Eternal appeal of suburbia

Suburbia is here to stay and policies directed at forcing families into the inner cities are pointless, warns Robert Gillespie.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that some who champion urban regeneration are also hostile to suburbia. Leading academics, architects, opinion formers and the "urban renaissance coterie" seem to have decided that the suburb is the antithesis of sound planning and good taste.

The fact that the suburbs are where the majority of the population lives has failed to temper the condemnation. Linked to this is the notion that "civilised life" should be synonymous with high-density living. This, we are told, is the hallmark of a mature society and part of a return to a utopian urban lifestyle, bringing with it regeneration of the inner cities.

But there is no tradition of successful high-density urban living in our society. On the contrary, over the past 100 years suburbia has become the "tradition" in volume housing for the masses. Each generation of suburban development brought with it particular designs and styles - the pattern-book forms of the 1920s and 1930s, the post-war estates and then the counter-responses of the 1970s and 1980s inspired by the Essex Design Guide and Design Bulletin 32.

All these forms were - and remain - popular with the home-buying public.

Densities have varied over the years. But it is only recently that the revised PPG3 has imposed density targets as government policy. These targets represent a fundamental challenge to conventional suburban design and layout thinking. Gone are the generous gardens provided from the 1920s to the 1960s and opportunities for on-site car parking.

Under the influence of PPG3, the predominance of flatted developments on previously developed land is having a profound effect on the amount of good-quality new "family" housing being developed. As a result, suburban forms of accommodation in most areas are now at a premium and becoming increasingly beyond the reach of young families.

This trend is encouraged on the basis that there should be a far greater proportion of accommodation for smaller households or single people, in order to meet demographic and social change. Within this over-simplistic reasoning lies another potential housing disaster.

People's accommodation needs vary at different stages in their life cycle.

While a small flat is ideal for younger people at the start of their working lives, there is also a need for a ready supply of accommodation when young couples have children. If this form of accommodation is not brought forward in sufficient quantities to make it affordable, young couples will remain stuck in inadequate conditions.

Higher divorce rates and longer life expectancy are seen as further justification for increased provision of higher-density housing. Yet few divorcees I know live in anything less than two-bedroom accommodation. Elderly people too are under pressure to hang on to their family homes, as the increasing capital value gives them more scope to afford the nursing home when the time comes.

We are seeing increasing pressure on the smaller-scale family housing market, usually in established suburbs where good-quality housing is at a premium. Assuming that there is no change of policy on the release of greenfield sites, what is the answer? Can we provide good-quality apartments for family living rather than for single people?

Few such schemes can be regarded as a really attractive alternative to the traditional suburban format. There is real market resistance. Like it or not, the suburban format at a density of 30 dwellings per hectare still represents what most ordinary people regard as the most appropriate type of housing - particularly when they are raising families

There are many and complex reasons for the popularity of the suburban format. These include privacy, security, proximity to good schools, peace and quiet and the scale of accommodation. Families need space. Overcrowding is a very real issue in today's society and must have serious consequences for children's educational development.

Unless there is a massive cultural change, there is no reason to expect that successive generations will seek anything else. Suburbia is here to stay. Society must ensure access to decent housing that is appropriate to individual needs, which will vary over time. This does not mean deliberate underprovision on the pretence that simply by building more flats in urban areas we can reduce the need to release greenfield sites. These locations perform different housing functions.

The strangulation of suburban expansion has led to the lowest building rates since the 1920s and the current housing crisis. Bringing families back into the inner cities is going to prove incredibly difficult unless developers and their architects can create a product that can compete with and outperform conventional suburban houses for quality of living space and surrounding environment.

Creating the quality of surrounding environment that will be attractive for families must also be the responsibility of local authorities. This new environment must offer security, privacy and access to good schools and other facilities. At present there is a tendency to rely on flatted developments stimulating the "wine bar economy" of city centres. This can hardly be considered an incentive for families.

The predominance of big-brand retail names and an absence of life in the evenings reinforces the feeling that town and city centres after dark are not family-friendly. The aesthete elite must learn to accept that for those who will only ever own one home at a time, the preference will remain suburbia. After all, it is the tradition.


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