The humble burbs are a vital part of our national life and deserve to be planned accordingly. Just don’t expect those who have benefited most from their safe, nurturing communities to stop grumbling …
Last month I was naive enough to accept an invitation to speak at a small Saturday morning event at Kingston University on the subject of suburbs. The media reaction to my rather dull speech in support of suburbia has now reached Italy. Only now do I realise that speaking up in favour of suburbs is a social faux pas akin to admitting you think George Bush is an excellent president or that Girls Aloud make great records. (He isn’t, they do!)
Why do suburbs generate so much animosity? Here’s my theory. Most of those who now purport to hate suburbs actually grew up in them. They provided the safe and secure environment, good local schools and play space that allowed those suburb-haters to thrive. Those young people then went to university in the big city and came to associate suburban life with the frustrations of being an awkward teenager longing to escape. Or at least that was my experience in Kettering in the heart of the English shires.
Well my advice is: get over it. If we don’t pay due attention to our suburbs, in terms of quality of design, construction and management, we are effectively writing off 60% of the built environment. And that cannot be right. Rather, suburbs are a popular and crucial part of the urban fabric. They constitute most of the land area of our towns and cities and house most of the population.
So when commentators lay waste to the suburbs with maximum scorn, they miss the point. They are in danger of setting up an oppositional relationship between urban and suburban. And this is a false position.
Sub-urbs are part of the urban framework and should be planned to contribute to and not detract from an overall sense of place.
What can be said, quite fairly, is that in recent times the principles of good design and planning within suburban contexts have not been emphasised. This has led to a small number of volume housebuilders creating numerous developments at low densities that waste land and are car-reliant. Consequently, suburbs have been cast as dull, unsustainable, land-hungry and unattractive.
Suburbs provided the safe and secure environment that allowed the suburb-haters to thrive as young people
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Well-designed suburbs can provide an excellent option, popular with tenants, for replacing run-down edge-of-town council estates. They can help improve housing choice and address the shortage of larger properties for families. And they can help to reconcile national and local planning objectives, often representing different political hues, by providing developments at mid-density that can fit within the existing suburban landscape.
Developed at the right scale, suburbs can be sustainable, especially if they are connected to public transport networks and take the opportunity to build in renewable energy provision and wildlife corridors.
I realise that there are some groups out there who want to use the suburban model to promote a free-for-all in terms of land-use planning and a disregard for green-belt policy. These people should be ignored. But from the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships’ perspective, much of the housing we fund will be in suburbs. It is therefore incumbent that we design and plan our suburbs well, with the best architects, planners and environmental engineers grappling with that task.
It is time for the suburb to be celebrated as an important contributor to the English urban tradition. It is time to recapture the spirit in which the first English suburbs were built, and to produce 21st-century models that in time can be equally cherished and celebrated – suburbs that are superb.
Jon Rouse is the chief executive of the Housing Corporation