No man's land: It was a lovely idea - a house, a lawn, nice neighbours - and it's still where most people would like to live. But for the women left there during the day, the suburban dream has become a nightmare of isolation, says Jonathan Glancey

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I like it here,' says Tracey Allison, 'because I know it's safe for my little boy.' Safety for this young mother and her infant son comes in the guise of a four-bedroomed, Mock-Tudor house situated in a spanking new executive estate somewhere in the furthest reaches of Nineties suburbia.

The house looks exactly like the ones you see in those brochures that fall from the pages of colour supplements. Tricked out with Elizabethan motifs, Mrs Allison's dream home is, behind the facade, a highly serviced and immaculate machine for living the suburban dream in.

It is also extremely isolated and accessible only by car. For much of the day there is no one to be seen through the double-glazed leaded lights. Food comes weekly from the superstore to the freezer: there is no daily trip down the high street, or roundelay of milkman, grocer's boy, coal man, Avon lady or seasonal French onion seller to animate the scene as there was in the heyday of Edwardian Metroland and the Betjemanesque suburban idyll. No parent walks to school twice a day to drop off and pick up the children. They all travel by car.

Here, in not-quite-London, not-quite-Kent, it is as if the neutron bomb has dropped: the people have been vaporised, but the houses and their co-ordinated fabrics and furniture remain standing. Exactly what sort of dream is this, Mrs Allison?

'I quite like the type of cosiness there is here,' she says, 'but really I would have preferred the show house on the front of the estate. It's not on a high street, but at least it's along an established road. That would have been nice; just to have seen some life, even somebody just walking past the front door. As it is, it's very quiet.'

Ever-expanding suburbia, the place where more than half of the English population choose or plan to live, and where lawns cover an area the size of Surrey, can be a lonely and dispiriting place, especially for women still acting the role of perfect mum, cook and cleaner. Suburbia has always been seen as a safe place to bring up children and that is a key to its attraction for those millions of people who find city life noisy, dirty and disturbing and the country unpredictable, smelly and messy.

But to enjoy this security, many mothers must subject themselves to the lonely tedium of the suburban day. 'Women are reduced or made into infants,' says the feminist historian (and mother) Elizabeth Wilson. 'The suburban way of life continues to locate them in this apparently safe space. It's not at all an adult way of life.'

Even though far more women work than ever before, their life here remains more or less what it was 70 or 80 years ago, when swapping the smog and TB of the city for the creosote and chlorophyll of suburbia made sense.

Then, suburbia represented the absolute division of work and home, maintaining the myth of the sanctity of domestic life. Women were kept as far away as possible from the corrupting city. The city was for men only, a mysterious realm that father went up to each morning on the 8.21 and came home from each evening for pipe, supper and slippers (and a spot of lawn-mowing in summer). For mother, left behind indoors with her Electrolux, Hoover, Rayburn and Ascot, the city was the stuff of unrealisable adult fantasy. And, if she did go there, on a day return, it was to shop.

Home-making and child-rearing were seen as her only rightful occupations. 'I don't think the situation is exactly the same today,' says Elizabeth Wilson, 'simply because so many women work - they get out and about more and meet people leading adult lives. But, for women stuck with baby in their dream homes in the new suburbs - sited far from any sort of social centre - there is still this sense of being nowhere, of not belonging to any kind of collective. This makes suburban women not only over-dependent on husband and immediate family, but also takes them out of the political realm. They are not really citizens; they do not properly belong to society.'

And, as Margaret Thatcher so infamously proclaimed in the early days of her premiership, 'there is no such thing as society; there are only individual men and women, and there are families'. This sally set the social agenda for the last decade: the fragmentation of society, the undoing of collective bonds, the selling off of the civic silver and the drive to develop road-based suburbia at any cost.

In the Eighties, suburbia lost its innocence and ate greedily into the countryside. Thatcher's England was smothered in formless new executive culs-de-sac, business parks sited well off the railway map and ecologically irresponsible edge-of-town superstores. Car ownership soared; public transport was undermined, hived off, deregulated.

Family debt rose and people became increasingly trapped by their dream homes as recession hit at the end of the Eighties. This was appropriate: suburbs are not just about exclusivity - keeping dangerous people and city ways of life out - but also about keeping people in. Suburban life is the dream of secure, homogeneous Happy Families.

But by making the suburban home the centre of all our aspirations, families wanting to be telly-ad-perfect are placed under ever increasing strain. 'The myth of the nuclear family is still in place,' says Elizabeth Wilson, 'and people are still buying into it. We feel that if we get this nice place in the suburbs where there aren't any nasty people, that somehow our marriage and our family will be more secure.

'This is perfectly understandable, particularly at a time when people feel under such financial pressure. But it's a myth, because so many suburban families do break up and I think one of the reasons is precisely because they move away into their own little shell. In the new suburbs they don't have the immediate or nearby support of kin and friends that they would in the city or in traditional rural communities. So, there's a great emotional burden placed on the modern suburban family.' Which takes us back to the lonely daytime life of Tracey Allison and her little boy.

Suburbia might seem an easy target to attack, yet in comparison with the lamblasting the city has taken this century, it has got off almost scot-free. Among its fiercest critics were Graham Greene, who described it as a 'sinless, empty, graceless, chromium world'. For Cyril Connolly it was 'the incubator of apathy and delirium'; for George Orwell, it was pure hell: 'a line of semi-detached torture chambers where poor, little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, everyone of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like a nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches'.

But since then academics and TV pundits - notably Sir John Betjeman - as well as soaps such as Brookside and Neighbours and the movies of Steven Spielberg (ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), have made suburbia respectable, mythical and fun. They have played to the audience, for this is where Tracey Allison and most English people choose to live.

Those who still plan to move to the suburbs are, unwittingly, bricking over the countryside while bleeding the cities dry. However well intentioned it might have been at the turn of the century, the suburban dream is fast becoming a nightmare.

Jonathan Glancey's three-part series 'Heaven, Hell and Suburbia' begins on Channel 4 tonight at 8pm.

(Photographs omitted)

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