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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
Suburbia fights back
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Graphic of a sign
Half the population lives in suburbia but fewer like to admit it.

Car washing on a Sunday in front of a semi-detached mock Tudor home complete with twitching net curtains is the life it conveys, to repeated ridicule.

The image of a cultural wasteland between the vibrant, edgy inner city and the rural idyll was reinforced by 1970s comedies such as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and The Good Life, and dramas like Abigail's Party.

But does this prejudice have any basis today or should it be consigned to the wheelie bin at the end of the drive?

Some suburbs are fighting back and one battle line is being drawn in the London borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, an appropriate start since it encompasses the leafy neighbourhood of Surbiton - home to those arch suburbanites Jerry and Margot Leadbetter, of The Good Life.

The suburbs are like the love that dare not speak its name
Dr Vesna Goldsworthy
Centre for Suburban Studies
Frustrated by what it sees as an arts funding bias against outer London, Kingston is holding a forum on Tuesday to try and stimulate debate about the creative future of the borough. Think-tank Demos, which believes the suburbs are the next creative frontier, hopes Kingston's efforts will be a blueprint for others.

The borough's new Rose theatre, despite the directorship of Sir Peter Hall, needs about 5-6m to fully secure its future, says its principal arts officer Colin Bloxham.

"There's a metropolitan snobbery at large," he says. "The suburbs have some amazingly creative people in them."

Mr Bloxham hopes the forum will accelerate Kingston's upsurge in cultural activity and help to reinvent its image.

'Local means amateur'

The vision of the suburb as peaceful, self-contained towns was originally articulated by Victorian planner Ebenezer Howard in response to the overcrowded and crime-ridden cities.

Between the wars, the building began of new estates for people working in the city. Although many remain today as purely dormitories and little else, others have gained a cultural character of their own, night and day.

Beverly and Lawrence in Abigail's Party
In Abigail's Party, Beverly represents failed aspirations
Dr Vesna Goldsworthy, director of the UK's first Centre for Suburban Studies, says suburbs like Kingston and Croydon have to overcome a perception that one has to travel to the city centre for culture.

"If it's local, it must be amateurish and doesn't measure up to the West End," she says. "But as transport becomes worse and worse, the need to consume arts locally will grow and these will be arts centres to rival and eventually overtake city centres."

This trend has already begun in the US, she says, where a growing sophistication among suburbs is reflected by new concert halls and arts centres.

In England, the punk explosion born out of suburban ennui has given way to a more complex picture, as ethnic minorities have filtered out of the urban centres into the semi-detached heartlands, bringing diversity and cultural enrichment, she says.

Similarly, gay fiction no longer sees suburbia as a place to escape from, she adds, because it is no longer the domain of the white heterosexual.

"The face of the suburbs has changed so there's a really vibrant, artistic scene. And statistically, many artists who exhibit in central London live and work in suburbia."


Whatever the reality, perceptions will take longer to change, says Dr Goldsworthy, although they will eventually.

"Unlike in the rest of Europe, the English suburb is too enmeshed in class and aspiration, it's become a metaphorical term as well as a geographical one. The suburbs are like the love that dare not speak its name. We want to live there but don't acknowledge it, because of its negative image."

Esher in Surrey
Between 51% and 65% of the UK live in suburbs
But even those who turn their nose up at suburban life are probably affected by it.

There is a new nostalgia for the kitsch features of the classic 1930s homes, says Elizabeth Wilson, visiting professor at the University of Arts in London. What was regarded as cheap and tacky, like the stained glass front door, had a renaissance after modernist architecture and its tower blocks were deemed a failure.

And author Miranda Sawyer, who grew up in Cheshire's Wilmslow - "a pink jumper, white stilettos kind of a town" - and wrote Park and Ride about suburban culture, says the 'burbs have always exerted a huge influence on mainstream society.

"Lots of the things you see on television, makeover programmes, making the best of what you've got, is a direct result of suburban attitudes. Turning yourself out nice and making sure you look good. It's only the very rich that don't need to be bothered about what they look like."

Out-of-town shopping centres are suburban because they offer "the city without the scary bits", she says, like free parking, no Big Issue sellers and no graffiti. At the same time, cities are becoming suburbanised, with pedestrianisation and Victorian street lamps.

But this growth in suburban values comes at a cost.

"The suburbs are suffering because their attitudes have been hijacked. We all love Posh and Becks and Footballers' Wives," she says. "And many people are moving to the city, like loft-living in Manchester - no-one lived there when I was growing up."

A selection of your comments appear below. The debate is now closed.

As anyone who has ventured out around Kingston on a Saturday night will testify, the surburban bliss depicted in The Good Life could not be further from reality. Ibiza Uncovered would be closer to mark.
Cormac, Kingston Upon Thames

I moved from Zone 1 London to "suburban" Cambridge a year ago. Yes, we now have a garden and generally a quieter life. However, public transport is practically non-existent, parking virtually impossible, house prices sky-high, and not much goes on in terms of music/arts etc. Also, vandalism is high - not a huge surprise, considering local teenagers don't have anything to do...
Caroline, Cambridge, UK

When I was a child, I used to watch 'Butterflies' and fell in love with Ria's world of wide, sunny, leafy streets... I live in the suburbs now and I love it: I frequently wander around on quiet afternoons, furtively imagining what sort of bizarre things might be going on behind all those net curtains... Its fascinating! David Lynch was spot on.
Sue, UK

I love surburbia and, incidentally, The Good Life was actually filmed in Northwood in the marvellous multi-cultural Metroland of Middlesex.
Brian Parker, U.K.

I think people's pre-conceptions about the type of people who live in a certain area is so wrong. It's not about where you live its about what you do to make it enjoyable. Those who feel that suburbia is boring are the type of people who can't entertain themselves and rely on entertainment to be provided. It's far healthier to live away from a city anyway.
Luke, UK

I've lived in London for the past ten years but have just started a family. I live in a relatively affluent area where the ratio of price:space in our house is absurd, our streets aren't particularly safe, all the good schools are ridiculously oversubscribed, all for the sake of a nice gastropub that I visit once every six months. Surbiton here I come!
Jon King, London, UK

I used to live in suburban Bristol. It took me over an hour by bus to get into town for work. Now I live in a tiny Scottish village, work 12 miles away, and drive to work in ten minutes. I wouldn't live in suburbia if you paid me to.
Nicola, Scotland

I'd be very afraid to live anywhere near Nicola's tiny Scottish village, from which she commutes at an average speed of 72 mph every day.
Mark, Scotland

There's a cracking music scene out here. The Kingston Lo Fi Movement is one of the progressive and exciting scenes in London.
John, Surbiton, UK

Although many of the comments in this article are valid, I can't really understand why "suburban" and "white, middle class, heterosexual" seems to equate with "boring". This is a silly, puerile and invertedly-snobbish view which we really do need to get over. I'm sure not all ethnic minority and gay people are especially "vibrant", in the same way as not all straight white people are necessarily "boring".
Jim, UK

'Free parking, no big issue sellers and no graffiti'? Has Miranda Sawyer ever been to Surbiton?
Charlotte, Surbiton, UK

I come from near Hemel Hempstead but have lived in Camden for the last 30 years. The mix, choice and variety of inner London is unsurpassed as are its very high quality green open spaces. I respect anyone who can handle living in the quiet desperation of the suburbs but they scare the life out of me!
Nick Bradfield, London

You mean people acutally live outside of zone 2???

I've lived in suburbia all my life and I love it. The streets are cleaner, the crime is lower and the people richer. I never understand why people always insult the suburbs. We can't all live in the city and many areas are less than 30 minutes train journey away from the city they surround
Ed, UK

Inner city life is great as a student or a singleton. You're close to all the bars and the kebab shop will still sell you a greasy doner at 4am. As you get older though, things change. Instead of dubious meat at bizarre hours you want a garden and a street your kids can play out in. Instead of wanting someone to talk to after midnight, you want sleep because you've got work in the morning. No type of area is better than another, they're just different and which one suits you depends on who you are and your lifestyle.
Vicky, UK

I grew up in Surbiton and loved it; I agree with what the article says wholeheartedly. As kids we were always going to London for entertainment. Someone even coined the simile, "Like Surbiton on a rainy day" because the 'burbs are seen as boring. But I wouldn't live anywhere else !
Tanya , Surbiton, Surrey

How can Miranda Sawyer say such rubbish?? I cannot stand Footballers' Wives.
Steve Edwards

Suburbs are lovely ... especially Surbiton. Where else could I practise wife-swapping with so many other like-minded people?
Mike D, Surbiton, UK

A mix of land use should be encouraged in suburbs - not just houses - to promote a sense of community and reduce the need to travel. But many suburbs are built to too low a density, encouraging car dependence. We need more apartments and other higher-density homes, both in suburbs and town/city centres. By the way Croydon isn't a suburb. If it was a free-standing town, it would be the seventh largest in England!
Geoff Kerr, Todmorden, UK

Suburbia's still 2 young kids and a dog family terrority. Places like Bradley Stoke here in Bristol are just bland and depressing look places, populated by the fruits of blairs britain...
Trevor, bristol

Semi-detached houses, listening to the sounds of lawnmowers, washing the car on a sunday morning, going down the local Brewer's Fayre, and hour on the night bus! Ugh - how boring. I'd go for the terraced houses, small gardens, funky shops, easy walking distance, sense of community, diverse people and vibrancy of the inner cities any day - even if it that comes with a bit more litter.
Ben Brook, Brighton, UK

I have lived out in the country and now reside in the heart of Notting Hill. I have also spent time in various suburbia. The former two are wonderful, but suburbia seems some hybrid vacuum in between unless it is done well, such as Kingston, or brilliantly such as Richmond. Moving further out of the London area, and suburbia becomes old-fashioned, inward-looking and full of people who take a look at a mannequin in Marks & Spencer and actually buy the whole outfit (Reading for example)! Saying that though, there will be a mass exodus of under 45's from London soon - as only the older generation who have benefited from massive house price rises will be able to afford to live here. It will be an enormous city full of rich silver-haired citizens, so maybe the younger bunch will liven up suburbia?
Tom Franklin, London, UK

The truth of the matter is that, no matter how many people try and defend the 'burbs, they are a failed attempt at a leafy, sylvian utopia. For many it is the cost of housing, not the love of the area, that makes them move to Sidcup or Surbiton. Inner city life is where the cultural and artistic heartbeat of Britain is first felt. Life in the burbs? I'd rather emigrate.
Iain McHardy, UK

I can't believe that anyone would form an opinion of another person based primarily upon one known fact about them, such as where they happen to live. Pre-judging an individual is dangerous at the best of times, and this would seem a particularly silly example of such prejudice.
Martin, Middlesex, UK

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