We celebrate City Centres as places where you collide with strangers and strangeness in a varied and sometimes chaotic environment.
This can be frightening and distracting, or vibrant and exciting depending on your view. By contrast, Suburbs have been seen as clean and tidy, with clearly delineated boundaries between public and private, building and open space, mine and yours.
My competition entry described some public spaces in a suburban part of South East London, which has some contradictory qualities, and which, like most places, doesn’t live up to any suburban stereotype.
Abbey Wood, SE2, is a surprising topography of lush woodland, fading riverside industry, rough heath-land, worn-out concrete utopianism and comfy semis. Ordinary on the face of things, it can also be seen as strange and confusing. It is the sort of place where you will find kids joyriding Shire horses under a motorway bridge next to a 1950s detached house with a 4x4 in the driveway, if you know what I mean?
My hypothesis was that a strategic re-assertion of the particular types of public space in Abbey Wood, in the form of landscaped open areas, from street to garden to park to heath - could reinforce a sense of identity as even as land is given up to increasingly dense housebuilding.
My aim is to ally these interests with an area of study that is just emerging in the DfL collective brain, and hopefully affect its trajectory. The modern houses, clean streets and respectable lifestyle that tempted middle- class wage earners to the suburbs have given way to dilapidation, crime and above-average levels of deprivation. New development is often random, ill-planned and low-grade. There are opposing dreams, of those who want to live outside the city, and those who want to live in the city but can’t afford it. The enormity of the task of tackling these issues in design terms is suddenly popping into perspective.
Discussions with the team at DfL have led me on an ancient route, on my bike cycling 20km up the Roman Road from Whitechapel towards Romford and beyond. London has built up around radial routes since Caesar dragged us out of our huts – one of the oldest known trade routes in the UK ran from the centre of London to Colchester. Later it was used to bring cabbages and cauliflowers from the fields of Ilford to the tables of the citizens of London.
This road, which now forms a High Street through Whitechapel, Bow, Stratford, Forest Gate, Ilford, Chadwell Heath and ends in a recent mock-Georgian paste façade at the end of the market square in Romford (then continues on towards the sea) is also “HighStreet 2012”, the representation of the highly functional, fascinating but unassuming British High Street on a super scale. Which gives us four years to tart it up. Or to celebrate exactly what it already is.
The suburban settlements en route grew explosively in the early 1900s thanks to the connectivity brought by the train line that runs almost parallel to the road, from Liverpool Street. There has been a constant, creative connection and tension between the populations of towns like Ilford, Seven Kings, Chadwell Heath and the City and East End of London. The study of this road rejects the notion of arrival in as much as it rejects the diagram of London built up from pulsating nodes of activity connected by abstract lines. Instead the route, the high street itself is the central object.
Now Crossrail will follow this route and bring renewed interest, sense of purpose and potentially increased land values. In the coming months I’ll be looking at the interface between an ancient Street, new rail infrastructure, and Suburban housing - and ultimately how all this could inspire realistic contemporary Suburban aspirations. Yes it’s a tall order.