August 24th, 2008


In Suburbia

This week's edition of my favourite radio programme, Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed, was a particularly interesting one. The repeat goes out on BBC Radio 4 this evening just after midnight, and you can stream it online here (unlike most Radio 4 Listen Again material, it won't disappear after a week).

Made in association with the Open University, the programme looks at Imagination and the Suburb. It follows a special on Imagination and the Countryside and will be followed by one on Imagination and the City.

Laurie brings together a writer and two sociologists. Psychogeographer Iain Sinclair has published London Orbital, a book about his attempt to walk around the acoustic footprint of London's M25 ring road "to find out where it leads". (Above you can see him talking about his inner city book, London: City of Disappearances.) Also contributing are sociologists Paul Barker and Nick Hubble, author of "Beyond the Garden Gnome: Suburbs and Future Suburbs". Hubble -- a Ballardian -- is by far the most pro-suburban.

Some themes that emerge in the programme:

86% of British people live in the suburbs, but almost nobody admits it. The term has become pejorative. Rather than a euphemism treadmill-style replacement of the term, though, people pass in silence over generic descriptions of where they live, and so a linguistic vagueness and blandness stands in -- appropriately enough -- for a physical, geographic one.

The place designated "suburban" keeps shifting: Deptford was once considered suburban London, but now satellite cities like Brighton and Cambridge are effectively London suburbs, with residents commuting into the big city daily. (Tell a Brighton or a Cambridge resident that they live in a "London suburb" and they're likely to yell at you, though.)

The general tone of the Thinking Allowed suburban special is "redemptive"; it's eager to offset (or pass off as "metropolian snobbism") the prevailing view that suburbia is toxic sprawl and ethnic cleansing. As a result, it's unduly lopsided in favour of suburbs, parading such absurdities as "suburbia is where everything now happens" and "suburbs are ecologically friendly; you need a lot of space for a wind farm" and "suburban gardens have the highest biodiversity in the United Kingdom" (these dubious gems all courtesy of Hubble).

The word "density" doesn't come up once in the discussion, which is pretty telling: density is a measurable index of suburban evil. The kind of high densities seen in city centres are much more environmentally friendly and sustainable than anything in suburbia.

It's alleged that the Green Belt idea was the invention of the dreaded "metropolitan snobs" and represents their disdain for the suburbs.

The suburbs are also presented, in Ballardian terms, as "Edge City", a place for experiment and dissent beyond the city limits. British intolerance of difference (I sometimes think my homeland, far from the refuge for eccentrics it's sometimes portrayed as, is actually the place that least tolerates otherness) has often forced this separation. The poet Alexander Pope lived at Richmond because he was a Catholic, and at the time Catholics were forced, in Britain, to live outside the city limits. (Protestant sects, meanwhile, were fleeing to America in search of a religious freedom they didn't have in Britain.)

The historical link between the British inner city and intolerance ("Catholics out!") is trotted out in its latest, paradoxical, incarnation: ironically, suburban apologists like Hubble portray the inner city as the favourite place of metropolitan snobs, people (like Richard Sennett, my hero, who appears on next week's programme on Imagination and the City) who tout it as a place of "encounters with the other" -- as long as this "other" isn't a suburban one.

I looked into this paradox in a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, Geodemographics put me in my place, which looks at how people (like me) who champion the urban "choreography of encounters" are undermined by our intolerance of intolerance -- we don't want encounters with people who don't want encounters. In a country where 86% are living in some kind of suburbia, partly to avoid the "choreography of encounters with the Other", this becomes a problem. According to some demographers, urban liberals who value diversity in their inner city neighbourhoods ("the choreography of encounters") account for less than 2% of UK households.

There's no discussion in Imagination and the Suburbs of the different meaning of suburbs in the US or in France ("white flight" and "manifest destiny" contributing to the US case, portes -- gates in city walls -- and high density Latin lifestyles contributing to the French one), and certainly none of the Japanese context of highly dense urban microsuburbia based largely on public transport.

Tonight Hisae and I are throwing our Google Street View party, in which various Japanese friends will be invited to guide Jan Lindenberg, via Street View, to places he should check out on his upcoming visit to Japan. Let's see how many of them are in the suburbs.