Suburbs Are Urban Places, Too

A scholar argues that suburbs have complex urban qualities, but they are poorly understood.

Image Andrew Reid Wildman / Flickr
Walthamstow, a suburb northeast of London. (Andrew Reid Wildman / Flickr)

While both urban and rural studies have long thrived, the academic study of suburbs is still a relatively new field—despite the fact that, as the author Peter Ackroyd has claimed, suburbs are as old as the city itself.

Taking just one example from the historical record, the carved stone relief of the ancient Persian city of Madaktu, dating from the 600s BCE, shows a remarkable distinction between the city itself, with its neatly arrayed buildings, and the suburban villas dispersed outside the wall, each with its own palm tree. This image of city contrasted with suburb is a commonplace visual and conceptual trope that has continued to feature in urban studies, especially in the past century and a half.

Relief of Madaktu, with suburban villas outside the city walls. (Project Gutenberg)

Academic research into suburbs tends to consider them separately from the city, frequently viewing them as an undefined mass within a chaotic landscape at the city edges. Rather than taking the city out of the suburb or the suburb out of the city, the intention of the recently published Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street has been to consider the two together: the suburb as a continuum of the city’s spatial–social complexity. The book therefore intends to make the case for suburban urbanity. It counteracts the binary opposition between city and suburb and challenges the perception that urbanity only exists in the city.

In considering suburbs as a continuum of the city, the book focuses on metropolitan suburban centers—both in their relation to other centers, and in the role they play within their locality. This approach stems from a desire to capture the full spectrum of non-domestic activity: people working from home, start-up businesses selling on the Internet, weekly markets, informal labor, and so on, as well as the similarly diverse range of leisure activities that take place outside of the home.

The Surrey Street Market in Croydon, south of London. (SouthEastern Star / Flickr)

For example, London, like most large urban spatial systems, consists of an interdependent network of linked centers which, when studied in detail on the ground, reveal a level of detail and complexity more normally attributed to cities. Taking the suburban built environment as a subject of inquiry in its own right and as a distinctive aspect of the spatial and temporal growth of cities, Suburban Urbanities presents the high street (in the United States, the main street), as the core of suburban non-domestic activity, as a special kind of space with demonstrable potential for creating the living heart of the suburb.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that the majority of people in English-speaking countries live in it, suburbia has remained “the love that dares not speak its name.” It is trapped by a historical legacy of aesthetic distaste from the cultural elite, such as the declaration of the International Congress of Modern Architecture in 1933 that the suburb is “a kind of scum churning against the walls of the city” and that it is “one of the greatest evils of the century.”

Suburbia is all too frequently despised and easily patronized. Critics maintain that suburbs lead to alienation; that they are homogenous breeding grounds for apathy. Yet suburbia is nonetheless the place many people aspire to live.

The view of the writer Robert Putnam, that we are all “bowling alone,” has been picked up with glee by critics as another stick with which to flog suburban life. Despite the continuing influence of these ideas, several scholars have sought to refute Putnam’s findings. Jan Bruekner and Ann Largey, for instance, have found that social interaction is less related to the density of residential areas than to the life situation of the people living within them. Yet the myth of suburban anomie continues.

Studies of suburbs, suburban history, and suburban life often end up focusing on snapshots of information, rather than appreciating the cumulative effect of small-scale changes over time or the influences of wider spatial change (such as a new highway drawing away traffic from a center) or social change (such as new work patterns) on the locality itself. Suburban Urbanities explains how spatial change and micro-anthropological phenomena come together in the suburban scale of social life. It shows that to attribute a lack of social engagement purely to a crude residential typology ignores the variability of suburban environments and the messiness of modern life, in which people travel in, around, and between suburban and urban locations.

View of Greater London. (Meoita / Shutterstock.com)

From an architectural point of view, there are some good reasons why the suburbs are considered a poor solution to mass housing. With the widespread use of cars and low densities, suburbia is now seen to represent an inefficient use of natural resources and an unsustainable approach to planning. While there are undoubtedly valid criticisms to be made of suburbia, the point this book makes is different: It offers an alternative conceptualization of suburbs and proposes that suburbs are shaped by a process that appears in many different contexts.

This process is spatial as well as temporal, and many of the examples illustrated here show the manner in which the built environment adapts to changing socioeconomic conditions by maintaining a balance between stability of the street network over time with a degree of adaptability of the shape and pattern of buildings themselves.

Urban growth that follows the spatial logic of the existing network is a pattern that has worked well for centuries. Indeed, suburban growth has been a positive solution for inner-city crowding, albeit reinforcing social class divisions in some instances.

History shows how the spread of the railways not only shaped the spatial patterning of class in cities such as London or Brussels, but also helped ameliorate the severe deprivation, overcrowding, and disease of the inner city. The development of transportation technologies shaped the lines on the ground, but also shaped social change along those lines.

As early as 1770, eight coaches a day left from central London to suburban locations, and by 1809, Camberwell in south London was seen as within reach as “a pleasant retreat for those citizens who have a taste for the country.” The subsequent development of the railways in the 19th century and the growth of private car ownership in the 20th century (and the subsidy of road building by the U.S. government) had equally important impact both spatially and socially.

The Sir Richard Steele in Hampstead, London. (Ewan Munro /Flickr)

In the U.K., existing settlements such as Hampstead, although originally outside of the urban conurbation, helped to mitigate the rawness of London’s suburban development, so that main roads which formerly might contain linear developments of coaching inns, shops, and villas, subsequently were in an ideal position to develop as London’s network of high streets.

When it was first built in the 19th century, the Sir Richard Steele pub, situated on Haverstock Hill, Hampstead, would have served wayfarers traveling from afar into London. That pub continues to serve passersby to this day, despite the transformation of Hampstead from a suburb outside of the urban conurbation to being an integral part of it.

The continuity of use of the pub building itself signals a kind of path dependency that is one of the ways in which cities such as London have managed to adapt to change.

Cities are routinely acknowledged as complex and dynamic built environments, but this description is rarely extended to the suburbs, which are generally regarded as byproducts of the urbs and therefore of little intrinsic theoretical interest. The opening chapter of this book presents a detailed critique of this widely held assumption by showing how the idea of “the suburb” as an essentially non-complex domain has been perpetuated by a range of disciplines and perspectives. It makes the case for a more substantive theory of the suburban built environment as one in which socioeconomic processes and cultural identities can be contested and negotiated over time.

The theory and methods of space syntax, integrated with those of urban anthropology, are a useful combination for studying suburban complexity—and are an integral part of the analysis presented in Suburban Urbanities.

The book reviews a wide range of empirical cases from around Europe and the Mediterranean, showing how these theories are played out in a variety of examples. In its chapter on Gothenburg, Sweden, the study highlights the importance of the spatial connections from the suburbs across the city, showing how the redesign of public spaces such as streets, squares, and parks can contribute to daily social interaction and help to overcome social exclusion by improving access both to people from elsewhere as well as to urban resources.

Just as the suburbs are as old as the city itself, there is no reason to suppose that cities will not continue to grow and adapt to change in similar ways to those which have occurred in the past. The suburbs are an important part of that story.

This is an edited excerpt from Suburban Urbanities, published by UCL Press and available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NonDerivative license © 2015. The book can be downloaded for free here. Print copies can be purchased here.

About the Author

  • Laura Vaughan is Professor of Urban Form and Society at the Space Syntax Laboratory, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. In addition to her longstanding research into London’s suburban evolution, she has written on many other critical aspects of urbanism today.