Social change in the suburbs

September 21, 2007

Writing in the New Statesman Brian Coleman asks: “Where next for the suburbs?

His tone is polemical and the article, written from a conservative (small ‘c’ ) perspective, is recognisable as that which, conventionally speaking, might be regarded as ‘typically’ suburban in an English context.

Coleman argues that what could be termed the ‘Betjemanesque’ or ‘Good Life’ image of the English suburb is no longer viable (to the extent that it ever was, it should be added) as a consequence of broader socio-economic changes that have had a deleterious effect on the associational life of the suburbs.

He says that the need to repay very high mortgages has led to increased pressure at work and that this, combined with more women working and ill defined ‘changes in family life’ has contributed to a decline in popular participation in such traditional suburban pursuits as supporting local clubs and churches.

More generally, Coleman paints a picture in which the institutional life of the suburbs has collapsed, commenting that:

“The hidden wiring that kept suburban community life alive has rusted beyond
repair”

To emphasise this point Coleman suggests that schools are finding it hard to find governors and that local political parties are ‘scraping the barrel’ in order to field a full list of candidates for the council.

He argues that many older suburbs have ceased to be the focus of middle-class aspiration when faced with (allegedly) rising crime and an inadequate public transport infrastructure that means many suburban dwellers prefer to drive.

Coleman does not give many particular cases to support his argument and it could be said that what he is describing is a particular process of social change that he objects to, rather than a decline in the social life of suburbs as such.

Nevertheless, in suggesting that suburban life is defined by a distinctive institutional structure he makes an important point. In approaching successful suburbs as settlement forms with the potential to sustain diverse social activities over time we need to ask how this relates to change and continuities in this structure. If the conventional image of suburban life is outdated then what is emerging in its stead?

The propositions contained in Coleman’s article can usefully inform the field-work stage of the research project where we will seek to understand more about how suburban centres contribute to the everyday life of the suburbs.

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