Suburbs no living hell

November 21, 1997

FEW terms in the English language carry more negative baggage than "suburban", which conjures up images of complacent, conformist, conservative mediocrity.

Mark Clapson, senior lecturer in history at Luton University, argues that suburbia has had "a bad press, leading to a ludicrously inaccurate academic image. There is a great deal of highbrow snobbery about suburbia, and social historians have tended to ignore it."

His own efforts to redress the balance will bear fruit in two books - Invincible Green Suburbs, Brave New Towns, to be published early next year by Manchester University Press, and a comparative United States-British study Suburban Century, to follow from Edinburgh University Press in 1999.

Invincible Green Suburbs takes its title from another much-derided phenomenon, John Major, outlining his vision of a British arcadia after winning the 1992 election.

Dr Clapson has drawn on social surveys, the records of town planners and architects, the media and oral evidence to develop a much more positive vision of British suburbia. He says: "Some historians have tended to link their view of suburbia to a belief that there was a decline in working-class life after the war. I rather tend to agree with the historian Joanne Bourke when she argues that there is no reason why working-class slums should have been friendlier or had a stronger sense of community than a street of semis."

Far from declining, he suggests that suburbanisation enriched working-class life: "People moved to the suburbs because they wanted to. Suburbanisation was coterminous with greater affluence, which meant that people had greater discretion and used their improved material position not only on consumer goods, but on new hobbies and experiences. The main difference is that earlier working-class life was more 'spatially restricted'."

Nor should we imagine the suburbs as full of materialist individualists, indifferent to the existence and interests of their neighbours and communities. "There is evidence of a considerable 'associative life' on the new estates, with people coming together with their neighbours either on the basis of common interests or in order to campaign for common causes - complaining perhaps about the absence of chemist or doctor's surgery on the estate or concerned about the rate of crime," Dr Clapson says.

This can be seen equally in early new towns such as Stevenage, or a 1970s creation such as Milton Keynes. Town planners, he notes, were concerned that their towns should develop a "critical minority" of activists to help develop effective communities.

Such groups inevitably took a little time to emerge. Dr Clapson says: "Many who were critical of the suburbs or of new towns showed a lack of historical understanding. You would not expect them to immediately develop the characteristics of a long-established community."

The US, he notes, has taken suburbia much more seriously: "The images are much more positive and there have been big debates on issues like the impact of ethnic divisions."

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