland vegetation. That’s the simplest and most straightforward definition of the term, but also one that does not begin to do full justice to the complexities of that space. I moved here because I wanted to live in a place where, on clear, moonless nights, I could see the dense river of stars called the Milky Way. I wanted not so much to look down on city lights as to look up at stars. That was the space I was interested in. To cultural geographers that makes me an “amenity migrant,” although I must admit that reducing the whole of the visible universe to an amenity—to something merely conducive to the attractiveness and value of a piece of real estate—strikes me as trivializing in the extreme.

Aerial view of wildland-urban interface (WUI).IMAGE COURTESY OF NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE.

Despite myself, I have learned about more here than the names of constellations. I have had to learn to see the trees for the forest, the specific details that get lost in phrases like “wildland-urban interface.” I have had to recognize that the WUI is a boundary zone for many conflicts between human beings and our environment in California: not just wildland fires but also habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and biodiversity decline. Encroaching air and water pollution. Mountain-lion kills of pets and other domesticated animals (and yes, sometimes people). The toxic waste and toxic politics surrounding guerrilla marijuana grow-sites and methamphetamine labs—including law enforcement agencies’ widespread use of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft surveillance, and the proposed use of drones. When I look through the lens of the wildland-urban interface, what I increasingly see in its details is not so much some idyllic past now disappearing, but rather a foreshadowing of the future that forces me to reexamine my understanding of words like “diversity” and “urban.”

Initially, I found it strange that “urban” is a part of the term for this particular interface. I have lived in Riverside and Fresno Counties in ethnically, racially, and socio-economically mixed “urban” neighborhoods, as well as in locales commonly understood to be “suburban,” “rural,” and “exurban.” I thought that I knew what those words in scare-quotes meant. I seem to have been wrong.

What, for instance, is “urban” as opposed to “rural” or “exurban”? Urban and regional planners, demographers, cultural geographers, political ecologists, and rural sociolo-gists have been debating those definitions, and the issues and impacts surrounding them, for fifty years. Yet the matter still continues to be worth debating. For all of us, understanding those terms more deeply tends to lead us away from the idea that we can take for granted the characteristics of the places where we actually live, work, and play. Moreover, how a locale is defined has many practical consequences—from the ratio of grocery stores to liquor stores, to how government funding is distributed, to how corporations market their wares to residents (and which corporations will choose to do so).

Satellite image of California at night. IMAGE COURTESY OF WWW.NIGHTEARTH.COM

Yes, it’s true that to define is inherently to exclude and oversimplify, but like the experts we should at least attempt to define the problem before we set about problematizing the definition. So, to begin: Of California’s nearly 38 million people, only 800,000 (about 2 percent) are defined as “rural” by the USDA; the rest are “urban.” My wife and I are members of a still more nuanced geographic minority—Californians who live in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We number about 600,000, mostly in rural and exurban communities, but with a few suburban-style resort developments in the mix, too.

Fires from undeveloped land may impinge similarly upon all of these, but even if one considers urban, suburban, rural, and exurban as points along a continuum rather than clearly bounded regions, there are still a lot of differences among them.

Unlike the suburbs’ subdivisions and planned commu-nities, with their limited variety of approved home models on lots generally smaller than an acre, the lot sizes where I live mostly run five acres and more. This makes my neighborhood exurban, if one agrees with the geographers that exurban housing densities are one housing unit per one to forty acres. Architectural styles of residences in my exurban neighborhood, too, tend to be unregulated beyond basic county-permitting requirements.

Image source: Radeloff, U.C. et al. “The Wildland-Urban Interface in the United States,” Ecological Applications 15, 2005.

Suburban developments are generally regulated by covenants or similar agreements. Most are served by paid professional city firefighters, police, and emergency services, as well as by publicly funded roads, water, and sewage systems. In exurbia, where we live, there are fewer covenants and residents are likely as not to have their own water systems (usually wells), their own “sewage” systems (septic tanks and leach fields), and their own privately maintained roads. Law enforcement is more likely to involve the county sheriff and state highway patrol, and fire protection is more likely to be provided through county fire districts, volunteer fire departments, and CalFire.

Suburbs tend to grow houses where there were formerly orchards and row crops, but the land where I live (which the local real estate agents like to call “resort property”) was previously used for grazing and timber. That in itself might be a good way to distinguish between rural and exurban: “Rural” as historically and/or presently characterized by the large-scale row cropping of the farmer, and “exurban” suggesting far less a history, or ongoing presence, of large-scale row crop agriculture, and more pronounced historical connections to the worlds of the miner, the lumberjack, the shepherd, and the cowboy. Yet even here the boundary between rural and exurban stays fuzzy, given that community gardens, backyard orchards, vineyards, and marijuana plantings—not to mention chicken coops, horse paddocks, and cow pasturage—are not unknown in exurban areas. While our exurbia is exhaustively described by neither the genteelly pastoral “Appellation: California” nor by the grimly pejorative “Appalachian California,” those terms nonetheless do suggest realities readily seen here, often cheek by jowl with one another.


Peter Walker and Louise Fortmann, in their 2003 article “Whose Landscape? A Political Ecology of the ‘Exurban’ Sierra,” find in their Nevada County study a situation of “competing rural capitalisms”—of conflicts between what Raymond Williams termed “practical” versus “aesthetic” or “production” versus “consumption” landscapes. The “old” resource extraction-based capitalism (timber, grazing, farming, mining) is an obstacle to the “new” aesthetic consumption-based capitalism (recreational tourism and rural residential real estate development). In my own neighborhood, the shift from the old capitalism to the new was less a “conflict” than a hand-off. Hereabouts, the largest local subdivision-style development was on land once owned, and then subdivided, by an out-of-state timber company, subsequently rebranded an “energy” company, which in turn sold the subdivision plans to local real estate developers.

Cultural geographers often get around the whole “what was grown or extracted when” question by referring to exurbia as “post productivist”—as Laura Taylor does in her 2009 landmark overview, “No Boundaries: Exurbia and the Study of Contemporary Urban Dispersion,” wherein she defines exurbanites as “city people who have deliberately chosen the rural landscape as a setting for their homes” and who “commute by cars, trains, planes, and Internet to one (or more) cities and suburbs for work, shopping, and entertainment.” She writes that “Exurbia captures the phenomenon of very-low-density, amenity-seeking, post-productivist residential settlement in rural areas.” Some of my neighbors are among those Internet circuit-riders called telecommuters, of whom it might be said that they do not so much go to the city as have the city and its ethos come to them—but more on that later.

View of Fresno from Pine Ridge. PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES PARR.

Such distinctions in any case miss out on details that are just as important, such as the fact that where I live the mailbox is not within walking distance, taking out the trash involves a pickup truck, and one of the best off-label uses for a pellet gun is plinking soot off the screen of a woodstove’s chimney cap. Moreover, a homeowner benefits from knowing how a couple of tennis balls in a mesh laundry bag attached to a long pole can be used to plug from the inside the outlet of a 3,000 gallon water storage tank. The homeowner can then remove the freeze-cracked ball valve from said outlet without draining said tank.

I include these details not to make the place where I live sound “folksy” or “quaint” or somehow “exotic,” but merely to mention realities I have experienced. Many of my neighbors and I have also come to know the “dark side of exurban living (constant debt, physical fatigue of commuting, dissonance between the dream of country living and the labor of its reality)”—as Taylor writes of A.C. Spectorsky’s warnings in his 1955 book The Exurbanites. As with so many other complex matters, when it comes to defining the “urbs”—including the “sub” and the “ex”—there is more than one way to peel the onion.

CalFire and the Forest Service have their own functional definitions of “urban” and “wildland,” which understandably emphasize different details than those I’ve just mentioned. The fire services’ WUI works well enough but is perhaps too broad and big-picture—too much “forest,” too little “trees.” It would be just as functional (and admittedly just as problematic) to say that, since the modern city is most characterized by night-banishing artificial light, the city ends where the Milky Way begins. When one is far enough beyond the influence of streetlights and all other forms of light pollution to be able to see our planet’s neighborhood—several of our solar system’s other planets and myriad stars of the actual galaxy in which we live—then we’re not in an urban area anymore.

Add light pollution, then, to the WUI conflicts of wildland fires, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and biodiversity decline. Yet there are other types of “diversity decline” that should also concern us, beyond biology and astronomy.

During my twice-a-week commute to California State University, Fresno, where I teach, I see a diversity of landscapes and land uses. I pass logging trucks, cattle ranches, rock quarries, orange groves, suburban tract developments, and industrial and manufacturing concerns. Once I arrive on campus, I encounter a different type of diversity. My students are quite diverse economically and ethnically. They hail from almost everywhere, represent a broad range of class strata, and are as likely to be Hispanic, African American, Hmong, or Punjabi, as Northern European-descended Caucasian.

Yet underlying this apparent diversity is also a growing homogeneity. In 2008, for the first time ever, more human beings found themselves living within urban areas than outside them, according to geographers and demographers. When it comes to designating where the urban world ends and the nonurban world begins, these experts put forward even more numerous conflicting interpretations of that boundary than firefighters or starry-eyed writers do—but it’s clear that the trend of global urbanization is accelerating. When the experts write that 70 percent of all human beings are projected to live in urban areas by 2050, I see no reason to quibble. Although it took more than ten thousand years for cities to reach the 50 percent threshold, it will only take slightly more than forty years to cover the next 20 percent. If this trend continues, sometime in the next century the percentage of the global human population living outside cities will become vanishingly small.


Despite the apparent diversity of urban residents, many a seasoned traveler will tell you that, if you really want to know a region’s people, visit the countryside rather than the big cities. In one paradoxical respect, however, city and countryside are not so different. Agriculture made human settlement possible, and now human settlement curiously recapitulates agricultural practice, particularly the preference for monoculture. Megacities anywhere are very much alike: the socioeconomic logic of our times presses the diversity of peoples into an increasingly uniform global urban monoculture—or, more precisely, a global monoculture of the urban, corporate, and digital. As William Gibson rightly notes in his essay in a special “Cities” issue of Scientific American, cities increasingly exist within the “ageographic and largely unrecognized meta city that is the Internet.”

This reality was brought home to me when my wife and I, after having climbed to the summit of Mount Whitney, met a young man engaged in uploading to the Web, from his iPhone, every image he framed and shot from that peak. Despite the physical challenges involved in reaching its summit, Mount Whitney is also an on-ramp to the hyper-boulevards of the global virtual city.

Given satellite phone coverage, that virtual city might not be said to “end” at all, but rather to be coextensive with the surface of the Earth. The light from its streets may prove inescapable. For those of us who dwell in the dwindling refugia of cell-phone dead zones yet are already enduring law enforcement’s surveillance overflights, the idea that someday soon there may be no space on Earth free of digital oversight is something that gives us pause. Privacy is, after all, another of the amenities for which we migrated here.

Aside from the occasional concerns expressed by linguists and anthropologists regarding the disappearance of tribal languages and cultures, one hears very little discussion of any downside to this shift to global monoculture, even from scholars and activists normally quick to condemn the unsustainability of monocultures in other contexts, particularly agriculture. These days, global urbanization is increasingly touted in messianic terms as the most environmentally sound future—the “smartest,” “greenest,” and “most sustainable” alternative among foreseeable life-ways.

Because city dwellers live at higher densities in more compact dwellings and are less reliant on automobiles, they presumably leave smaller carbon footprints than sub-urbanites or exurbanites. Urban population density itself is lauded as a major maintainer of cultural complexity and a major driver of new behaviors. No wonder the editors of Scientific American, in the previously mentioned issue, proclaimed the city as the “solution to the problems of our age.”

Much of this is plausible and true, but I still have questions. Cities currently account for 50 percent of our global population—and 80 percent of our greenhouse gas production. They will have to become far more energy efficient and much more self-sufficient overall if they are ever to fulfill our great expectations for them. The popular argument that “increasing population drives increasing innovation” may have been true enough for Upper Paleolithic humans living at numbers far below environmental carrying capacity, but I doubt that technological innovation alone will find for us the way out of an environmental-collapse cul-de-sac, or that population growth on its own, without broader socioeconomic changes, will foster a golden age of innovation. When discussing cities as engines of innovation, prophets of the messianic city, the Neon New Jerusalem, tend to speak of “conurbations,” so they might include the children of the better-off suburbs as part of their urban visions. Indeed, one might observe that, over its long history, urbanism has contributed in no small part to the creation of a contemporary world that is arguably overpopulated, heatgas-insulated, corporate-dominated, surveillance-regulated, and media-hypersaturated, as unpopular and unfashionable as that observation may be, especially if true.

If California is a bellwether in this matter as it has been in so many others, then the future looks more “suburban” than “urban,” in any case. Population is declining both in the state’s urban cores and exurban counties. Meanwhile, population and poverty are growing fastest in the suburbs, although they still remain richer and less population-dense than residential zones of the urban cores.

At first blush, the more “urban” side of the wildland-urban interface might seem to have little to say to the more “wildland” side. If the WUI is not exactly a Mason-Dixon Line, it still seems something of an “Occupy-Tea Party” Line: On the more urban side of the line, gun control means legislation; on the more wildland side of the line, gun control means using the proverbial “both hands” when your neighbor passes you the large-caliber hand cannon he’s just purchased and invites you to “take a shot.” On the more wildland side, wisdom is slow; but on the more urban side, slow is dumb. On the more wildland side, people’s most often-voiced response to government is that they “just want to be left alone,” while on the more urban side, they “just don’t want to be left . . . alone,” especially during hard times.

I have little interest in romanticizing or exoticizing either the wildland or the urban side of the interface. Such broad-brush contraries, even if drawn from my own experience, again cannot do full justice to the nuanced realities. Consider, for instance, the fact that rural folk and exurbanites—partly because of their privately maintained roads, wells, and septic systems—tend to view themselves as more self-reliant than their urban fellow citizens. Yet USDA figures for 2010 showed that, in terms of all Federal funding, government support of rural people amounted to $9,806 per person, while government support for urbanites was actually less, at $9,433 per person.

Each side of the WUI needs the other’s perspective, especially when it comes to water and fire issues. Urban environmentalists (and exurban homeowners of the “new” aesthetic-consumption economy) sometimes need to see the trees for the forest. “Land use” and “land management” are not necessarily dirty words, and not every timber harvest is a clear-cut. My neighbors here in the forestland can readily tick off “seed-tree cuts,” “shelterwood cuts,” “group retention for wildlife habitat,” “group selection for uneven-aged mosaic stands,” and “single-tree selection for least impact” without even breaking into a sweat.

© Burn Institute.

Exurban land-users, however, need to see the forest for the trees and be reminded that there is a long, big-picture history of wildlands being mismanaged and abused, not least by agricultural and forestry interests of the “old” resource-extraction economy. Given the overburden of fuels in our forests caused by a century of fire suppression, some timber harvesting is unavoidable if the environmental and economic damage of unnaturally high-intensity fires is to be reduced. Yet a balance must be struck between such harvesting and damage to watersheds and ecosystems.

The people who would use the land can benefit from the perspective of those who would protect it, and vice versa. The same is true of water in California, which is in fact about a lot more than “fish versus farmers versus cities,” or the dreams and nightmares of dam builders and wild-river enthusiasts. Here, nearer the headwaters in the Sierra Nevada, a diversity of informed approaches both to the use and the protection of watersheds again works best. Water issues are like surface tension: an interface, or better, an intermix—not all one thing or all the other, but a combination and interpenetration.

The conflicts of the WUI, too, are of this dynamic kind, a tension arising from the diversity of needs, uses, and approaches. How shall we balance the practical and the aesthetic, the trees and the forest, the private individual and the connected crowd? The wild stars and the domestic streetlights? The nonurban and the urban worlds? Understanding the interplay of those forces clearly and deeply might be a first step in preventing our boots on the land from making ever-deeper carbon footprints—and might prevent us, as well, from selling our birthright of stars for a mess of wattage.

Posted by Boom California