Finding suburbia

June 28, 2009

photo by Martin Godwin

How much of Britain is suburban? I’ve been doing some thinking about this for a book the Smith Institute and the Homes and Communities Agency are publishing in a few weeks’ time.

It’s not just an academic question. We want spatial policy to reflect the reality of where people live – and want to live. But if current lifestyles aren’t sustainable, we need to be able to promote realistic behaviour change.

The UK’s small but determined suburban lobby suggests that 80% of Britons live in ‘suburbia’, and therefore Government needs to abandon its obsession with cities. Others, notably the Urban Task Force, point out that around 80% of Britain is urban, and argue that high-density lifestyles are the only sustainable option for the future.

Over the past decade, Government policy has oscillated between these points of view – big city urbanism on the one hand, and an increasingly suburbanite housing strategies on the other.  That is probably about to change. Any new Conservative government is likely to be much more instinctively pro-suburb – Boris’ relentless focus on Outer London is a flavour of things to come.

All the more reason to get a proper understanding of British suburbia, then. So how suburban are we?

The best way to approach this is to think of the UK in functional terms: a system of urban and rural areas; within that, cities, towns and villages; and within that, a range of neighbourhoods – from city centres out to hamlets.

In population terms, Britain is an urban nation. The best data (from Defra and ONS) puts around 73% households in urban areas. Cities have the lion’s share of this: over 46% of households are in ‘major urban’ or ‘large urban’ areas. Other official research gives the 56 biggest English cities around 50% of the population.

At neighbourhood level, however, Britain is suburban. The best available figures [pdf] suggest around 84% of the English live in ‘suburban’ wards of some kind. These are the numbers routinely used by the suburban lobby. They are now a bit old, but are confirmed by more recent geodemographic data from Experian. Their MOSAIC  classifications suggest around 78% of households live somewhere in suburbia.

So there we have it: if the UK is urban country – a nation of towns and cities – it is also largely a nation of suburban neighbourhoods. In economic terms, cities are where the action is: the largest English cities have over two thirds of the country’s jobs. But in terms of community, we are suburbanites: the most popular house types in the UK are the semi and the bungalow.

That suggests that the Urban Task Force vision of ‘Barcelona in Britain’ fits pretty badly with the reality of most people’s lives. UTF boss Lord Rogers knows this. But as he also points out, neither the environment or the economy can support low-density car-driven lifestyles forever.

This implies that suburban strategy-making needs three main elements. First, it has to recognise the complementary roles of urban places (especially cities) and suburban neighbourhoods. (In that sense, explicit ‘strategies for suburbs’ are probably a bad idea). Second, as far as possible we need to bring the suburbs to the city – for example, terraces and townhouses are a good way to build popular forms at relatively high densities. And third, we need to make suburban lifestyles greener – through greener cars, localising energy generation, feed-in tariffs and so on. ‘The Good Life’ may turn out to be closer to the good life than we thought …

2 Responses to “Finding suburbia”

  1. erik Says:

    Is there a precise definition of suburbia?

    • squareglasses Says:

      Not really. I couldn’t find one in the academic literature. Wikipedia isn’t much help either – see here. If you hang on a day or so I’ll post up the Smith Institute book, which has a couple of chapters with definitions and data for the UK.


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