“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.


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).


The edited collection, Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street was published last week with UCL Press.

The main impetus for publishing this edited collection, was to bring together the core findings of seven years’ worth of research into London’s suburbs, funded by two UK Research Council grants: Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres and Adaptable Suburbs. In doing this, we sought out a comparative set of examples from outside of the UK, which were first presented at our closing conference last year. The intention of Suburban Urbanities is to consider the suburb as an aspect of urban spatial-social complexity, rather than subordinate part of the city. We argue that attempting to define an urban particularity entirely without reference to the suburban is almost certain to fail. Instead, using spatial analysis, historical and ethnographic perspectives the book counteracts the binary opposition between city and suburb and challenges the perception that urbanity only exists in the city. Urbanity is shown to be an issue of degree rather than a binary choice between suburb and city, or suburban versus urbane.

In considering suburbs as a continuum of the city, this book focuses on metropolitan suburban centres. Taking the suburban built environment as a subject of enquiry in its own right and as a distinctive aspect of the spatio-temporal process growth of cities, Suburban Urbanities presents the high street, the core of suburban non-domestic activity, as a special kind of space with demonstrable potential for creating the living heart of the suburb. Local suburban centres can provide a rich diversity of experience for an area’s inhabitants, in many ways offering a more sustainable lifestyle than in the inner city.

Cities are routinely acknowledged as complex and dynamic built environments but this description is rarely extended to the suburbs, which are generally regarded as epiphenomena of the urbs and therefore of little intrinsic theoretical interest in themselves. The book’s first section contains a theoretical critique of suburban conceptions and high street perceptions, in turn. Whilst research broadly recognises the complex interrelatedness across scales that is the essence of urban systems, the particularities and similarities between the spatial structure of the suburb and that of its host city are rarely examined in any great detail. The second – ‘Suburban Centralities’ – section of the book takes the reader from London to Limassol, Toledo and Tripoli, showing that local places are shaped and formed over time according to their accessibility to long-term patterns of human, social and economic networks of activity across scales.

The ‘High Street Diversity’ collection of chapters goes down a scale to focus on the high street, the active centre of urban and suburban centres. The ‘high street’ (broadly equivalent to the US ‘main street’) has many cultural resonances that flow from its functioning as a complex and dynamic entity within both the urban and the suburban streetscape. The last section of the book is called ‘Everyday Sociability’. Here the trio of chapters moves the focus onto the people inhabiting suburban space, with the first two chapters introducing an ethnic dimension to the analysis Reinforcing the points made in the preceding sections of the book, the last chapter illustrates how social productivity in the suburban centre has generated new forms of economic productivity. Just as the suburbs are as old as the city itself, there is no reason to suppose that cities will not continue to grow and adapt to change in similar ways to those which have occurred in the past. The suburbs are an important part of that story.

Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street. is edited by Laura Vaughan. It was published in London on 12th November 2015 by UCL Press. doi:10.14324/111.9781910634134

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:


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.


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.


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.


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/.

This is the ninth in a series of blogs devised by the Adaptable Suburbs project team to note some of the preliminary findings of the project.

blog7_networkpotential_retailImage showing network betweenness centrality (the space syntax measure of choice) for London in a warm-to-cold colour range, with a greyscale density surface of all retail activity based on postcode data

9. The high street is formed and shaped over time

Space Syntax analysis of retail activity across the M25 region of London highlights its essentially linear distribution (top figure). At this regional scale, larger centres tend to be represented as highly integrated ‘attractors’, that is, destinations where one might choose to move to and around; smaller centres, by contrast, are more likely to be represented as places where one might pass through en route to somewhere else; yet at a more local level they too serve as destinations. In sustaining activity across different scales, smaller centres are every bit as complex as larger centres. Patterns of activities evident when considering the wider area are not always repeated locally. Retail activity, for example, is not always found on the most accessible routes locally and tends to be intermingled with other uses.

blog9 (2) Image shows Loughton, a suburban centre in north-east London in its evolution from 1880 onwards (today’s peak retail centre is highlighted with the jagged black line in the centre of each map). The network accessibility of the centre is coloured up in a range from red to blue and overlaid with building footprints for each period.

As soon as you start to consider the town centre in a broader sense: the high street set within the network of surrounding streets containing lower levels of activity, it becomes evident that different sorts of transactions are distributed according to a spatial logic of its own. In this way, different parts of the town centre are located on streets that are prominent at different scales of connectivity.

This variation of scales is arguably part of the natural evolution of town centres, which allows for different functions, such as uses that relate to local transacitons, to co-exist by being positioned facing each other, with different functions serving people from elsewehere, situated in positions that take advantage of wider-scale routes. Having similar functions facing each other in a form of domino-like symmetry affirms the character of the place – as MacCormac (1996) has suggested [MacCormac, R., 1996. An Anatomy of London. Built Environment 22 (4), 306-311]. In this way ‘local transactions’ such as pubs can blend with ‘foreign transactions’ such as warehousing, without putting the latter functions in remote locations (see section of Goad map below). If we consider last week’s blog, this balance and articulation of urban network connections adds to the adaptability of the city to host differing land-use patterns through time. As I have written elsewhere*, in the past even at the building scale, shifts in the way buildings were used allowed industry, dwellings and entertainment to be juxtaposed turn-by-turn around the urban block.

Goad_314_1890_sectionSection of Goad Fire Insurance plan,  Vol. 11, sheet 314, May 1990. ©Landmark Information Group Ltd. The letter symbols on the buildings denote dwelling (D), shop (S), tenements (TEN) and etc.

Further reading: * Vaughan, Laura. 2013. Is the future of cities the same as their past? Urban Pamphleteer #1: Future and Smart Cities 1:20-22. Download: Urban Pamphleteer #1 (pdf)

This is the eighth in a series of blogs devised by the Adaptable Suburbs project team to note some of the preliminary findings of the project.


Map of land uses around High Barnet town centre 2008. © Adaptable Suburbs project

8. High street diversity can lead to adaptability

The image above of the variety of land uses around High Barnet town centre belies the common criticism of the ongoing homogenisation of the high street. Indeed, our working definition of diversity in the context of the suburban town centre is the presence of a large number of different land uses serving a variety of people. We propose that diversity is a sign that a centre is inherently adaptable, since it has evidently adapated to change and weathered the dramatic social and economic upheavals of the past 150 years.

If this is correct, it calls for new measures for success rather than simply counting retail footfall or office rental values – or indeed how smart they are. Instead, town centres can measure their success by the degree to which they change swiftly and ‘smartly’. As Alex Lifschutz has stated (Blueprint, June 2007): cities and buildings need to be made of much more general, simpler ingredients; an evolving fabric easily capable of change that is able to respond… to needs and to become a platform of diversity”, with a “degree of redundancy”.

The illustration below is a good example of this sort of adapability. Land use changes will involve changes in morphology, but the generic relationship between the buildings in this case – larger buildings facing the main road served by smaller buildings behind them – hasn’t changed, despite the long passage of time since they were first constructed.

Blog8_Conduit Mews

Conduit Mews, Westminster, London. Image © Danny Robinson http://www.yourlocalweb.co.uk/greater-london/city-of-westminster/paddington/pictures/page2/

Having a mix of smaller and larger buildings allows for a mix of smaller and large businesses as well as the array of activities that necessarily feed off each other within a town centre. This is why we study high streets within their wider context: land uses within a catchment of up to a kilometre away and built form and network connectivity within a radius of three kilometres. By taking account of the larger spatial ecology, we can understand the full extent of the interconnected relationships between land uses and the people who serve and use them. As Richard MacCormac has said: buildings and streets are “like coral reefs that are re-inhabited over and over again [in a recurring pattern. So,] eighteenth-century-city large houses on primary streets were inhabited by high-income families and the mews behind serviced them. Today the houses might be offices with the mews inhabited by businesses selling services – commercial or professional – like photocopying, printing or sandwich bars to the primary users.” [MacCormac, R., 1996. An Anatomy of London. Built Environment 22 (4), 306-311.]

Next week: more on network connectivity.

This is the seventh in a series of blogs devised by the Adaptable Suburbs project team to note some of the preliminary findings of the project.


The Alfred Dunhill leather factory and pipe workshop in Walthamstow (image: http://www.permanentstyle.co.uk/2010/04/factory-visit-alfred-dunhill.html

7. The high street’s human capital is bound up in its sustainability

The image above shows the Alfred Dunhill leather factory in Walthamstow, highlighting a feature that we have repeatedly encountered in our roaming around London’s outer suburbs, that craftsmanship is strongly embedded in place. This was a fact pointed out by Fiona Scott from Gort Scott in her presentation in December last year to the ‘Geography of the Economy’ session at the London High Streets network [see Pecha Kucha presentation here]. She pointed out that businesses such as the Dunhill Pipe Factory in Blackhorse Lane, an industrial area that is slowly emerging into a successful high street location has challenged perceptions that there’s not much going on the suburbs. On the contrary, there are many small-scale industrial, craft and design workshops and factories which require skilled labour. Such labour is difficult to recruit and vital to retain, particularly for a company that has a longstanding presence in an area, since they will have invested in its human capital – people who are unlikely to be willing or able to commute elsewhere. Demolition of a seemingly messy collection of old industrial buildings might be the death-knell not only of a company, but of its local, in some cases highly skilled, workforce.


Entrance to printworks, previously forge, in alley behind Barnet high street

This links back to the project’s research, which has identified untapped potential for economic sustainability in smaller town centres. A street network that enables trips of a variety of lengths to and through the centre, as well as buildings and layouts that can be adapted to different uses, contributes to the success of both national and local businesses. Such enterprises employ local people, particularly low-skilled workers who cannot afford to travel further, as well as highly skilled workers who, due to their family situation, need to work close to home. Such conditions further contribute to a location’s environmental sustainability by reducing the number and length of car journeys, and social sustainability through the ability of community activities to take place in conveniently situated local buildings such as pubs, converted church halls and cinemas and through the everyday interactions that a mixing of different sorts of people in and around a local centre engender.


“Mutuality and resonance, in their many forms, are the stuff of most human exchange”: Borehamwood market

Social sustainability and vibrancy arise in urban and building layouts that can support a wide range of activities throughout the day and the week. Suburban centres which provide plenty of different activities encourage the presence of a diverse mix of people, coming from a variety of distances, all with different reasons for using the centre. The result is ‘mutuality and resonance’ in the suburban town centre:

Mutuality and resonance, in their many forms, are the stuff of most human exchange. We chat pleasantly about the weather, share a joke we heard with our hairdresser, pass an hour over coffee gossiping with a friend.  These mostly unremarkable events soon fade into the dustbin of memory, yet without them life is apt to feel empty and cold.” (From The Space between Us: Exploring the Dimensions of Human Relationships. R. Josselson, 1996:  p. 152. – via Wendy Olsen).