Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Yay for suburbia (and let's build more of it, fast)

I'm a suburban boy, it's in my bones - the semi-detached house with a garden, one of thousands just the same. It is, for some, the veritable definition of Malvina Reynolds' song "Little Boxes".
"And they're all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same."
As children - perhaps prompted by a father who was something of a folk music fan - we even referred to the estate at Orchard Avenue in Shirley as the 'ticky-tacky houses'. This was a world of trains to work - Reggie Perrin's soliloquy of a walk to the station from his semi in a London suburb - of buses to school, of hobbies and pastimes, sheds and allotments.

It became popular to deride suburbia - its design, its housing, its values - and to draw a negative parallel with either the racy, youthful and exciting life of the big city or else the bucolic, laid-back pleasures of the distant country. To be suburban became the acme of shallowness, a selfish existence, uncaring and dull - an insult used by historian, Simon Schama to put down polemical columnist, Rod Liddle:
‘Go back to your journalistic hackery… and turn your suburban face away from the plight of the miserable,’
Yet most of us - even Simon Schama - are the products of suburbia, living in those semi-detached houses, going to the same sort of state school and having our values set by life in these work-a-day, middle-class places. When I think of my childhood, I think of suburbia, of its space, its variety and the security it afforded us. And I know that my core values - community, neighbourliness, decency, politeness, respect - come from that suburbia.

So why is it that we have such a problematic relationship with suburbia? How did a suburban boy like Simon Schama come to use 'suburban' as an insult, as a way to dismiss someone he disagreed with and felt, in some way, beneath his attention? And when did we start the fetish of the city - the dirty, crowded, unsafe, unfriendly, child-free city? A fetish that, frankly, is something we (perhaps secretly) despise - what we hanker for is suburbia. There is no better place to raise a family - near enough to town for work and pleasure but far enough away that you can take Mr Pooter's advice about home:
"After my work in the City, I like to be at home," as he put in his Diary of a Nobody. "What's the good of a home, if you are never in it? 'Home, Sweet Home', that's my motto ... there is always something to be done: a tin-tack here, a venetian blind to put straight, a fan to nail up, or part of a carpet to nail down."
The truth is that, despite all the efforts of planners to force us into over-dense, anti-family urban cramp, we're still headed for suburbia if we get the chance:
Much of this has been driven by migration patterns. In 2016, core counties lost roughly over 300,000 net domestic migrants while outlying areas gained roughly 250,000. Increasingly, millennials seek out single-family homes; rather than the predicted glut of such homes, there’s a severe shortage. Geographer Ali Modarres notes that minorities, the primary drivers of American population growth in the new century, now live in suburbs. The immigrant-rich San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire, Orange County and their analogues elsewhere, Modarres suggests, now represents “the quintessential urban form” for the 21st century.
This is California, famously unfriendly towards sprawl, a place with some of the world's most vicious urban containment policies, and a place with some of the world's most over-priced housing. Imagine how much better it would be if we recognised that people want to live in one of those 'ticky-tacky houses' - three bedrooms, front and back garden, garage. A place that combines comfort and affordability with room to grow.

And it makes economic sense too:
Overall, what suburbia dominates is the geography of the middle class. All but four of top 20 large counties with the highest percentage of households earning over $75,000 annually are suburban, according to research by Chapman University’s Erika Nicole Orejola. One reason: Most job growth takes place in the periphery. Even with the higher job density of downtowns, the urban core and its adjacent areas account for less than one-fifth of all jobs, and since 2010 this pattern has persisted.
It's a myth that the only places where jobs get created is in the urban core or grand cities - 80% of jobs are elsewhere and, you've guessed it, most of those jobs are in and around suburbia.

So suburbs are nicer places to live (really they are) with better amenities than either the city or the country. Suburbs are cleaner, friendlier, safer and less stressful that the city. And more accessible with better schools, healthcare and activity than the countryside. Plus people want to live in them.

Perhaps then, we should ignore all the pompous city living snobs who sneer at suburbs (often while dreaming of a nice posh pile in some village that's really an exurb) and get on with building what most folk want - more suburbs.


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