The end of suburbs as we know them?

July 3, 2007

A press release by the Greater London Authority alerted me to an interesting report by their Planning and Spatial Development Committee: ‘Semi-Detached: Reconnecting London’s Suburbs’. This report is a carefully considered exposition of many of the problems facing today’s suburbs based on a review of expert opinion on the subject. A few points occur to me:

  • The report considers only London’s boroughs and seemingly does not consider the influence of suburbs outside of London but within the Green Belt or the M25 (as we do in our own study). I believe a wider ranging geographical consideration may have produced a truer picture of the situation on the ground.
  • The report concentrates on suburban town centres as drivers for their future “quality of life, economy and environment” (i.e. the sustainability) and mentions a series of vital factors, such as concentrating activity in local centres. However, despite mentioning local work as critical for success, manufacturing is generally considered to be in decline and not something that can be relied upon in the future. Our preliminary research would suggest otherwise and I would further suggest that local production as well as consumption (through the leisure and service ‘industries’) is the only way forward for true sustainability.
  • There is an emphasis on the larger centres – ‘metropolitan’ and ‘major’ centres – as being targets for rejuvenation (whilst smaller centres are to be improved mainly through convenience retailing). I believe that our cases, which were purposely selected to be amongst the smaller size of centres – ‘district and smaller centres’ – provide evidence for the viability of smaller centres providing a full range of activities, rather than primarily retail. If we are proposing that walkability is the future for our suburbs, than surely we must ensure that smaller centres provide sufficient diversity of activity so as to support day-to-day needs, including local work.
  • I note that Croydon’s new buildings are highlighted as adding “a touch of glamour” to the centre yet Wealdstone’s new centre has apparently failed to “improve the retail mix” of the area. It is to be hoped that London’s suburbs are not relying on the so called ‘Bilbao effect’ of iconic buildings to regenerate local areas. Even the Bilbao case has not yet been proven as an economic success. Moreover, as I’ve stated above, we need to consider the full range of activities necessary for the success of a suburban town centre. Even more critically, we must not forget the vital role of spatial accessibility to create the potential for people’s presence on local streets. Previous space syntax research has demonstrated that pedestrian co-presence is the basic ingredient for creating community – and this should be the goal for urban designers and planners today.

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