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The first session, moderated by Legatum Institute Senior Adviser, Hywel Williams, honed in on the various definitions of ‘the suburbs’, how the concept of the suburbs first came into being, and how it has changed over time.
Sociologist and Labour politician, Rupa Huq, spoke of the negative perceptions, how the term ‘suburbia’ is often used pejoratively, and portrayed as such in popular culture: it is a place presumed to be boring, conformist, uniform, where nothing ever happens, the antithesis of everything thought to be good about the city.
Huq argued that these stereotypes are absolutely false. First, she pointed out, the distance that once isolated suburbia from the city is, in effect, reduced or even irrelevant, due to technological innovation. Secondly, suburbia is actually a place where new movements and innovations spring from. She gave examples of popular music and art that originated outside of central London, such as the dubstep genre from Croydon.
Eight out of ten people are now based in the suburbs and they should be proud of it, she argued. Each suburb has its own distinct identity, whereas the city is losing its individualism. She concluded that it’s time to take the suburbs seriously—they have turned into something unrecognizable from the stereotype, in a positive way.
Oliver Green, Senior Research Fellow, London Transport Museum, looked at how the London transport network shaped the development of the suburbs. The essence of suburbia is based on mobility and its interaction with the city. London’s expansion was entirely linked to railway development, leading to a complete transformation of the way people lived. It was in the first decade of the 20th century that the railway and underground created today’s ‘commute’ and encouraged suburban development.
He noted that, throughout the 20th century, suburban developers promoted the image of healthy homes, reasonable transportation fares and affordable rents, whilst also offering the middle class the possibility of owning their home. This was reflected in tube advertisements over the decades, and even today we see how development of the cross rail and other transport networks contribute to revitalised communities.
The second session, moderated by Crispin Kelly of Baylight Properties, focused on the opportunities and challenges of today’s suburban growth.
Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, spoke about architecture and suburban planning from a policy perspective, based on the competing necessities of building housing whilst still preserving a habitable quality of life.
London is a successful and leading city which has managed to attract investments and developed a very good transport system, he said. This does not mean that we should forget the suburbs; in fact, we should find ways to include them.
Urban Renewal Specialist, Fred Manson, suggested that instead of focusing on changing the nature of the city, we could change the nature of suburbia and invest in “suburban villages”, which would accommodate the ever-increasing number of people attracted to London.
Greater London, in fact, has 600 high streets, with more jobs than in the whole of the central area. He argued that policy should concentrate on the growth of each high street, with an assessment of its capacity and available land, so that each can become the centre of new villages, combining work, living and communal life. This would require political, social and economic changes and would allow locals to further define the identity and character of each ‘village’.
James Fischelis, Urban Consultant and Designer, agreed on the importance of input from local residents and argued that architects and planners should not attempt to impose their vision of how suburbs ought to be. He illustrated this by comparing two areas in the London Borough of Barnet and their respective histories—the Hampstead Garden Suburb and the Grahame Park Estate.
Fischelis explained that although suburbs were created as ‘anti-cities’, meant to separate work and private life, they shouldn’t be isolated from a place with economic activity and human interaction. In his opinion, the failure of the Graham Park Estate is due its detachment from the city. On the other hand, Hampstead Garden Suburb is surrounded by areas where it is possible to engage in socio-commercial activity, yet it is overly regulated with the strictest conservation orders. In both cases, excessive planning ensured both were cut off from the rest of the city.
Arguing against far-removed utopian solutions, and in favour of adaptability and cultural enrichment, Fischelis pointed to the example of the “suburban village” of Mill Hill which was never planned, but allowed residents to define their own space and build an integrated social and economic hub, symbiotically linked to the rest of the city.
The final conversation of the day, moderated by Legatum Institute Executive Director, Sian Hansen, explored what suburbia might look like in the future.
Adam Greenfield, of LSE Cities, shared his thoughts on the future paradigm of urban versus suburban space, the ways in which people will have to adapt to the changing environment, growing populations and what this means for cooperative relationships.
He predicted that in the years to come our current city model will find itself influenced by the informality and flexibility already visible in the less developed world. One such example is the ‘dollar van’, started by immigrants in New York’s suburbs, which increases the commuting network beyond public modes of transport.
Suburbs, he claimed, ought to be a space for experimenting with different types of service provision, as we will have to get used to different ways of managing our environment and urban space, to make it sustainable in the future. This includes recognising that one day we will no longer have the “unlimited choice” we currently enjoy with fuel, transport and food.
Greenfield pointed out that informal communities in the developing world have more frequent social interactions than western societies, which are arguably also more valuable. In his opinion, relaxed planning breaks barriers and separation between people and, when they are left to their own devices, they tend to better fill the available space. There is much to be learned from the social prosperity that flourishes in the developing world as their cities and slums struggle with the challenges of urbanisation and vast growth.
About the Architecture of Prosperity Series
This programme, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity', evaluates the impact of the built environment on human well-being and the capacity for creativity. The series of lectures, seminars and conferences address the central question of why some forms of architecture promote prosperity while others are linked to vicious effects. Further information is available here.