The lost world of suburbia

SO MANY miles of Britain are covered with them: ribbons of red- tiled, pebbledashed houses, the pale net curtains drawn tight inside their double-glazed windows, a Ford Mondeo parked in the paved-over front garden, with just a stained-glass tulip let into a window or a carriage light fixed to a wall to set one house off from another.

Most people in Britain live in suburbs, and we take for granted, as we drive from city to city or look idly out of the window on train journeys, that all our towns will be ringed around with those sprawling, endless mazes of closes and crescents and culs-de-sac, where families can get on with the business of living, very tidily, very quietly, remembering never to disturb the neighbours.

Now a report published by the Civic Trust, with a mouthful of a title - "Sustainable Renewal of Suburban Areas" - has accused us of dangerous complacency when it comes to the suburbs. Michael Gwilliam, director of the Civic Trust, said: "Most attention in the debate about urban renewal has been focused on inner cities. But the lack of debate about suburban areas is disturbing. Parts of them need early attention if they are to avoid becoming tomorrow's problems."

It's pretty hard to take this demand for the renewal of the suburbs at all seriously. A friend who works at one of the largest grant-giving organisations in Britain once described a meeting at which they heard an impassioned plea for more aid to relieve the desolation of urban poverty. Various assenting noises were made, and then one colleague argued that they should not, however, ignore rural poverty. More assenting noises, and then another colleague piped up. "So what's so good about the suburbs?" Laughter took over.

Why is it hard to believe that the suburbs need any attention? Well, how can we believe that peril is lurking in the suburbs when their very essence is the absence of danger? How can we possibly say that suburbs are on the edge, when they absolutely define the safe centre of England?

The suburbs are not tottering on the brink of decay, because the suburbs are, necessarily, the place where the three-piece suite is constantly re-covered, the car is constantly washed, and new and more lurid varieties of clematis are spied every few yards. For many British writers, the suburbs have been more than risible, they have been the epitome of everything despicable in the British spirit. George Orwell takes the hero of his 1936 novel, Coming up for Air, back to the scenes of his authentically rural working-class boyhood, only to find that "the countryside had been buried by a kind of volcanic eruption from the suburbs... it was all houses, houses, little red cubes of houses all alike." His suburbs are terrifyingly invincible. More than 60 years later, why should we think anything has changed?

Suburbs are the places where authenticity goes missing, and suburban people aren't meant to have anything like real character, just - at most - genteel eccentricities. They can be lampooned in sitcoms, but they don't own any drama. Can you imagine West Side Story or Wuthering Heights rewritten for the English suburb? That lack of drama makes the suburbs stifling to those who grow up there. As a child, Nick Hornby would pretend at Arsenal matches that he hailed from the dangerous city, when in fact he lived in Maidenhead. "Ever since I have been old enough to understand what it is to be suburban I have wanted to come from somewhere else," he wrote in Fever Pitch, and thousands of readers have echoed his heartfelt cry.

Having spent long adolescent years in one of those generic suburban roads, lined with semi-detached pebble-dashed houses, which I would walk up and down, up and down, to get to the Tube station for the interminable journey into central London, I know how it feels to long for a home that sits in a real place - in the city, full of energy and noise, or in the country, full of smells and thorns. Anything, in fact, rather than that weirdly silent limbo, cut only by the rumble of the passing trains and the chorus of lawnmowers starting up every Sunday morning. Everything that writers from George Orwell to Nick Hornby say about the suburbs makes sense when the nearest you get to urban life is the carpeted pub filled with couples in leisurewear, and the nearest you get to country life is the choked stream that runs tidily through the local park before disappearing under the road.

Disaffected young suburbanites are hardly alone. As soon as we get out of the suburb we start the business of reinventing ourselves, calling Pinner "north London", or reclaiming our families' long-lost roots in Cumbria or Bethnal Green. It's extraordinary how many people you meet at work and university who seem to hail from either Sloane Square or Broadwater Farm - depending on what identity they choose to mask their suburban roots - but who in fact turn out to have come from Purley.

At some point in recent years most powerful commentators, from Richard Rogers to Elle Decoration, seemed to agree that the day of the suburb was over. The ideal for the city now is laid out by Rogers in Cities for a Small Planet, in which he dismisses the residential suburb as a "single- minded space", as opposed to trendy, open-minded spaces such as city squares and pavement restaurants. We're all going to live in warehouse conversions and eat in riverside cafes, aren't we? So it's goodbye Magnolia Avenue and hello City Lofts.

That's the suburb for you - a place to be taken for granted, mocked and finally abandoned. How bizarre, then, to be told suddenly that suburbs are an endangered species - and to hear the suggestion that they would be worth preserving. Gants Hill in Redbridge is one of the suburbs that the Civic Trust's report picked out as in need of attention. And yesterday it was facing a chilly, grey afternoon with a wind that blew into your eyes and made them weep. The place looked like any of hundreds of British suburbs, with its tandoori and its cinema by the station, and then, leading off from that half-hearted centre, miles of lonely roads edged with crazy paving and almost-but-not-quite identical houses with timbered gables and glazed porches.

But in the muddily verdant park there were boys in luminous sportswear playing footie, and families feeding the ducks on the ponds. Some were eager to talk about the dangers pressing on their enclave. One Asian girl, who declined to give her name, said she'd be out of Gants Hill as soon as she could. "Bits of Redbridge are really rough now, you know? There are streets where you don't want to walk alone," she explained.

"It's a great neighbourhood, but it's declining," said talkative Les Hearne, out with his wife and grandson. "They've put these motorways and these red routes right through the area, so no one can stop now. That's fine if you want to get to Stansted Airport in a hurry, but it's no good to us that live here, is it? If you can't stop, you can't shop, so the shops die. And then no one wants to live here."

"It was lovely here 20 years ago, lots of very nice shops," says Madeleine Hearne. "Now it's gone downhill."

The Civic Trust's report notes that parts of Redbridge are now entering a spiral of decline, as their local centres lose out to shopping centres in Thurrock and Dartford and their residents become increasingly dependent on their cars to take them out of the area. The suburbanites I talked to blamed the big supermarkets and road-builders for spoiling the place that had once made sense to them.

In other words, the suburbs want exactly the same things that the inner cities want: places to play, places to shop and roads that belong to people rather than cars. It will take a big turnaround in the thinking of local authorities and government to see that they get them. But if they don't, maybe the Civic Trust is right, and one day we shall be lamenting the lost heyday of the suburb.

Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, wrote a blog post attacking the app and questioning its apparent 'strong Christian bias'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Leading light: Sharma in London

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
News
Brooke Magnanti believes her reputation has been damaged by the claim
books
Arts and Entertainment
A large fire has broken out in London's historic Battersea Arts Centre
art
Arts and Entertainment
Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished
tvReview: Despite the gritty setting, this drama is as fluffy and soppy as a soap opera
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and co-director Richard Glatzer, standing, on the set during the filming of ‘Still Alice’ in New York
film
Arts and Entertainment
Great British Sewing Bee finalist Matt Chapple
tvReview: He wowed the judges with an avant garde dress
Arts and Entertainment
Driven to the edge: 'Top Gear' producer Oisin Tymon is said to have had a row with Clarkson
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nazi officer Matthias Schoenaerts embarks on an affair with married French woman Michelle Williams in 'Suite Francaise'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Prime movers: Caitriona Balfe (centre) and the cast of Outlander
TV
News
Feasting with panthers: Keynes
books
Arts and Entertainment
Strung out: Mumford & Sons
music
Arts and Entertainment
Avant-garde: Bjork
music
Arts and Entertainment
Despite a decade of reform, prosecutions and convictions of rape has remained consistently low
arts + entsAcademic and author Joanna Bourke in warning to arts world
Arts and Entertainment
Electro Velvet, made up of Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas, will represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015
music
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May