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The freedoms of suburbia

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Forty years on from his 1969 co-published esay ‘Non-plan: an experiment in freedom’, Paul Barker’s new mission is to rehabilitate the reputation of suburbia. Here, he explains why architects need to engage with this much-maligned space

Why is suburbia so often despised? For architects, planners and cultural commentators, ‘suburban’ is often a grab-all curse. Yet suburbs are intrinsic to the modern city. In Britain, over 80 per cent of us live in these avenues, crescents and closes. A classic national compromise between privacy and price, suburbia must be doing something right.

In my new book, The Freedoms of Suburbia, I try to understand the wider city (including its suburbs) and how it works. Just as Jane Jacobs rehabilitated the inner city, I seek to rehabilitate suburbia. I realise I’m not alone. Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s draft London Plan takes a different tone from Ken Livingstone’s. It praises ‘traditional suburban rus in urbe themes’. But he would say that: it was the outer suburbs that gave Johnson victory over the more urban Livingstone. Words are one thing, deeds another.

Architecture has a dire record on large-scale housing projects

One must tread delicately in trying to redress, from on high, the perceived drawbacks of suburbia. The earlier dash to redress the perceived drawbacks of the inner city led to many disasters (which the Pathfinder - a government-led housing renewal initiative - demolitions repeat). Architecture has a dire record on large-scale housing projects. I lived in Stepney when perfectly good terrace houses were demolished in favour of fantasies like the Smithsons’ ‘streets in the sky’. In the recent Smith Institute report Housing and Growth in Suburbia, Peter Hall warned against destroying suburbs’ essential attributes: ‘homes with gardens on quiet streets, with generous open space’. New-style densification may be as risky as old-style comprehensive redevelopment.

Criticisms [of suburbia] are often a thin veil over social snobbery

Suburbia is a land of hope and aspiration. Criticisms are often a thin veil over social snobbery. Many newer suburbs, like Chafford Hundred, next to the Lakeside shopping centre in Essex, happily pay tribute to the Arts and Crafts designs of Charles Voysey and Baillie Scott. But, as The Williams Report warned in 2007, much of what has been built in Thames Gateway is shoddy and ill-sited. It’s destined to be a new version of slumdom. Developer Urban Splash is among today’s good guys. I admire much of its work. It tries, non-dictatorially, to take heed of what people actually want. But I wonder whether the struggle to rehabilitate the grotesque, Smithson-influenced Park Hill estate is the best use of its skills. The jury is still out.

Even now, many (though not all) architects and planners yearn to bring a version of tight-packed inner Florence to British cities. Hall points to Britons’ ‘stony resistance.’ They cling to their preference for suburbanite houses, instead of tight-knit flats. Even present-day Italians agree. Florence is encircled by new villas with spray-water lawns. Nor is Paris any longer the city of Haussmann - beyond the périphérique lies what the French planning writer, François Ascher, calls the métapolis: the city beyond the city.

The car is often blamed for all suburbia’s supposed ills. But Suburbia, a London Transport Museum exhibition (until 31 March 2010) emphasises how much of suburbia was (and is) seeded by public transport.

We must go with the grain of popular choice, not stamp on it

My conclusion, after my own research, is that we must go with the grain of popular choice, not stamp on it. Suburbia must be cosseted, not condemned. From the people able to shape it, suburbia needs a kiss of life, not a sneering curled lip.

Not long ago, CABE commissioned a survey on what sort of house people preferred. To its horror, the bungalow came top of the list. In Maxims for Revolutionists, Bernard Shaw wrote : ‘Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you, their tastes may not be the same.’

The Freedoms of Suburbia (Frances Lincoln, £25) by Paul Barker is out now.

Paul Barker is a writer, broadcaster and a senior research fellow at the Young Foundation. He has worked for the Times and the Economist and edited the weekly magazine New Society before it was absorbed into the New Statesman. Among the books he has edited are Arts in Society (1977), The Other Britain (1982), Living as Equals (1997), and (as co-editor) Reyner Banham: a critic writes (1996). He is currently working on The Banham Lectures: Designing the future, to be published in 2010.

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