Posts Tagged ‘suburbs’

What’s the point of Outer London?

June 30, 2011

I left today’s LSE/Demos Outer London seminar scratching my head. What is ‘Outer London’ for? It doesn’t make much sense – except as a voting bloc. Given we’re less than a year from Mayoral elections, though, perhaps that’s the point.

Here are some brief thoughts from the day. (Disclosure: I’m affiliated with Demos’ new Centre for London, but these views are my own.)

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There are different ways of thinking about cities. Planners focus on systems and zones. Economists think about markets, and clusters of people and firms. Sociologists look at communities, neighbourhoods and relationships. In practice, we need all of these lenses to understand real world places.

London has many distinctive features. For now let’s pick two. First, it’s a ‘city of villages’ – over time, the capital has emerged from dozens of small centres merging in a single urban mass. Second, it’s a mega-city-region. London’s economic system spills over political boundaries and across much of Southern England.

Given this, drawing lines around bits of London is a bit of an arbitrary exercise. Using official definitions of ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’ London to make policy is actively unhelpful. 

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This became very clear during the morning. Demos’ Paul Hildreth took a classic systems approach, tracing links between Outer London and the rest. But his slides demonstrated just how hard this is to do. Data on people flows, industry mix, residence types and productivity all show how interconnected the London system is. 60% of Londoners live in the outer Boroughs, but most don’t stay there: commutes within Outer London make up less than a third of total journeys. 

Alan Mace from LSE London took a communities angle, presenting some very rich data on three outer boroughs. These showed some classic suburban features – stable populations and a strong sense of belonging. But it’s not clear these neighbourhoods are distinctively different from inner suburbs like parts of Hackney or Islington – or that similar to other outer communities. In the Q&A, it became obvious how heterogenous ‘Outer London’ neighbourhoods actually are.

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 As Scottish law would say, Outer London is ‘not proven’ – either as an economic space or a state of mind. But it does work in political terms.

Boris won the 2008 Mayoral election largely on the basis of outer boroughs’ votes. Ken, learning from past mistakes, began his 2012 comeback bid in Croydon. No surprise that Boris is re-launching the Outer London Commission less than a year before the vote, with £10m to spend on Outer London town centres before May (and £40m after).

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What does this mean for policy? The political imperative means Outer London features heavily in the new London Plan, which launches on 11 July. Economic and social realities mean there are tensions in the Plan’s overall strategy, and in the gap between policymaking and impact on the ground.

On strategy, the Plan has a welcome focus on thinking across ‘mega-London’, and identifies high-growth development hotspots across the capital. But it then goes on to set out a number of Outer London-specific policies on the economy, transport and quality of life.

On impacts, OLC chair Will McKee rightly said at the seminar that planners can’t turn market forces around, and need to work opportunistically within the business cycle. So given the deep trends taking retail off high streets and onto the internet, what can the OLC’s £50m town centre fund actually do? It is unlikely to have more than a marginal effect on retail employment. Better, as Mary Portas suggests, to take a hard look at how shopping behaviour is changing – then intervene where sensible to help high streets adapt. 

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Outer London is driven by electoral realities, more than economic or social truths. Let’s hope the next Mayor, whoever they are, recognises which of these is the best basis for policy in the capital.

Read all about it

July 17, 2009

Photograph by Alexandra Wolkowicz

New book chapter alert …

During the 2006 Liverpool Biennial, light and sound artist Hans Peter Kuhn projected a gigantic question mark over the Wirral suburbs (above). Everybody hated it. But in fact it’s an (accidental) artistic masterstroke asking the big questions about suburbia. What is it? What is it for? And if there are problems in suburban areas – and parts of Wirral are pretty deprived – how can we fix them?

The Smith Institute, the  Homes and Communities Agency and CABE have just published a new collection of essays that aims to answer these questions. Housing and Growth in Suburbia is edited by Peter Hall and includes contributions by Nick Falk, Vesna Goldsworthy, Yolande Barnes, Will McKee, Sarah Ganventa, Jim Bennett and Ben Kochan, as well as yours truly.

My chapter, ‘Fixing Broken Suburbs’, looks at suburban deprivation and the prospects for renewal through the downturn and beyond. It’s worth reading this alongside Jim’s essay on ‘suburban renaissance’, which sets out some of the HCA’s early strategic thinking.

For the moment you can download the whole collection here.

Update: Tristram Hunt – who chaired the launch event last week – has done a nice piece on suburbia in today’s Observer.

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 …

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