Imagination and the suburb

September 1, 2008

Professor Laurie Taylor recently revisited the subject of suburbs on his BBC Radio 4 programme (click here to ‘listen again’). The programme focusses on the “mass dream” of a move to the suburb between the wars. Suburbs provided a “code of impersonality… English people rubbing along together [from different classes]”. Suburbs were a place of aspiration, once people arrived they would stay.

Alongside the well-trodden ideas of Metroland, suburbs are also discussed as a “zone of expulsion” where outsiders can escape too and even more extremely, where the mad are exported to! “The beauty of despised, patronised suburb” (Betjeman) is discussed; why were the suburbs patronised so much? The conclusion is that suburbs were all somewhere people had arrived to from somewhere else, so partly the contempt is because they are unvisited other than by car (so not understood either culturally or indeed spatially, which would not have been the case if they’d been walked as inner city areas are). A lot of contempt, it is concluded, is from architects, who had disdain for places that were unplanned and without any design intervention. It is also blamed on the concern with huge working-class estates, such as Dagenham (despite the fact that in reality these were found to work quite well: Willmott, P. (1963) The Evolution of a Community: A Study of Dagenham after Forty Years. London: Institute of Community Studies.)

Suburban neurosis is discussed as an invention in a highly contentious paper that has been often repeated (see a discussion of this in Clapson, M. (1999) Working-class Women’s Experiences of Moving to New Housing Estates in England since 1919. Twentieth Century British History 10, 345-365).

They emphasise the distinction between suburbia and edge-lands, the latter is where free-form culture emerges, where restrictions are lifted. This distinction is particularly important post WW2 and the creation of the green belt, where the edge of the suburbs was clearly defined and a distinction emerged between leafy suburbia of ‘The Good Life’ and the edge city described by J G Ballard’s in his reference to psychopathologies. The new patterns of commuting between suburbs is raised as a new direction suburbs are taking, which may lead to a different relation between ‘suburb’ and ‘urb’, even resulting in the need for a new term for ‘suburbia’.

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