Thursday, 21 December 2017

Clean, green, child-friendly and joyful - why we need more suburbia

I wrote recently about our confused, often negative relationship with suburbs and the idea of 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.
I feel that this attitude is damaging society by supporting the idea that somehow suburbs are places without soul or even worse, places that are environmentally damaging, socially divisive, mere creatures of our car-crazed culture. Suburbs are a sin:
In all, that suburban form of homogeneity, orderliness and spacing was an outward response to internal desires for security and control. But there was a cost to such an approach. Namely, the texture of life. Because sameness breeds sameness, which breeds stasis—hence, the “soulless” suburb moniker that has come to permeate the pauses in between suburban praise of “good schools,” “abundant parking” and “safety.”
Inside this desire is something else. Yes, it's to do with safety, comfort and good schools but it's also about space to live. And this is the reason why so much of the New Urbanist, city-focused planning and development approach is problematic. We might be building places suited to people in one stage of their lives but those folk don't stay in a sort of city living, Peter Pan world of endless youthful fun. Mostly because there comes a point in many people's lives when youthful fun isn't fun anymore.

Suburbs are essential if cities are to succeed rather than turn into rapacious parasites sucking the life from rural communities while the 24-hour party people become ever richer in their unhealthy, child-free towers:
For the first time in the history of the Western world, the one-person household has become the dominant mode of living. In Manhattan, New York City’s most densely populated borough, more than half of all homes have a single occupant.
Now I'm sure most of these single-person households are perfectly happy but there, niggling away in the back of my mind, is a question as to whether this really is ideal living. What we do know is dense urban environments in the developed world are increasingly child-free. Here's Aaron Renn, who lives in that child-free Manhattan:
The values and priorities of people without children are different from those with children. One example is the value people put on space. In our central cities populated with largely people who have no children, a big obsession is changing zoning regulations to allow smaller units, including so-called “micro-apartments.” These kinds of developments would enable more upscale young adult singles to live in cities. That’s good in itself. Yet it is not paired with equal concern about creating more housing for families.
When you look, for example, at the recently published (draft) London Plan - 2kg of turgid prose interspersed with nice maps - you see that, far from addressing the sort of concerns Renn raises, the Mayor simply sees housing as a numbers game with the solution being to build the little boxes on top of each other rather than next to each other. In places - Grove Park, Eltham, Southgate, Chiswick - that were once filled with family homes (with gardens), we can expect ever taller accommodation blocks suited to the frenetic, solo life lived by so many young Londoners. All this is intended to avoid taking anything out of the precious 'green belt', to not build new suburbs but crowd the ones we've got.

The attacks on suburbanisation - as typified by that London Plan - continue. Witness the responses to the damage done by Hurricane Harvey in Houston. We're told (by New Yorkers) it is the Texan laissez faire approach to development that made things worse:
For years, the local authorities turned a blind eye to runaway development. Thousands of homes have been built next to, and even inside, the boundaries of the two big reservoirs devised by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s after devastating floods. Back then, Houston was 20 miles downstream, its population 400,000. Today, these reservoirs are smack in the middle of an urban agglomeration of six million.
Terrible! Suburban sprawl at its worst - we need denisification, zoning, strict enforcement. Or do we?
Houston’s dispersed, multipolar form, notes MIT’s Alan Berger, may have helped it respond more effectively to Harvey; the city has no central point, like Manhattan in New York City, whose closure damages the entire region. If we accept that more Harvey-like events are possible, even probable, then the most important issue is not zoning but flood control, which requires resilient systems.
So sprawl ain't so bad after all. Indeed, it might just be a good thing. Let's start with a look at South London. This is part of Beckenham, the suburb where I was brought up (my old primary school is featured as is the house where Mary Finnegan - and David Bowie - lived):

The striking thing about this image is the presence of so many mature trees and so much undeveloped space (OK planners, I know you call a garden development). Across the vast acres of London's suburbs this is the norm - even in Croydon. Suburbia is a lot greener - and more environmentally sustainable - than most urbanists and planners credit:
“We’ve all grown up thinking that urban density and verticality is a good thing but there has never been a study that has really looked at this in any detail; they’ve all been generic studies, based on large sets of generalised data. So we thought we should undertake a more focused study to prove it. And the results have been quite the opposite to those we thought we would find.”
And what did they find?
The high-rise residents energy consumption was 27 per cent more per person than the suburbanites, and even per average square metre of space, consumption was 4.6 per cent higher. Remarkably, the suburban homes involved not only had a typically larger floor area and greater surface-to-volume area (e.g. higher ceilings, roof cavities, etc.), they were also wooden-framed and significantly older – nearly 100 years old on average.

Some of the greater energy use in the high-rises was due to the lifts and the lighting and heating of common spaces and amenities. But on the “embodied energy” (in construction and materials) measure, the high-rise buildings required 49 per cent more embodied energy per square metre, and 72 per cent more per resident.
Piling people up in tall towers feels like better land use but it turns out to be the wrong idea if we want a more sustainable urban environment as well as some children (and let's not get started on safety). And, if you're concerns are about social sorting, - planners are always on about mixed tenure and social mobility after all - densification is again a bad idea:
One important point that needs to be taken into account when studying this phenomenon, is just how steeply “exclusionary” a city is “by location”. It has often been noted (e.g. by the authors of the “Costs of Sprawl 2000” study) that the higher house prices are (e.g. expressed by a median multiple) in the entire urban area, the stronger the “drive to qualify” effect. Chicago is actually significantly cheaper in all housing options than Australia’s main cities. Explicit anti-sprawl growth boundary policies exacerbate this “spatial sorting by income” effect, inevitably forcing up the price of all urban land and housing of all types in all locations.
It seems that, far from suburban sprawl being a bad thing, it is instead pretty much essential if we want sustainable cities. Urban containment policies everywhere have failed (check out Auckland's homelessness, London's beds in sheds and Seattle's inward migration crisis) but despite this planners are still churning out strategies for cities based on 'green belts' and urban densification. The reason for this isn't because we want to protect environments but rather because we've convinced ourselves that suburbs - sprawl, to use the pejorative term - are unpleasant places filled with dull people.

We need to change our thinking and rediscover the joy of suburbia not just because suburbs are great but because not building them is making our cities less sustainable, more crowded, unfriendly to children and shockingly expensive. So let's start with a correction on the environment - here's one of the editors of Infinite Suburbs:
One of the consistent themes in the book, and what gets me most excited as a landscape scholar, is the virtue of low density and the ecological potential of the suburban landscape. Environmentally, suburbs will save cities from themselves. Sarah Jack Hinners’s research in the book really surprised me. It suggests that suburban ecosystems, in general, are more heterogeneous and dynamic over space and time than natural ecosystems. Suburbs, she says, are the loci of novelty and innovation from an ecological and evolutionary perspective because they are a relatively new type of landscape and their ecology is not fixed or static.
Yet - and these editors observe this - the planning and development profession still "overwhelmingly vilify suburbia and seem disinterested in significantly improving it. Robert Bruegmann’s essay in the book reminds us that those who consider themselves the intellectual elite have a long history of anti-suburban crusades, and they have always been proven wrong."

Much of the NIMBY argument - albeit from people already in suburbs - is made easier by the willingness of planners to argue that dense urban development will work. We've got to a stage where words like "brownfield" and "regeneration" dominate the case made by the likes of CPRE rather than the reality of that case as 'we don't want any more houses round here' and little else. This urban redevelopment argument (and it is one of the five purposes for the UK's 'green belts') acts as cover for a policy that is responsible for much of London's housing crisis.

I can understand how someone who has enjoyed a field view for years might be put out by it being replaced by an estate of family housing (and I know how developers like to push the country aspect - one development in Cottingley had hoardings with a picture of horses proclaiming "meet the new neighbours") but I also feel that we shouldn't let such sensitivities dominate the system to the point where:
Around 9,000 illegal “beds in sheds” housing tens of thousands of people have sprung up across London over the last five years, a report says today.
Do we seriously think that protecting someone's open view across a not particularly special field should prevent us building the homes we need to prevent people ending up in cramped flats or on a bed in a drafty wooden structure down the end of an inner city garden? Especially when building tower blocks is expensive, environmentally-damaging and unsafe?

It is time to get less precious about those fields, to end planning micro-management of housing delivery and to get back to the sort of build rates we saw from the private sector in the 1930s (when lots of those lovely London suburbs were built) - touching 300,000 in 1937/8. Suburbs are great - you can call them what you like, even 'garden cities' - and we need more of them. The best way to do this is to put the planners back in their box and let people get on building the homes they (and we) need.


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