Paul Barker: Let us treasure the suburbs, our landscape's string of pearls

With their concern for price and privacy, these modest homes are green too

Sunday 01 November 2009 01:00

A wheelie bin is covered with a glued-on print of beech leaves to make it match the suburban surroundings. High feathery fronds of pampas grass wave in the breeze. The front garden is a wondrous display of multicoloured crazy paving, part-hidden beneath a silvery off-street parked Toyota. Not "off-street" exactly, of course. There are no streets in suburbia. Only avenues, closes, crescents, roads and drives.

Today, records show that at least 84 per cent of the British population live in suburbia. But what is the secret of the suburbs? I have walked down many a Mayfield or Acacia Avenue, seeking the answer. Suburbia's enemies mock such places as uniform, dull, conformist. When were they last there? As rebellious teenagers? Suburbs are libertarian, eccentric, humane. By comparison with a city street, a leafy avenue, with its rampant hedges, has an appealing openness. Even a fruitful sense of anarchy.

Puzzlingly, "suburban" is still used as a grab-all swear word, like "bourgeois" or "fascist". It simply means something I dislike. Reviewing a revival performance last month by the pop group Spandau Ballet, one critic derided their songs as sounding "like they're stuck in a suburban wine bar". Curiously, looking back at the group's past, the same writer praised them for having been, in origin, "aspirational working-class lads".

Yet what are the suburbs, if not a pebbledash and mock-timbered embodiment of aspiration? An architectural tribute to meritocracy. Or, rather, a pattern-book tribute. Most suburbs, built now or in the past, have little to do with architects. They owe everything to the building trade. The architectural profession dipped its toe in the design of mass housing between, roughly, the 1930s and the 1970s. A disaster. See any town-edge council housing estate. Spend an afternoon walking around Dagenham, in east London, or Wythenshawe, south of Manchester. One of my greatest suburban pleasures was watching an architect-designed tower block being blown up by Hackney council, with laid-on celebratory jazz band, bouncy castle and chewy doughnuts.

Much architect-designed housing is deterministic. But the hallmark of a successful building is that you can use it for purposes for which it was not intended. Suburbia isn't static, it is fluid. Every house makes its own statement of pride in ownership. Fashion may demand that even the privet – the archetypal shrub of suburbia – is rooted out. I've sometimes thought I should start a Privet Preservation Society.

Suburbs, in their present form, were invented by the English. More specifically, they were invented in London. They're something we should be proud of. Metropolitan life is relentlessly praised – usually by writers and broadcasters who live or work in the central city. "Vibrant", "diverse" : all the dated New Labour adjectives are trundled out. But few people willingly live in city centres when they have a family. Migrant families follow the same route, as they settle in. Indians out from Southall to Harrow, for example. Bangladeshis out from Brick Lane to Upton Park and Ilford.

The suburbs are a classic national compromise between privacy and price. They are an essential component of the modern city. To ignore or despise them is to screen out the vast majority of the population.

In a historic sense, all big cities had suburbs of a kind: ancient Rome, Paris (all those faubourgs), imperial Vienna. But they crept out ultra-cautiously from the city centres. London began the same way. The Borough was its first suburb, built directly across the Thames from the City of London. You dumped here all the "offal" trades, either stinky (like tanning or brewing) or immoral (like brothels, gaming houses or theatres). The rebuilt Shakespeare's Globe is, aptly, in the Borough.

The great leap into suburbia took place when London pulled down its city walls in the 17th century. None of the other great European cities dared do this. They feared external attack. London decided it could put that fear on the back burner. By contrast, some German cities didn't pull down their city walls until the 1880s.

The new-style suburbs had much more elbow-room. As one historian of suburbia remarks : you cannot understand this entire phenomenon without understanding the love of gardens. These days, many architects and planners seem to think that the British should switch preferences: settle for apartments, keep a few plants on the balcony, and relish hearing every noise the neighbours make. No dice. Every survey shows that the suburbs are preferred. In one poll, the bungalow – that most derided of house-styles – came top. Bix Beiderbecke once recorded his own cornet tribute : "Our little love nest beside a stream/Where red, red roses grow/Our bungalow of dreams."

Hostility towards suburbs began early. It was as if they were a wild beast, with a deceptively cosy-looking pelt, which had somehow escaped from control. It was seen as a threat to established society. Since the early 19th century, every anti-suburban tract has reprinted George Cruikshank's 1829 cartoon, subtitled "The March of Bricks and Mortar". He was fretting about the houses being shoved up wholesale in Camden Town and Islington, now classed as inner city. The suburbs marched on, regardless.

For most observers, suburbia now means the houses built between the end of the 19th century and the Second World War. In a mass-produced tribute to the Arts and Crafts movement, pebbledash arrived and the semi became the builders' home of choice. The clerks and the better-off craftsmen bought a hand-held lawn-mower (invented 1870) and led the way out of town. Land was cheap. Competition from cheap Canadian wheat, Argentine frozen beef and New Zealand frozen lamb destroyed British agriculture. The big aristocratic estates sold up, in what has been described as the greatest transfer of land ownership since Domesday. The 20th-century building society was invented to lubricate the longed-for transaction.

The enemies continued to conspire against popular choice. One influential tract was called Britain and the Beast. The "beast" was the bungalow. Green belts were created. Planning controls were tightened. But the suburban impulse wasn't halted. Suburbs just jumped across green belt and made suburbs of formerly independent little towns, from which the commute was somewhat longer. Within reach of a big city, villages now have little to do with farming. They are inhabited mostly by commuters, second-home owners and the retired. Suburbia by any other name.

But one effect of the anti-suburban battle is that the newest suburbs – let's say since the 1970s – are built on tighter plots of land. Look at most recent "executive homes", detached but built awkwardly cheek by jowl. Planners had come up with a new concept: a suburb without elbow-room. I doubt if these suburbs will endure, and be as loved, as many a pebbledash semi. When did you last see a semi – unlike a tower block – blown up?

Ecologists sometimes attack suburbs as not "green" enough, but they are very green indeed. Trees and flowers flourish. The garden centre is where you go now on a Sunday, instead of church or chapel. Suburbs usually offer better services: schools, GPs' surgeries, playing fields. To most people, these things matter more than the precise design of a house.

Currently Britain is building fewer houses than at any time since the 1920s. Anti-suburban planning restrictions must take a large share of the blame. The shortage meant that house prices rocketed. There are signs that prices are creeping back up. The penalty falls on the have-nots, rather than the haves. Aspirations are quenched. Among the many ill-effects : the bitter competition for houses has given the British National Party its most fertile ground.

Those who snobbishly despise suburbia seem not to realise how unwavering the popular preference is. It shows no sign of going away, however fierce is the attempt to cramp it. Psychologically and socially, it delivers the goods. Suburbia's enemies say: Do Not Pass Go – we'll kindly allot you a small flat, far from public transport, on some grim ex-factory site in furthest-flung east London or north Kent.

In his Maxims for Revolutionists, Shaw said: "Do not do unto others as you wish they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same." The charms of suburbia show no sign of wilting.

Paul Barker's book, The Freedoms of Suburbia is published on Thursday (Frances Lincoln, £25)

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