London’s outer suburbs showing signs of ‘urban blight’

September 6, 2007

A piece on BBC News London on 4th September [click for video report] suggested that London’s suburbs were showing signs of urban blight. The report used the borough of Barnet as its example and featured an interview with the Conservative council leader Mike Freer who suggested that outer London boroughs required more government investment to meet the challenges they faced.

It is significant this story made it onto the news agenda. The basic pitch is: more population in successful suburbs begets financial strain on public services begets suburbs showing signs of urban blight begets unsuccessful suburbs.

The case we need to make is that understanding the range of qualities that make a suburb successful in the first place needs to be fed into the debate about the challenges facing the suburbs and the allocation of regeneration funding.

It is not enough just to select major suburban centres for ‘regeneration’ if this is at the cost of the network of smaller centres that sustain more local forms of activity. We need to develop a clear vision of what Greater London’s suburbs actually are…

It is important to understand the role that centres of all scales play in sustaining such activity, otherwise the characteristic British ‘counter-urbanisation population cascade‘ from urban to relatively rural areas may accelerate and become pathological; creating and intensifying the areas of social segregation in what Marshall calls ‘semi-urban’ environments between the city and the country [Marshall, S. (2006) ‘The Emerging Silicon Savannah‘, Built Environment 32.3, pp.267-280].

This is where understanding sustainability as adaptability over time comes in. We don’t say any particular characteristics (high or low densities, independent or chain shops for example) are inherently good or bad, rather we suggest that suburban forms are distinctive and have proven potential for generating and sustaining diverse activities – and that diverse activities can realise great potential in the suburbs.

Where research can help is with understanding what notions such as ‘centrality’, ‘diversity’, ‘accessibility’, ‘polycentricity’, actually mean in a suburban setting and how policy and design can act with the grain of settlement forms to realise, rather than undermine, their potential.

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