Issues raised by students and colleagues regarding ‘suburban town centres’ – a discussion

November 30, 2006

Points made by students and others point to some genuine difficulties of concept and definition in the idea of ‘successful suburban town centres’. We are, of course, aware of the lack of precision in the use of terms such as ‘sustainability’, ‘diversity’ and (though it carries less baggage) ‘success’; ‘suburb’, by contrast, is a term where too much precision invites inaccuracy since the variety and history of the settlements that are called ‘suburbs’ at various times is so complex. Naturally, the project acknowledges such issues and will address them.

Taking this into account, however, and even restricting the argument to settlements in the UK, some people are evidently uncomfortable with the idea that a suburb might constitute a ‘town centre’ (rather than a primarily residential area) while still remaining a ‘suburb’. This is accompanied by a sense that suburbs are a strange subject to be approached in terms of their socio-economic diversity when they are so popularly regarded – with good reason – as being ‘all about’ the social-economic homogeneity (particularly of social class) associated with the traditional middle-class aspiration of ‘getting away’ from the social problems of the city. We need to take these objections seriously as it will affect our ability to explain our rearch agenda and disseminate its results (beyond its immediate audience) if we take as self-evident that suburbs are ‘town centres’ and potential generators of diversity and that these are desirable outcomes.

In working towards a resolution of these contrasting positions, it might be thought that the traditional idea of the sparse, residential, rural, socially homogenous suburb suggests a centrifugal image of the city within a strongly hierarchical region, whereas the idea of a ‘suburban town centre’ suggests Stephen Marhsall’s (Marshall, S. (2006) ‘The Emerging Silicon Savannah, Built Environment 32.3, pp.267-280) image of the ‘semi-urban’ settlement within a postindustrial ‘polycentric’ region. A contemporary Greater London suburb, I would argue, certainly needs to be approached in both ways. The relationship of a suburban centre to the major central place, as well as its position within a more variegated pattern of settlements both need to be considered in order to break down the unhelpful binary opposition of ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ – we might talk about the ‘urban’ in the ‘suburban’ and vice-versa. The way this research project is framed, I think, tends to privilege those places which are ‘centres’ against what many people may understand intuitively as being ‘suburbs’. This is partially because we are less concerned with residential ‘sprawl’, so much as with how the sustainability (in the sense of durability) of suburban centres may have a role to play in minimising the numerous socio-economic and ecological difficulties of low density housing. What this project promises to bring, I would suggest, to the consideration of the academic-political clichés of ‘sustainability’ and ‘diversity’ (we prefer ‘success’) is a fundamental acknowledgement that people like living in suburbs and much of the way of life that goes with suburban living. In other words, we are not trying to ‘reinvent’ the English suburb, so much as identify what constitutes a successful suburb on its own terms – and what can be done through policy and design to maximise this potential so that people might like living in them even more.

I think the approach we have to take is pragmatic (as most people must be in choosing where to live). Since we can’t all choose to live exactly where we want (for example, in the town centre or on a country estate), we have to rub along somewhere inbetween, with people who we wouldn’t necessarily choose to spend time with socially. Moreover, as Marshall points out (after Ebenezer Howard) the location of suburbs between the town and the country is a unique selling point that people aspire to. My point is that maybe suburban ‘social diversity’ could be regarded as more a question of ‘matter-of-fact’, day-to-day routine, rather than as the ‘celebration of difference’ that is gushed about in literature on self-evidently ‘urban’ settings. Suburbs should not be compared to the cosmopolitanism of the city centre but rather in terms of a de facto diversity of peoples who, despite being (arguably) more homogenous than the population at large, still include a wide enough demographic to cause all sorts of social disatisfaction between them if the local town centre is run down – and these will tend to increase over time.

Similarly, ‘economic diversity’ in a suburban setting might be understood as reflecting the ability of the regional urban system as a whole to sustain economic growth through maximising flexibility; accommodating companies and individuals who find it useful to be located in particular areas for a range of different reasons (this is the polycentric model). Without the potential for economic diversity in suburban town centres, the potential for regional growth overall would, one would think, be seriously undermined. See also the New Horizons work on polycentric development and suburban office space conducted at UCL for the ODPM (as was) in 2003-2004.

In investigating the relationship between architecture and ‘success’ – we have to be careful to position our work relatively to regional and national indicators. Suburbs, as relatively minor town centres with relatively less socio-economic autonomy compared to the large urban centres are, in some respects, relatively more easily ‘explained away’ by macro-factors which are not affected by local morphology. On the other hand, we would not argue that the centrality of the West End of London means that its morphology is unimportant in understanding how the city centre generates opportunities for economic transactions and social interactions (the two often being combined in that example). The mediation of regional socio-economic trends in different suburban town centres over time will provide strong indications as to how those centres are performing relatively and we need to be sensitive to this. In researching the differentiation between such centres a whole range of local factors, including morphology, will be important in understand their relative success or lack of success over time.

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3 Responses to “Issues raised by students and colleagues regarding ‘suburban town centres’ – a discussion”

  1. liora4 Says:

    I agree with many of the comments made in this excellent posting. Yet, I think there are further clarifications to be made. Yes it is clear as is said here, that we need to be extremely cautious with our terminology. I would tentatively submit on the point of us not be so interested in residential ‘sprawl’, that in fact we are very interested, since a less sprawling residential area may be according to our starting hypothesis make the suburban centre more accessible – more town-like perhaps?

    I also agree entirely with the need not to presume that social diversity shoudl be celebrated simply for its own sake. One of the aspects that people enjoy about suburban life is finding a haven of like-minded people. However, social diversity in the suburban centre may very well be a contributing factor to its success, if another part of our starting hypothesis is true: namely, that a centre serving a diverse population is more likely to be economically robust, since it is not dependent on a single, narrow market.

    Lastly, it is important to point out that diversity is not the polar extreme to segregation. Individuals can be members of a variety of ‘communities’ simultaneously. It is quite possible that suburban neighbourhoods can be relatively homogenous, whilst the centre is the place where people mix across the notional community boundary. See paper on ‘ghettoisation’ here.

  2. SG Says:

    I agree with your comments which I think help to scope the project. I just think we need to be aware of the argument that suburbs *necessarily* = sprawl in order to explain our hypothesis that a successful suburb has a healthy centre (centrality) and this helps prevent the worst sort of sprawl.

    On the second point it emphasises how we need to develop thorough understanding of suburban life and not assume that concepts originally developed in the context of major urban centres necessarily mean exactly the same thing in suburbs

    Third point – agree absolutely, this neatly states what looks like a particularly suburban notion of centrality.

  3. ozlemsahbaz Says:

    Both of your posts made me think that perhaps the similar terminology we are using for both “town centres” (which includes cosmopolitan centres) and “suburban centres” will differ in meaning slightly. I have a hunch we will find out more suburban nuances in town centres terminology as we go along.

    When we pick diversity, Perhaps the “scale” of diversity (the machine of diversity),is the point here that we could have the vast amount of our input on. Configuration as you know works across scales, can be investigated at the most localized end of the reasons for success, as well as globally. But for the types of people and services a suburban resident needs or wishes to access, I assume will find out differing distances and levels of spatial organisation.

    Overall, the relationship with the surrounding centres, as Sam noted inthe first post, gains high importance here,probably much more for this project than studies looking at town centers in general.


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