Linking history, morphology and the success of suburban town centres

May 21, 2007

Here is a suggestion for an hypothesis on the connection between history, morphology and accessibly. It is based on concepts that we have developed so far in the project, trying to tie together the various strands that we looked at so far.

The suburbs that we are looking at were built in the period before mass ownership of the car. Official statistics tell us that in 1950, only 14% of households owned a car, while more recent statistics reveal the trends from 1961 to 1998 and today we have about 75% ownership rate, with 30% with 2 or more cars. This aspect is important to our understanding of the suburb, and the potential of its town centre to be successful.

Following the non-plan concept, I would assume that the developers of the suburbs (for sale) were concerned with building homes that will sell. In the first part of the 20 century, and up to the 1970s, a lot of household shopping activity must have relied on either walking or public transport to get to the town centre. I assume that this influenced the way developers built the houses, and the considerations of the various households in buying the house (it is likely that even then, many households only had one car, and this may have been used by the husband, requiring the wife to make trips on foot/by public transport).

This process of building accessible suburban town centres continued to the 1970s, and my guess is that we can recognise a change there and in the last 30 years, with the assumption that whoever does the shopping can get to the shopping area by car.

So… the hypothesis is that in our suburbs, which were built before the 1970s, we will see a pattern of accessibility around the town centre. We can compare the morphology of the street pre mid 1970s and after, to check this. However, it is the fact that the core was built in a period that was not based on car used that maintains the possibility of success for the town centre. This should be tested for successful and unsuccessful centres.

When discussing it with Laura, she suggested that “this is an extension of our hypothesis actually, since the morphology will be a consequence of the social situation at the time. It is going to be something to do with morphology and density and accessibility together. The railway and tube development in the first stages had a relatively dense and accessible pattern of housing and it is very likely that subsequent car-based development (which by the nature of things was more distant from the initial settlement close to the station), tended to be sparser. Moreover, class and economic status are also bound up in this. A study by the AAS students of Muswell Hill found that the more solidly middle class streets tended to be relatively stepped back from the high street, in comparison with the more diverse, slightly poorer streets of the adjacent Crouch End, who were located in more integrated streets – more directly accessible to/from the High Street. It seems that it will be essential that we consider the social/spatial/transport history of each of our cases.”

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