Prompted by a blog post by the Wellcome Trust on suburban neurosis and the Peckham Experiment, I’m jotting down here my own reading on this supposed illness. In the blog post, Giulia Smith points out that the Pioneer Health Centre (developed by Dr Innes Hope Pearse and Dr George Scott Williamson) was intended to ameliorate the prevalent ‘anxieties about the ability of low-to-middle-class mothers to raise their children by themselves in the privacy of their own houses’. These ideas were based on a hypothetical illness, suburban neurosis, which would mean that ‘unhappy mothers would be unable to produce happy, healthy offspring’.

The conception of suburbs as a mundane trap were widespread amongst the cultural elite. See for example George Orwell’s excoriating ‘A line of semi-detached torture-chambers where the little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and the wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches.’[1]

suburban villa_image from MoDa

Image courtesy Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University

Simultaneous with Orwell’s novel, came supposed medical confirmation that suburbs were bad for family stability and structure, and indeed for women’s health. A doctor from the Royal Free, based his The Lancet note, ‘The Suburban Neurosis’ on his work in in hospital’s outpatient department, claiming that a new group of ‘neurotics’ had come to his notice. ‘Less poverty stricken’ but worrying about money, with few friends and not enough to do or think about.

snip from Taylor_1938_1

What wonder that the underdeveloped, relatively poor mind of the suburban woman seeks an escape in neurosis…

And as long as life offers the suburban woman so little to live for, so long will she continue at last to pluck up her courage and add to the numbers in our out-patient waiting halls…

We have, I fear, let matters go too far in the jerry-building, ribbon-development line…

If the house can be disposed of, a flat near a few friends may work wonders.[2]

snip from Taylor_1938_2

Yet, as Judy Giles points out, escaping to the suburbs from the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of their parents’ poverty was a sign of progress in which ‘modernity means a bathroom, an indoor toilet, and an ‘up-to-date drawer space’ (p. 49).[3] Suburban modernity was embraced rather than spurned, though this is not to say that ordinary women too did not feel the same longings as modernist male literary elites.


Young housewife Bill Brandt

Young housewife, Bethnal Green, London, 1937. Bill Brandt (copyright Focus Gallery,

The diagnosis persisted for decades more, further reinforced by a study by Margot Jeffreys of a group of relocated East Enders, who moved into an out-London housing area South Oxhey, in the 1950s. In fact, Margot Jeffreys found ‘no definite symptoms of a higher incidence of a psycho-neurotic illness than women of the same age elsewhere’.[4] One of the authors of the suburban neurosis paper actually refuted it in 1964[5] and, as Mark Clapson has pointed out, many problems were attributable to initial settling in, coupled with high numbers of ill people at top of list for allocations to the area.[6] Nevertheless, a review of the literature today will find that suburbia and the New Towns are continuing to be being blamed for female neurosis, or its analogue: New Town Blues as distinct from the general phenomenon of moving home.

The Oxhey estate near Watford, built soon after 1950 to house people from inner London, had a rate of mental illness higher than the national average, despite having a good layout, greenspace within the estate and good access to Oxhey Woods … Possibly this is an early example of the “suburban neurosis” that has been widely reported from Britain’s New Towns.[7]

The above-quoted article is in fact associating poor mental health with a lack of social contact. There is some truth in this: social isolation (or loneliness – though they are not synonymous) can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,[8] but the suburbs aren’t necessarily the cause of poor health per se. My new collaboration on the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network will hopefully shed some more light on the role of the built environment in this complex issue.


[1] Orwell, G. (1939). Coming Up for Air. London, Gollancz.

[2] Taylor, S. (1938). “The Suburban Neurosis.” The Lancet 231(5978): 759-762. Intriguingly, Taylor refers to the Pioneer Health Centre at Peckham as a model (though without the health facilities) for the sort of solution he offers: to establish a sort of club that would contain, under one roof, ‘a swimming bath and gymnasium, a cafeteria, a day nursery, the public library and reading, smoking and games rooms.’

[3] Giles, J. (2004). The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity. Oxford, Berg.

[4] Jeffreys, M. (1964). Londoners in Hertfordshire. London: Aspects of Change. Centre for Urban Studies and R. Glass. London, MacGibbon and Kee. 3: 207-255.

[5] We found no real evidence of what one of us (Taylor) twenty five years ago described as ‘the suburban neurosis’, nor of what has more recently been described as ‘new town blues‘”. Taylor, L. and S. Chave (1964). “Mental health and environment.” Mental Health and Environment.

[6] Clapson, M. (1999). “Working-class Women’s Experiences of Moving to New Housing Estates in England since 1919.” Twentieth Century British History 10(3): 345-365.

[7] Douglas, I. (2005). Urban greenspace and mental health. Manchester, The UK Man and the Biosphere Committee (UK-MAB).

[8] Holt-Lunstad, J., et al. (2015). “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2): 227-237.


Figure 1: a hedgerow on a walk between Radcot and Kelmscot. Image from:

I’ve just found an old newspaper cutting showing Max Hooper’s obituary, which is also laid out here in this Guardian piece:

Hooper was an English botanist who devised a system for dating hedges. Starting with a selection of several hundred old hedges, which he dated according to their appearance in old deeds, maps, charters, and the Domesday Book, he counted the number of species in a 30-yard stretch along each of them. He found that the number of tree species correlated with the age of the hedge in centuries and that hedgerows tend to have a much greater diversity of plants and animals and tend to be thicker, taller and more continuous as they increase in age ( this became known as ‘Hooper’s Hedgerow Hypothesis’).

The reason I’m interested in Hooper, is that, thanks to a chance conversation with Professor Julienne Hanson during our suburban town centres research project, when we were puzzling over the significance of land use diversity in the longevity of suburban high streets, we were struck by the possible analogy between high streets and hedgerows. The following is a link to the conference paper, An ecology of the suburban hedgerow, or: how high streets foster diversity over time, which we wrote on the subject.

The paper builds on the proposition by Penn and colleagues (2009) that cities provide a structured set of social, cultural and economic relations which help to shape patterns of diversity in urban areas. Far from being a random mixing, it could be said that urban systems are akin to ecological systems where flora and fauna are closely interrelated and in which the richness and evenness of species in a community contributes to the overall resilience of the ecosystem. This study goes further in suggesting how a variety of building types, sizes and street morphologies are more likely to propagate patterns of co-presence over time – providing the minimal but essential everyday ‘noise’ without which generalised sustainability and liveability agendas are likely to flounder when faced with questions of implementation in particular places. This morphological diversity, it is argued, enables the development of niche markets in smaller centres which can support new forms of socio-economic activity. These ideas were explored further in my chapter called “High Street Diversity, part of Suburban Urbanities: suburbs and the life of the high street (2015).

Figure 2: High Street Dversity. In order to explore this idea we looked at the distribution of segments according to residential and non-residential activity and also adopted ideas for ecology based on the notion that thriving eco-systems required richness of species – we also looked at the number of different types of activities that occurred on each segment – to gain an understanding of activity richness. The initial results reveal a clear long tail where there are fewer non-residential segments with fewer segments with have a larger number of different activities.



Hooper, Max. 1970. Dating Hedges. Area 2 (4):63-65.

Penn, Alan, Irini Perdikogianni, and Chiron Mottram. 2009. Chapter 11: The Generation of Diversity. In “Designing Sustainable Cities: Decision-making Tools and Resources for Design”, edited by R. Cooper, G. Evans and C. Boyko. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Vaughan, Laura. 2015. Chapter 7: High Street Diversity. In “Suburban Urbanities: suburbs and the life of the high street“, edited by L. Vaughan. London: UCL Press.





“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 and is reblogged by the author with permission.


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).

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).





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.”


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:



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.

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.