The lost world of suburbia
Monday 08 February 1999
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.
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