“The suburb is neither one thing nor the other; it has neither the advantage of the town nor the open freedom of the country, but manages to combine in nice equality of proportion the disadvantages of both.” From ‘Architect’, XVI, 1876: 33.

Figure 1 – Specifically Suburban Culture: The Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames, London. Source Jim Linwood (CC BY 2.0)

The latest issue of Built Environment is entitled ‘Suburban Spaces, Suburban Cultures’ and aims to “demonstrate and evaluate the significance of culture – in its various manifestations – in both shaping and reflecting the suburban built environment.” Given that suburbs are commonly viewed as places that culture forgot, it is refreshing to see a built environment journal publication dedicated to suburban space and cultures. My own work on suburban theory points to the fact that attempts to find suburban cultural specificity are as challenging as trying to pinpoint suburban spatial specificity, yet viewing culture as shaping and reflecting the suburban built environment is an intriguing prospect.

Suburban Spaces, Suburban Cultures in fact defines for us a range of suburban spatial-cultural themes that are worthy of exploration. From the point of view of architectural design, the suburban stereotype of low density, detached housing, is mentioned on several occasions in this issue. Here we find a common trope in describing suburban environments as “boring”, “homogenous” and “monotonous”. It is an easy jump from this criticism to the accusation by Ian Nairn that suburbia constituted a “slow decay… to a world of universal low-density mess” – or, as he termed it, subtopia. Putting aside that low density is not necessarily a commonplace feature of suburbia (and several examples in this issue prove this), nor does low density necessarily equates to poor planning. Peter Hall showed in The Land Fetish that there was a limit to the amount of density achievable at the expense of providing the necessary schools, recreation, doctors’ surgeries and shops (let alone the often-forgotten places to produce goods). He showed that much of the gain achieved by density ceases to be beneficial at a point where density arrives at a level similar to that of many existing suburbs. Indeed, the “enigmas” of density laid out in Suburban Spaces, Suburban Cultures, show that it is not merely something to be measured specific to a site, but something that needs to take account of the wider spatial context, the wealth and class context, and vitally, the political context within which decisions on land allocation, growth policies and so on shape everyday life on the urban periphery.

It is actually quite easy to subvert suburban stereotypes. Take the importance, for example, of suburban religious architecture– especially churches – in the context of the evolution of British Modernism. The place of religion itself in the supposedly culture-less, secular suburbs is too frequently viewed as incongruous. Taking a longer view of the UK’s suburban history it is evident how important churches were in providing the foundation for new communities. Putting that aside, there are myriad examples of minority groups being drawn to particular locales due to the availability of a ready-made faith community. In the latter case, it is interesting to observe the way in which the perceived exotic, foreignness of minority religion can provide a “multiculturalism of inhabitance” as Amanda Wise has shown, to the supposedly mundane, prosaic suburban streets; serving to create a public presence for the generally hidden demographic diversity of suburban life.

Suburban public space is another important (and frequently overlooked) aspect worth considering in the context of suburban spatial cultures. My own study of London’s working-class suburbs shows how utopian ideals of village greens in designed suburbs (still maintained in the verdant lanes of Hampstead Garden Suburb) can be ruined by the simple erection of a “No Ball Games” on the wall of a municipal housing estate. The importance of commons, of the woods and fields and indeed of the allotments and front gardens in engendering everyday sociability is essential, not only for functional reasons, but also for ensuring an unpoliced space in which people can roam free. When I read the recent republication by Persephone Books of the 1936 novel Greengates, I was struck by how the protagonists discover their suburban idyll by happening upon it during a walk through the woods on the edge of a newly-built estate. Of course it is easy to slip into a new suburban cliché just as one gets rid of another. Suburban public space is not just about leafy streets and beautiful landscaping. Jan Gehl’s methods of designing ‘in-between space’ have for example been important in the way they aim to ensure that alongside providing the opportunity for micro social connections around the suburban dwellings that additional “weak ties” can be made through social connections from one locality to the next. This is a vital aspect of successful urbanism, where the presumption is that one’s social life is as much dictated by social connections made transpatially (across space) as spatially (within space); the non-correspondence theory laid out so lucidly by Julienne Hanson in her critique of twentieth century neighbourhood design.

 

Figure 2 – Surbiton, London: The Annual Lefi Parade fronted by Thamas Deeton, the giant of Seething. Image by David Jeevendrampillai (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Viewing suburbs themselves as interstitial spaces – neither suburb nor city – is of course at the root of either dismissing them as lacking in culture, or of maintaining that any culture they have is limited to the narrow world depicted in 1950s Hollywood films or 1970s English language sitcoms. It is clear that attempts to pinpoint a suburban culture are going to arrive at a dead end (if you will forgive the pun), if suburban culture is seen to be as shallow-rooted as its grassy lawns. A deeper understanding of suburban culture, if we are willing to agree that there is such a thing, will take as its starting point that its inhabitants have had a past life elsewhere. Anat Hecht illustrates this well in her ethnography of Croydon, a London suburb. In her work she writes of her informant “Nan’s” material culture (or, as Nan herself puts it, her “mishmash of knick-knacks”), an accretion of memories created in a past life led in a city far away (Edinburgh). Arguably suburban culture will never be bland or uniform, once we start to take account of its emergence from the sum total of its inhabitants’ past lives along with its formation in the specific context of place. David Jeevendrampillai’s work on ‘Being Suburban’ demonstrates this, in showing how the suburbs can in fact provide – because of their supposed mundanity – an identity ready to be harnessed for the purpose of creating a new cultural imaginary that builds on a specific locality: whether in inventing a whimsical local culture or in creating a thriving local economy (and indeed the two will frequently go hand-in-hand).

This blog post by Laura Vaughan first appeared on http://alexandrinepress.co.uk/blogged-environment and is reblogged by the author with permission.

References

Gehl, J (2011 (originally 1971)), Life between buildings: using public space (The Danish Architectural Press).

Hall, P (2006), ‘The Land Fetish: Densities and London Planning’, in B Kochan (ed.),London: bigger and better? (London: LSE London, London School of Economics and Political Science), 84-93.

Hanson, J and Hillier, B (1987), ‘The Architecture of Community: some new proposals on the social consequences of architectural and planning decisions‘, Architecture et Comportement/ Architecture and Behaviour, 3 (3), 251-73.

Hecht, A (2001), ‘Home Sweet Home: Tangible Memories of an Uprooted Childhood’, in D Miller (ed.), Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors (Berg Publishers), 123–45.

Jeevendrampillai, D (2015), ‘Being Suburban’, in L Vaughan (ed.), Suburban Urbanities: suburbs and the life of the high street (London: UCL Press), 287-306.

Nairn, I (1956), Counter-Attack Against Subtopia (London: Architectural Press ).

Vaughan, L, Griffiths, S, and Haklay, M. (2015), ‘The Suburb and the City’, in L Vaughan (ed.), Suburban Urbanities: suburbs and the life of the high street (London: UCL Press), 11-31.

Wise, A (2006), ‘Multiculturalism From Below: Transversal Crossings and Working Class Cosmopolitans’, in S Velayutham and A Wise (eds.), Everyday Multiculturalism Conference Proceedings, (Macquarie University 28-29 September 2006 Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, 2007).

About the author

Laura Vaughan is Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Laboratory, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. @urban_formation. Her book Suburban Urbanities was recently published with UCL Press. The book can be downloaded for free here. This blog post is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NonDerivative license © 2016 (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

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Industrious Suburbs

December 13, 2015

One of the many clichés we have battled against in the Adaptable Suburbs project is that the high street is dependent on retail for its survival. In fact, a growing body of evidence is emerging that shows that town centres that are less reliant on retail are better able to weather fluctuations in the economy (see blog post on The Great British High Street). Research undertaken by Gort Scott for the Greater London Authority shows that it is the ‘thick crust’ of workshops, offices, churches and small industry that bolsters the dozens of high streets around London and is an important (and undervalued) aspect of smaller town centres (see chapter by Fiona Scott in the recently published Suburban Urbanities).

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Site of Werndee Hall, South Norwood in 1890, 1910, 1960 and today. Source: © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2013). All rights reserved 2013.

This brings me to the topic of today’s blog post: H. Tinsley and Co. Ltd., based at Werndee Hall, South Norwood, London. One of the methods we used in our Adaptable Suburbs project analysis was to take the business directories for the four periods studied (1890, 1910, 1960 and 2013) and geocode each of the addresses in our geographical information systems (namely, take each of the buildings within our four case studies, redraw it, then encode the drawn building with its land use at the time). When I was checking through the map for South Norwood, I discovered an industrial activity labelled as ‘Werndee Hall’ situated on this back street of South Norwood. Despite its modest location, the University of Aberdeen collection maintains that over time Tinsley and Co. “became one of the places to go for high precision electrical test equipment”.

H. Tinsley: Galvanometer. Image from the University of Aberdeen’s Natural Philosophy Collection.

The City of London photo collection shows Werndee Hall was a significant building. Previously a private residence, when Tinsley acquired the building in 1917, his was already an established firm, founded in 1904 as Messrs Tinsley and Co., telegraph and electrical engineers. The firm continued to produce sensitive electrical communications equipment over the course of much of the 20th century . But why there? I had an interesting twitter exchange on this recently, and one suggestion was that new firms opened in ‘the sticks’ due to there being room to expand on relatively cheap land, which is the reason that many start-ups in Cambridge tend to be in more remote areas. I believe we can show evidence for some additional reasons.

Werndee Hall © City of London

If we have a look at the space syntax analysis of accessibility in South Norwood, taking account of a large area around the town centre (a 6km area in fact), modelled for network-wide ‘choice’ (similar to the standard network science measure of ‘betweenness’, or how likely is any given street segment to be used from anywhere to anywhere within a given distance) we find that the site of the company (the large purple-coloured building to the south of the map), although situated away from the accessible core of the town centre (the warmest coloured lines in the spectrum), is still within reach of the well-connected Portland Road. Couple to this the high rate of land use diversity and a reasonably-sized population, bearing in mind the quite dense set of dwellings in the area, you can see that Mr Tinsley was able to call upon a good number of local workers, to resources & suppliers both locally and within a wider ambit of the suburb. Indeed, Liane Lang has found evidence to the fact that Tinsley’s provided employment for local people both in the building and working from home.

Space syntax network analysis of South Norwood and environs, showing radius n Choice

Fiona Scott and colleagues have shown how important it is to consider the ecology of skilled work in such instances. She writes how once an industry has established a skilled, trained workforce, particularly if it is situated outside of the city centre, it creates a nexus of valuable jobs and skills which cannot be easily transplanted. The contribution of local industry to the local economy is another vital aspect of their wider contribution. Having local employment creates a positive feedback with the town centre, generating increased activity on the high street.

Tinsley closed its doors in 1960 and Werndee Hall itself was demolished at the end of the last century, with Shinners Close – a collection of dwellings in a cul-de-sac built on the site. The workforce itself has dispersed. While I hesitate to be nostalgic about this once-great firm, it is clear to me that having production in such a minor suburban location contributed something quite essential to the life of the place. Small industry has – and can – play an important part in suburbs and we would do well to assess its true value.

Today I gave a short presentation to the UCL Summer School for Research Students. The Summer School is held by UCL Grand Challenges and is meant “to provide an experience for research students at UCL that enables them to understand and discuss the Grand Challenges philosophy and also develop practical skills in preparing research proposals that necessitate and combine expertise from different disciplines.”

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I took the opportunity to present some of the thinking behind a book chapter written with Professor Muki Haklay on the challenges of interdisciplinary work. In the chapter we focus on the tensions and common ground between geographers and architects when researching urban space – especially at the neighbourhood scale. It is based on experience gained over seven years of research into how networks of activity and the changing form of London’s spatial networks have had an impact on the city’s adaptability to social and economic change. This research involves a team comprising an architect, anthropologist, geographer, historian and spatial scientist. The project has been highly productive in shaping new theories on cities in general and suburban town centres in particular. The collaboration between geography and architecture serves to change thinking into the nature of human behaviour in the built environment. Despite the fact that the architectural field of space syntax theory and methodology provides a powerful means of exploring and representing the structure of the built environment through the use of axial network maps, its traditional emphasis on spatial structure has tended to marginalise the socio-economic and demographic processes that are the human geographer’s primary concern. At the same time, geographical research has tended to prioritise the social construction of space at the cost of considering how this relates to the spatial context in which social activity is situated. Using space syntax methods coupled with built form and land use analysis to track the evolution of London over the past 150 years we can build new theories of emergence. The spatial analysis indicates that local centres follow different patterns of building densification and street intensification that are shaped by the configurational trajectories taken by existing routes. We propose that flows of movement are shaped by the manner of growth in organically emergent systems, where spatial structures and social practices both evolve synergistically.

Following is a list of further reading recommended to students at the Summer School:

 

Surbiton

The Adaptable Suburbs Closing Conference, the culmination of four years’ research into the factors that influence the success of town centres, heard from a wide selection of international high street researchers. A number of themes emerged with direct relevance to current policy debate on the future of the high street and have been written up in a report, downloadable here.

Following is a summary of the report:

  • Despite the obituaries the high street is still very much alive. High streets have proved resilient, surviving centuries of social change to remain the functional centre of most towns and cities.
  • High streets have changed in order to survive but, while buildings and businesses may be different, the mix of uses has remained very similar. This mix is essential to a successful high street.
  • Cities function as movement networks, and because movement creates activity it determines whether high streets succeed or fail. If pedestrians and traffic are diverted away, high streets wither and die.
  • High streets are poorly understood, but they represent a combination of complex influences creating enormous economic and social benefit, which is both under-recognised and undervalued. They are an asset that we need to appreciate, and to invest in.
  • High streets are threatened by poor planning. Standard planning definitions of high streets miss out large areas of business and other non-domestic activity. This leaves them unprotected, and pressure to convert commercial premises to residential use could permanently undermine their viability.
  • Not all high streets are healthy. Many are suffering and will need intervention and investment to support them. Policy should focus on bringing people back to high streets, generating the activity needed to support businesses.
  • Planners and policymakers need to take ordinary, small-scale high street uses more seriously. Ignoring small businesses and local activities means ignoring the important social role they play and the people who make a living through them.
  • Both the economic and the social value of high streets need to be measured and represented better, and communicated clearly to investors and decision-makers.
  • The future of the high street is an international issue, and an international research agenda is needed to help understand and address common problems.
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South Norwood town centre – traces of routes taken by individuals surveyed in the town centre vicinity in September 2008

The Adaptable Suburbs project has just published a working paper: the outcome of a pilot study on how patterns of walking in and around suburban town centres correspond to their morphology and land use patterns.

Most current research which looks at how planning and urban design can contribute to walkability compares built environment measures such as connectivity, diversity and land use. This working paper contributes to this domain by reporting on a pilot study which used space syntax measures of route choice to analyse self-reported walked routes and planned activities within three outer London suburban neighborhoods. Using a bespoke questionnaire on a wide array of activities coupled with self-reported route traces the study relates the through-movement potential of the street network to the intensity of routes and land use diversity through each of the three areas. Using data on people’s reasons for walking and actual routes, adjusting for differences between different groups of users, the aim was to see whether urban configuration affects patterns of movement in the suburban realm.

The findings show that route availability is associated with increased walking along routes with ‘active’ land uses, notwithstanding the variety of activities taken during a walk. They also reveal clear differences in usage patterns and trip length according to the degree of familiarity with the area as well as the location of physical barriers to walking routes, such as railway lines. Greater use of green spaces is found to be associated with their integration into the spatial network and local inter-visibility. The findings also tentatively suggest that routes with increased network centrality are more likely to be used for multi-purpose trips. The results suggest that improved planning and design can increase walking in an area, leading both to local vitality as well as potentially to the health of individuals.

It can be downloaded free from the project website.

The Adaptable Suburbs project has recently had an article published in the Journal of Space Syntax. The article addresses the question of how the fringes of cities develop spatially at both the local scale of the individual town centre and in relation to the wider urban network. The changing network structure of the street systems of two outer suburban areas of Greater London, Surbiton and South Norwood, are analysed from the 1880s onwards. A temporal reading of the process of urban growth in relation to the historic street network of local centres allows for a nuanced understanding of the way in which cities grow over time. Rather than conceptualising suburban growth as either a seeding of new territories in tabula rasa or a ‘swallowing-up’ of older settlements, the article argues for a measured description of the spatial, social and economic properties of urban grid intensification.

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South Norwood 1880, 1910, 1960 and 2013 (top-left, top-right, bottom-left, bottom-right, respectively), with contemporaneous background mapping and land uses, overlaid with segment angular integration 800 metres. Map scale 1:1500. © Crown Copyright/ database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

This research uses digitised historical maps, historical and contemporary land-use data together with space syntax analysis in order to identify historical-morphological parameters of change and continuity in London’s suburban street network from the 1880s. The analysis demonstrates that over the period of time considered there have been distinct stages in the spatial development of the city’s urban fringe. The results show that as London expanded to encircle new territories, the spatial relationships of fringe areas of the city changed markedly as larger scale infrastructure was built and local development intensified, with the effect of reconfiguring the local network of the case study suburbs. However, detailed analysis of the formation of suburban town centres using space syntax also uncovers distinctive and resilient spatial morphologies which have sustained varied modes of land use over time. Drawing on the theory of the urban ‘movement economy’ and our previous research in this area, the article shows how the complex balance of change and continuity realised in the spatial morphology of the suburban high street can be explained by complex scalar mechanisms of adaptability. We argue that these qualities have helped ensure the resilience of historical suburban centres even in the face of radical social change.

Download the article from the Adaptable Suburbs project website here: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/adaptablesuburbs/publications.

This is the tenth and last of a series of blogs devised by the Adaptable Suburbs project team to note some of the preliminary findings of the project.

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10. The high street is not just a street

The above image taken in one of our suburban cases illustrates the notion of scale of analysis introduced in last week’s blog. Here we have a stretch of road that in one direction constitutes ‘Church Street’ – clearly a place serving a local community that was probably originally organised both socially and spatially around the church timetable when the street was first named. The same stretch of road becomes the London Road when facing in the opposite direction. When you consider its purpose and the way it which it connects onwards to the distant reaches of the city centre, you can see how a single road alignment can create more than one domain of activity and bring together people of different sorts – locals and strangers alike – within a single place.

In a recent article I wrote with the historian Anne Kershen*, we described the way in which London’s East End has managed to serve as a sort of immigrant processing machine, given that it created the setting for newcomers to the area to simultaneously create local networks of self-support and make connections to people from outside of the area. They did this through transactions that took place on the main roads of the area, that connected well to the heart of London’s economy. In a similar fashion we now have evidence to show from our space syntax analysis of the spatial evolution of our outer London cases over the past 150 years that they benefited from strategic locations within London’s street network in a way that enabled them to serve several markets at the same time.

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South Norwood town centre – all non-residential activity. Underlying map Ordnance Survey Crown copyright 2007. White polygons represent UK government town centre statistical boundaries. The street sections are coloured in a range of red-blue, showing through-movement potential for a model of all streets in London (left) and just within a distance of 800 metres (right)

The image above shows the results of space syntax analysis that measures the through-movement accessibility of South Norwood, a suburb in south-east London. At radius-n (left): the model takes account of all streets within London. It shows how the centre has important links at the larger urban scale. At radius-800m (right): the model takes account of all streets at a distance approximating a ten-minute walk into the surrounding residential area. Whilst the Smith Ltd. builder’s yard is located on a street that is accessible for journeys of around 400 metres, serving local needs, Emerton’s the ironmonger (see image below) is on a route prominent on the 800 metre network, whilst the main road linking onwards into central London is most prominent when you analyse the network to take account of all streets in London within the M25.

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Image: Emerton’s the ironmonger, gardening supplies and DIY store – Station Road, South Norwood

In fact, the latest findings from our analysis, which we hope to present at the next Space Syntax Symposium this autumn, also show that analysis of network properties of choice betweenness (which forecasts movement through an area) and integration (which forecasts movement to an area) suggests that the peak non-domestic activities in our suburban cases are located where the two sorts of movement flows best overlap within the same street segment. We conclude that: the high street is not just a street; nor is the suburban town centre just for locals.

* Kershen, A.J., and L. Vaughan. 2013. There was a Priest, a Rabbi and an Imam…: an analysis of urban space and religious practice in London’s East End, 1685-2010. Material Religion 9 (1):10-35. Download here: http://urbanformation.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/there-was-a-priest-a-rabbi-and-an-imam/.