I have been thinking a lot about suburbs recently and speaking about them in public. Not entirely positively of course as I now realise that suburbia can kill, which was more or less my theme at a lecture I gave recently at Sydney’s University of Technology in my role as adjunct professor there. It was all about what in the US they are calling ‘The Great Inversion’.
This is the historic shift back to the inner city by the aspirational in what seems to be a demographic perfect storm of both millennials and down-sizing baby boomers choosing to trade off housing size for better location and amenity. But also I talked about the increasing evidence internationally not only that poverty is beginning to cluster in suburban and exurban locations but also ill health. And this is because the low density, dispersed, sprawling nature of suburbia – far from jobs, services and amenities – particularly in its American and Australian incarnations, is leading to a car-driving non-walking life with all the associated obesity, diabetes, heart-disease and indeed depression.
And of course the dispersed model of suburbia is not only bad for you, it also costs the earth. It takes up more space per person and is more expensive to build and operate than any urban form ever constructed. It requires more roads for every resident and more water pipes, sewers, power cables, utility wiring, pavements, signposts and landscaping. It costs more for councils to maintain and more for emergency services to protect. Indeed, the dispersed city has been called, correctly, the most expensive, resource intense, land gobbling, polluting way of living ever built.
The answer? Well, although clearly we have to enable more people to live closer to transport nodes and at the heart of our towns and cities, we also have to retro-fit and re-design existing suburbia with a more urban density, a more compact street network and more local amenities so as to, in essence, make them much more walkable, viable and indeed sustainable centres. People don’t walk in Sydney because we have designed destinations out of reach from existing suburbs. If you are a Sydneysider and think I am exaggerating, answer these questions honestly: does getting to a grocer’s or a doctor or a restaurant without a car seem like a pretty big burden? Can your children walk or cycle to school safely on their own? If you think these are unreasonable questions then choice has already been designed out of your precinct.
And if we are going to build green-field communities, a new generation of Garden Cities or simply urban extensions at scale – and personally I’d take the view that in highly dispersed place like Sydney, which is a quarter the density of London, we should attempt to go ‘up’ first (in density) before we go ‘out’ any further – we must abandon the existing American and Australian model of suburbia and go for something I guess more ‘New Urbanist’. Or indeed, pursue something that fine architect and good bloke Sir Richard McCormick started designing but never got to implement: ‘sustainable suburbia’. Superbia anyone?
Richard died just a few weeks ago. Richard was the architect behind the superb new underground station at Southwark though he had famously fallen out with the BBC over their bastardising of his designs for the new West London centre. He was brilliantly summed up because of this by another guru of development, Sir Stuart Lipton, who said after he died that Richard was ‘the only architect who had ever resigned a commission on a point of principle’! I knew him from when I was a special (or specialist) advisor to David Miliband, Yvette Cooper and then Caroline Flint, the English housing ministers between 2005 and 2008. We were eager to build more and better homes and were thinking about whether we needed to resurrect the new town development corporation model in something we then started calling ‘eco-towns’. It was then I came across Richard’s pioneering attempt to realise the traditional aspirations of suburbia in a more sustainable environment.
He and his excellent team saw the challenge as being to ‘combine traditional private aspirations with communal objectives through exemplary design at higher densities’. He defined this combination as meaning both the private benefits pertaining to the design of the house and its immediate surroundings and the communal benefits of accessibility to local services, retailing, employment and public transport.
Interestingly, although I strongly feel that the future will be about smaller homes, shared spaces but bigger lifestyles, Richard showed how higher densities could be achieved without a reduction in plot size if our suburbs had effective spatial organisation. He contrasted two districts within Milton Keynes: a late nineteenth century walkable settlement and a car dependent late twentieth century housing estate. While the arrangement of the nineteenth century settlement is twice the density of the car suburb, the two have equivalent plot sizes.
Richard then produced what he called a hypothetical model of sustainable suburbia. This theoretical study is based on the proposition that an average gross density of 50 dph, applied across a settlement of 5000 dwellings, ‘could achieve walkable access to public transport and local facilities.’ His study then identified house types and types of layout which were ‘the building blocks of sustainable suburbia’. These were types of family housing across a range of densities from detached houses at 35 dwellings per hectare (dph) to mews layouts at about 75dph and non-family accommodation in three of four storey flats at 150dph. The range reflects a variety of possible suburban settings and demonstrates that significantly higher densities can be achieved with familiar dwelling types, ‘without resort to families being forced to live in high-rise buildings’.
Although I share Richard’s view that higher density does not mean high rise, I think ‘density done well’ in cities must clearly include brilliant examples of high rise. However, even in Manhattan that means 10 story apartment blocks with very few higher than that outside Midtown. It’s a damaging delusion to think otherwise. I will return to this in a future blog post but basically the idea that Sydney needs to have a forest of super dense tower blocks everywhere to meet need or indeed deliver the walkable centres which the market now wants is erroneous. Location and connectivity do matter to where density can be delivered to the quality and appropriateness required and where those things which people seek from city-living can be achieved at a human scale. High rise tower blocks have their significant place in the modern city but the discussion on higher density must not be reduced to this one form.
Finally, a puzzle. As I was re-searching suburbia for my UTS lecture, I came across this defence of a particular English form of the creature:-
‘Just as I was thinking about how I could reduce my carbon footprint by anything less than suicide, I realised I loved suburbia, that bastard child of urban policy.
‘To be precise, I love the English suburb. ‘Suburbia’ sounds American and evokes soulless, dispersed car-based, carbon-eating islands of development far from the city. By contrast, the English suburb – the likes of Clapham and Edgbaston – is denser, more reliant on public transport, and very much part of the city. We’ve not noticed this, partly because we’ve become convinced that ‘city’ means ‘city centre’, and partly because suburbs have been caricatured, even by supporters, as a flight from the city expressed in bricks, mortar and gardens.
‘In fact, they are a way of making the city work – particularly for families.
‘Housing Corporation chief executive Jon Rouse stressed this recently, and architect Sir Richard McCormack has a notion of the “sustainable suburb” which attempts to modernise the tradition. Sneering citizens might ban the very word from their dinner parties, but the suburb is one of the most successful forms ever discovered for inclusive city living.
‘It would make me proud to be English if my national identity weren’t already occupied. So why are English cities producing so few of the housing forms in which people actually aspire to live when they stop being students or ‘dinkys’ (dual income no kids)?’
Answer? Me, written 8 years ago. I was ready to own up to inconsistency (look, I’m human too) but I realised this was actually a validation of a denser better connected and indeed more walkable sustainable community for families. That’s what more and more city families are looking for as they turn their back on low density, dispersed suburbia. Let’s give it to them.