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


Following Adam Forrest’s piece for Guardian Cities yesterday that revisited Metroland a hundred years since it was invented by the Metropolitan Railway company, it’s interesting to reflect on the particularly spatial aspects of this domain and to set some facts against the myths.


Originally referring to the land around the London Underground’s Metropolitan Line extension into the Middlesex and Buckinghamshire countryside, ‘Metroland’ has become synonymous with a particular suburban sensibility – and for the cultural elite a shorthand for the sort of snobbery that would like to view the suburbs as the place that culture forgot, or as Professor Vesna Goldsworthy would have it, the place for which love dares not speak its name.[1]

One key criticism of suburban growth in the era of Metroland is its sprawling nature. It is true in a way. London’s suburbs post WW1 covered much more ground than previous periods, but mainly in contrast with the more compact Victorian and Edwardian city. Their character as a more open, less dense layout was in the spirit of the garden city. Suburbs were connected, but less so in the past.


Other reasons for this perception of sprawl (in many cases misconception) was the dominance of the semi-detached house[2], but in fact mansion flats were a new and widespread phenomenon as were terraces (though some of these were constructed in blocks of four to mimic a pair of semi-detached houses[3]). Some areas of London had as many terraces as semis. There was also much more variety in the density of development as well as the style of design, due to development tending to be quite piecemeal, carried out in many cases by small-scale speculators, with the exception of some larger volume builders, such as Frank Taylor (Taylor Woodrow), who built the Grange Park Estate in Hayes.


Whilst some country houses were preserved by suburban local authorities as museums or public buildings, and many pleasure grounds became parks and many commons and woodlands were preserved for the public good, this isn’t to say that the criticism was unfounded. Builders worked to tight margins in a highly competitive market and it is only at the high end of the market that they took care to retain existing trees and hedges, let alone terrain, preferring clear-site development and hard surfacing (in some cases required by local councils wanting to minimise maintenance costs). There’s an evocative description of this is Molly Hughes’ memoir, where she speaks about the countryside meeting the raw edges of the suburbs along with her own way of life changing both for better and for worse because of improved transport connections.[4] ‘Metro-land’ was slightly atypical in that a company was formed – Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Limited – to develop housing on land retained by the Metropolitan Railway, although other builders developed housing on their land as well.

Another often-repeated misconception is the lack of sociability in the suburbs. In fact, in the early days of inter-war suburbia, associations were an essential part of suburban life, both formal associations such as the Rotary Club for men and Women’s Guild, tennis clubs, amateur dramatics, but also the ubiquitous parade, with its hairdressers, tea rooms and grocers, which formed the social heart of the suburbs. Daily visits became a routine.[5] We should also bear in mind the civic complexes, with town halls in places such as Wembley and Hendon being an outstanding architectural feature of inter-war suburbia (notwithstanding the great Victorian civic architectural boom). Social housing estates fared less well, with many built without any such centres, shops, schools and so on for several years after their construction (if at all – see note 5).

We shouldn’t overlook the fact that this wasn’t just residential expansion. During WW1 many factories producing armaments were clustered in Middlesex to the north-west, which were subsequently transformed into ‘trading estates’, providing “the starting point for a huge industrial sector stretching westwards on either side of the Bath Road from Acton towards Slough”.[6]


Lastly, it is important to dispel the notion that London’s suburbs were built on an empty landscape. There were pre-existing villages with their own centres (with inns, shops and churches), ensuring the continuity of urban grain from previous periods. Buildings were constructed alongside road networks that had a spatial logic in their connecting the local area with the wider urban and inter-urban connections. Pre-existing patterns of land ownership, which determined how land was parcelled and sold off for development and of course pre-existing, in some cases, ancient roads shaped the landscape in which London’s interwar suburbs grew. “The pre-urban castre, particularly existing routeways and more recently constructed railways, had a marked influence on the shapes of the sites within which developers worked, often conditioning road patterns and, especially in the case of established routeways, giving rise to distinct ‘grains’ to the street patterns in many areas.” (Whitehand and Carr 1999:491)

Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street is out with UCL Press in November 2015

Images of semi-detached houses in Edgware, Middlesex are by the author, from 2006

[1] Goldsworthy, V. 2004. The love that dares not speak its name: Englishness and suburbia. In Revisions of Englishness, edited by D. Rogers and J. MacLeod. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[2] See George Orwell in Coming up for Air: “Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses”,

[3] Barratt, N. 2013. Greater London: The story of the suburbs. London: Random House.

[4] Hughes, M. 1979. A London Family Between the Wars (originally published 1940). Oxford, Oxford University Press. Her earlier memoir, A Victorian Family, of growing up in Islington is also highly recommended for its depiction of spatial/temporal shifts in the life of that earlier suburb.

[5] Gunn, S. & R. Bell. 2003. Middle classes: their rise and sprawl. London, Phoenix. A contrasting depiction of working-class suburban communal life can be found in the 1939 study by Ruth Durant (latterly Ruth Glass of ‘gentrification’ fame) of Watling.

[6] Hebbert, M. 1998. London: more by fortune than design. Chichester, John Wiley & Sons, p. 144.

I couldn’t resist responding to Hugo Rifkind’s recent Saturday Times column on the supposed death of the high street. Rifkind makes the frequently-repeated assertion that the butcher, baker and candlestick maker are no more and that, other than tattoo parlours, cafes, gyms and so on, which require a physical presence, that the “age has passed” for the British high street.


Debden high street, 1960s

Rifkind claims that no one is likely to miss the mundane and prosaic high street stalwarts such as Woolworths and Clinton Cards, but – with respect, as I appreciate this wasn’t intended to be an in-depth analysis (and actually I’d dispute there being anything inherently wrong with the prosaic anyway) – the argument is the wrong way around.

As I said in a public lecture earlier this year: Butcher, baker, candle-stick maker, it is simply incorrect to say that high streets are, or ever were about shopping. The point is that historically, the role the high street has played is to bring people together for the entire panoply of non-domestic activities: for shopping, but also for work and leisure, community and religion, pubs and clubs and any other aspect of life that occurs beyond the four walls of one’s home. Rifkind writes of “the continuing flux and change of the British high street” and here we are in agreement. The cases we have studied from across outer London demonstrate that over a century and half of massive social and economic change their generic role as the centre of the community that connects it to surrounding town centres has not changed, so long as their physical situation allowed them to adapt to the new realities.

One other point: whilst a lot of shopping is moving online, internet shopping is actually creating new physical realities on high streets. ‘Shop and Drop’ sites, which allow people to order online and then collect from a town centre location mean that community functions such as libraries or indeed independent shops, are benefiting from additional footfall. Local distributors working from a small van on behalf of online retailers and online retailers using internet data analysis to work out where to locate distribution depot locations are not dramatically different from the van that used to deliver from our local high street in late 1960s Edgware, or WH Smith deciding to locate its distribution centre in the favourably located Borehamwood. Indeed, now that companies are increasingly recognising that people may prefer to collect their goods at a time and location of their convenience (rather than arriving home to find the dreaded “sorry you were out” postcard), only time will tell whether new activities that take advantage of early evening footfall will emerge on local high streets.


The Great British High Street

September 12, 2014

2014-09-11 17.23.28Following an interesting seminar yesterday at Transport for London on the Future of the High Street (convened by Professor Peter Jones from UCL and a precursor to a forthcoming conference on “Transforming transport research into policy and practice”), it’s timely to read the useful report published this summer by the a research team at University of Southampton headed by Prof Neil Wrigley & Dr Dionysia Lambiri. The report covers the period of the recent UK recession, which gives a good opportunity to check on town centre health.  The report shows that:

  • Centres which are less reliant on retail have weathered the recent crisis better.
  • Centres in weaker socio-economic catchments suffer more.
  • There is a discussion regarding diversity, defined as the mix of independents and national chains, stating that there is little evidence that presence of small and specialist independent shops is a buffer against decline. One must ask whether the correct measure is being used here. Our own evidence seems to suggest that it isn’t simply a matter of numbers, rather a balanced mix of the two types. Indeed, a lack of chain stores can signify a place that no longer draws national investment.
  • The Adaptable Suburbs project’s own focus of interest, the high streets and local ‘town’ centres is highlighted as having been “far more robust to the economic crisis and recession than might be imagined.” The fact that this is seen by UK government as a surprising result is indicative of the problem that the authors point out: if it isn’t measured or quantified, it is simply ‘below the radar’. Too frequently places (and businesses) below the radar are simply ignored by policy, even though, as Mark Brearley (ex GLA and now at Head of Cass Cities) would argue, it’s in many cases the sum total of the smaller places that provides for the underpinning of the economy. These ‘data gaps’ are explored in some detail and worth a closer read.

The report goes on to assess some topical issues for town centres today, including the rise of on-line retail. The potential for smaller town centres to provide ‘cafes’ to collect goods ordered on-line seems to chime with other new uses emerging on the high street, that provide multi-use shop fronts for combinations of activities (such a cycle repair) that might not have been considered in the past. Yet, in many ways, this, along with local delivery networks are in many ways a return to local economies that operated in some of our case studies in the distant past. My own local greengrocer delivers in the neighbourhood for free, just as ‘Bernies’ the grocer did to my home in Edgware back in the 1960s. The only difference is that my order is placed by text.

Localism and convenience are themes that continue through the report. This includes encouraging local goods, traceability, as well as a local face to compete with the anonymous shopping centre.

Mark Brearley yesterday showed the ‘thick crust’ of workshops, offices, churches and small industry that bolsters the dozens of high streets around London. In a similar way, the report highlights that non-shopping activities help create footfall for shopping activities (though it would have been good to see the spatial interrelationship between these, as shown in Gort Scott’s work on High Street London: it’s the interconnectivity between uses that makes for linked trips):

One thing we can surely agree with: the need to challenge the myths about the supposed “death” of the high street.

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.