Suburbs: Buildings and Society lecture series at Oxford University 11-15/5/7

May 31, 2007

I attended (as a non-resident) a lecture series on Suburbs Building and Society organised by Oxford University’s Centre for Continuing Education. The course ran for three days and featured a range of lectures by academics from the fields of history, geography and architecture. The lectures were on a wide range of subjects with suburban themes. Brief summaries of four of the lectures with particular relevance for the historical aspect of the SSTC project are given below.

Richard Roger of the Centre for Urban History at Leicester University gave the first lecture. Professor Roger’s theme was the relationship of the nineteenth-century middle class to the British city. He presented evidence, including local taxation records and urban processions, to suggest that phenomenon of ‘middle class flight’ from the city should not be exaggerated in a British context. In fact, the evidence suggests that the middle class had a sustained interest in urban improvement during this period and the interpretation of suburbanisation should be seen in this context. His doctoral student Laura Balderstone complemented this argument by presenting work on the associational life of post war suburbs in the Midlands. She argued for a ‘semi-detached’ model in which the spatial separation of the suburbs should be seen in the context of an associational life that kept the suburbs in touch with the life of the city.

Professor Colin Pooley of Lancaster University lectured on the theme of continuity and change in English suburbs from 1840-1940. He discussed the suburb in relation to the city and emphasised that the suburban society should be understood as being in a state of spatio-temporal flux: demographically, in terms of land-use, transport connectivity and its social authority. Drawing mainly on the example of Liverpool, Professor Pooley argued that the historical dynamic of city-suburb was basically centre-edge but that the arrival of the tramlines created greater polycentric possibilities for movement around the turn of the twentieth-century. Interestingly he emphasised how the Victorian suburb could also act as a centre of production as well as consumption, offering the example of a financially stretched commuter who plied his private tailoring business from an upstairs room in his house in addition to his salaried work.

Anne Robey of English Heritage gave an interesting talk about residential architecture in selected London suburbs estate including Forest Gate, North Woodford and Wanstead. She made the point that these fine suburban homes directly appealed to the status of country seats (in a clear example of the outward-facing nature of English cities). When I questioned her about the viability of local shopping areas she said that they varied. The relationship between the health of the local centre and the desirability of the suburban estate was not considered in this lecture.



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