Long live glorious suburbia: diverse, accessible, spacious, sociable

It may have been damned by Virginia Woolf, but it has new champions now
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The Independent Online

Are you afraid of Virginia Woolf? You may well admire her literary genius and sympathise with her for being such a vulnerable depressive. But there's something about her which is really quite terrifying, and that's her obnoxious, insufferable snobbery.

Are you afraid of Virginia Woolf? You may well admire her literary genius and sympathise with her for being such a vulnerable depressive. But there's something about her which is really quite terrifying, and that's her obnoxious, insufferable snobbery.

There is a moment in The Hours, the movie starring Nicole Kidman as Woolf, when this arrogance is made apparent as she turns to her husband and says: "If the choice is between Richmond and death, I choose death."

To American movie-goers, the line would mean little. But to people at last week's London premiere of The Hours – the likes of Richard Branson and Elton John – it was belly-achingly funny. Their guffaws could be heard all the way from the West End to the Tudorbethan outposts of Golders Green and Buckhurst Hill. For today, just as in the days of the Bloomsbury Group, there is nothing vilified more than what Woolf called "the suffocating anaesthetic of the suburbs".

Town – epitomised by Bloomsbury – was bliss to the author of Mrs Dalloway. The country – by way of the retreat at Charleston – was fine. But the suburbs, with their rows of terraced houses, their tea rooms and their shops selling anti-macassars and aspidistras, were unthinkable. And those at the premiere of The Hours thought the same.

Suburbia's role as the urbanites' punchbag may have endured over the years, but the places themselves have changed. The suburbs of not just Virginia Woolf's day, but also Elton John's – the Fifties childhood he spent as little Reg Dwight in Pinner – are long gone. The net curtains have given way to wooden blinds; the grocer is replaced by the Italian deli selling organic produce; the stationers is now an internet café. And in Richmond you're more likely to find the houses occupied by Jerry Hall, David Attenborough, Mick Jagger and Annabel Goldsmith than the descendants of Mr Pooter.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about suburbia today is how to define it. It's hard to distinguish any more where the city ends and the suburb begins. It used to be a dormitory, where people such as Betjeman's Elaine stepped daintily off the train, her Jacqmar scarf trailing behind her. You went into the city centre to dine out, or go to university, or work for a notable publishing house. You can do all of these in the suburbs today.

They're certainly the places where most people still live. A third of us live in semis, the classic compromise between privacy and price. The structure might be the same, but each home carries its own stamp of individuality, with a hint of far more sophistication than, say, 80 years ago.

Virginia Woolf might have thought them dreary then, but people who lived in them liked them because they felt safe. The very atmosphere that caused people to leave also inspired others to stay. If the price to pay for lacking any sense of adventure was the absence of violent crime, then they were willing to do so. Yet today, many of our suburbs are just as affected by crime as inner cities. Muggings, burglaries, assaults are all common. The school run clogs the roads, the trains are always jammed to the gunnels. Suburbia's certainly not utopia.

So why not live in the heart of things, close to work, amid the buzz of 24-hour living, in the city that never sleeps, if the suburbs are no longer a safe haven?

The answer to that conundrum lies in the Skyhouses unveiled last week as a solution to London's housing crisis. Architects Julia Barfield and David Marks, the couple behind the London Eye, have come up with a plan for towers of up to 50 floors containing 500 flats. The designers say that they can build affordable housing – the flats could start at less than £75,000 – but the main reason is the high density, the number of people squashed into the site.

It's the kind of city living that suits someone at work all day, and out all night. But for people who want their own patch of garden, a neighbour to talk to, and a good school for their children, above all, who see home as a "nest" rather than a statement, Skyhouses are an architectural concept that just won't catch on. But places such as Richmond, Barnet and Harrow still appeal, because they're diverse, they're accessible, they're spacious and they're sociable. It's just a shame they're called suburbs. Perhaps if we called them "borderland", or "cityedge", even the urbanites might approve.

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