Suburban vs. urbane

The following blog post is adapted from text I blogged on the site about the recent publication of the edited collection, Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street with UCL Press.

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The book is the outcome of research into suburbs that started with my observations of Borehamwood, originally a village outside of London which is nowadays considered to be a suburb or even a town in its own right. Set within several main arterial roads and surrounded by countryside that no longer forms the bucolic setting of small farms that originally softened its boundaries, it is now bounded by a mish-mash of golf courses and other classic suburban edge city pursuits. Its main commercial street is as prosaic as can be, with none of the glamour that London’s more famous town centers can boast. Yet Borehamwood exemplifies the thesis of the book: that attempting to define suburbs in contrast to cities, overlooks their very complexity.

Previous spatial analysis of Borehamwood’s street layout has found that by the turn of the 21st century it had a well constituted spine of shops and businesses, supporting a network of streets containing a range of housing types. This means that the growth has been somewhat constrained by surrounding busy roads as well as limitations of growth imposed by the Green Belt. This provided pressure on the main routes through the town centre, which suffer from congestion at peak times. However, these constraints have meant that as Borehamwood has grown, it has retained a spatial structure more compact and dense than of typical suburban areas, contradicting notions of suburban sprawl. Indeed, a study dating from 2006 that compared its spatial network (by measuring built block sizes) to settings in the UK and US, found Borehamwood to be sitting comfortably at the centre of a continuum of urbanity that starts with Manhattan and ends with suburban Atlanta.

The relatively urban grid has a setting which still remains quite green. As well as small local parks and green buffers on this edge, there is a Aberford Park, a linear park running perpendicular to the high street and alongside the central spine of Brook Road. Possibly thanks to its modest scale, the park provides a convivial, walkable route for local people (see image below)

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Yet the areas still face many challenges, as do many communities in England. International economic pressures have led to the closure of many of the local industries. Many of the skilled jobs have disappeared and this has led to some quite high rates of unemployment amongst people who would previously have been taken on as apprentices in the local industrial premises. Nevertheless, the local economy has adapted to this change by converting many of industrial sites to distribution depots, or other uses such as hotels or for regional branches of companies such as insurance agencies. These generally are happy to have their back-office work done in cheaper, but accessible premises. An informal study of commuter movements reveals that large numbers of people commute into the area, in the opposite direction of the many London-bound commuters – putting paid to the perception of Borehamwood, similar to many other outer-London suburban cases as being simply dormitory suburbs.

The intention of Suburban Urbanities is to consider the suburb as an aspect of urban spatial-social complexity, rather than subordinate part of the city. We argue that attempting to define an urban particularity entirely without reference to the suburban is almost certain to fail. Instead, using spatial analysis, historical and ethnographic perspectives the book counteracts the binary opposition between city and suburb and challenges the perception that urbanity only exists in the city. Urbanity is shown to be an issue of degree rather than a binary choice between suburb and city, or suburban versus urbane.

In considering suburbs as a continuum of the city, this book focuses on metropolitan suburban centres. Taking the suburban built environment as a subject of enquiry in its own right and as a distinctive aspect of the spatio-temporal process growth of cities, Suburban Urbanities presents the high street, the core of suburban non-domestic activity, as a special kind of space with demonstrable potential for creating the living heart of the suburb. Local suburban centres can provide a rich diversity of experience for an area’s inhabitants; in many ways offering a more sustainable lifestyle than in the inner city.

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Cities are routinely acknowledged as complex and dynamic built environments but this description is rarely extended to the suburbs, which are generally regarded as epiphenomena of the urbs and therefore of little intrinsic theoretical interest in themselves. The book’s first section contains a theoretical critique of suburban conceptions and high street perceptions, in turn. Whilst research broadly recognises the complex interrelatedness across scales that is the essence of urban systems, the particularities and similarities between the spatial structure of the suburb and that of its host city are rarely examined in any great detail. The second – ‘Suburban Centralities’ – section of the book takes the reader from London to Limassol, Toledo and Tripoli, showing that local places are shaped and formed over time according to their accessibility to long-term patterns of human, social and economic networks of activity across scales.


The ‘High Street Diversity’ collection of chapters goes down a scale to focus on the high street, the active centre of urban and suburban centres. The ‘high street’ (broadly equivalent to the US ‘main street’) has many cultural resonances that flow from its functioning as a complex and dynamic entity within both the urban and the suburban streetscape. The last section of the book is called ‘Everyday Sociability’. Here the trio of chapters moves the focus onto the people inhabiting suburban space, with the first two chapters introducing an ethnic dimension to the analysis Reinforcing the points made in the preceding sections of the book, the last chapter illustrates how social productivity in the suburban centre has generated new forms of economic productivity. 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.

Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street. is edited by Laura Vaughan. It was published in London on 12th November 2015 by UCL Press. doi:10.14324/111.9781910634134

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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