Tuning in to the sound of the suburbs

By Laura Vaughan

New analysis revealing the scale and diversity of socio-economic activity taking place in and around suburban high streets belies the widespread perception of suburbia as synonymous with social and architectural homogeneity, says Laura Vaughan

More than 80 per cent of UK residents live in suburbs, and the suburban model is expected to grow by some 2.5 million people. Yet the aspirations of suburban lifestyles, and the barriers and opportunities for change, remain poorly understood. The Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres (SSTC) research project at UCL is investigating the strategic contribution of Greater London’s smaller and district centres to the sustainability of the metropolitan region.

The project team interprets ‘sustainability’ as referring to those conditions that are favourable to local concentrations of socioeconomic and cultural activity that persist over time. The project has found that the widespread perception of suburbia as synonymous with social and architectural homogeneity belies its spatial, social, ethnic and economic diversity.

With pressure to build large numbers of new homes increasing, there is a real danger that such perceptions of homogeneity become self-fulfilling. The project team mapped and analysed a range of spatial data, relating configurational aspects of space with socioeconomic distributions, and discovered the untapped resource that is the ‘back lands’ of the high street.

This illustrated the extent to which suburban town centres are commercial and business destinations in themselves. Traditional data sources do not reveal these types of activities, and so they have been effectively invisible.

Avoiding a self-fulfilling prophecy that focuses on residential or retail-based development solutions is not simply a challenge for recently planned settlements. The critical problem is the extent to which existing suburbs can adapt for future growth.

There is an urgent need for designers, planners and policy makers to recognise how suburbia contains a great variety of distinctive places for living and working. Such an improved understanding of suburban
settlements must be grounded in historically informed research into the process through which the suburbs became absorbed into urban networks, and their emerging position within increasingly complex, multi-scaled urban regions.

A distinct genus

Until suburban settlement forms are approached as a distinctive genus in their own right, the planning debate will continue to revolve around the pros and cons of brownfield densification and the absence of adequate transport and public service infrastructures. Such debates, although important, tend – in the absence of an appropriate research framework – to recycle the politically charged questions of the ‘urbanisation of the suburbs’ and the perennial problem of under-investment in urban infrastructure.

The project’s research has identified the ability of smaller centres to adapt to changing circumstances as key to the emergence of a greater diversity, or ‘mixed-use’ of activities, than is usually associated with the suburbs. By using space syntax methodology within a Geographical Information System (GIS), we are able to analyse the ways in which suburban space is used. We can also integrate social and economic data with information about urban form to analyse the spatial configuration of Greater London. The project provides examples of how to use data that local authorities have, but typically have not used in these ways.

The project explores the role of the suburban road network in organising land uses at different scales of movement, both pedestrian and vehicular. We find that where regional planning is restricted to a limited number of large centres, or retail-driven ‘hubs’, the danger is that the strategic contribution of suburban form to the urban system as a whole is easily neglected. Many local centres are places of work and leisure as well as consumption and, though they are small in size, they have a strategic role to play in the future of large cities such as London, due to their widespread location around the outer suburbs. Detailed fieldwork conducted by the project in Chipping Barnet, South Norwood and Surbiton shows how these various activities ought not to be seen in isolation from each other, but as interconnected within the everyday life of the suburb.

Retail benefits from diverse neighbours, creating a richer mix of footfall. But what tends to happen, several local authorities have told us, is that developers and designers try to ‘tidy up’. Suddenly, you can’t get through from the high street to the ‘back lands’ where other activities take place. Adding residential land uses may densify the town centre, but it’s important not to lose opportunities to enrich the town centre with activities that are beyond retail.

Success and adaptability

The project has developed an algorithm in a GIS to enable mapped land use data to be analysed in relation to space syntax measures of network accessibility. This has enabled a novel understanding of the relationship between urban form and patterns of land use activity, and has led to findings which suggest that the success of local centres is conditional on their built form adaptability to social and economic change through time.

The team concludes that ‘adaptability’ in local centres can play an important role in supporting a wider range of locally generated activity than the retail functions with which they are most commonly associated. This feature of adaptability is, suggests the team, a sign of the potential for suburban town centres to be economically sustainable.

Although the importance of retail in suburban town centres cannot be overlooked, the by-product activity generated by the colocation of a diverse range of activities is clearly vital to the sustenance of smaller centres. It is also not purely an economic function – the fact that additional activities are supported within the locality of the suburb ensures that more time is spent locally, supporting the suburban virtual community.

We suggest that this potential embedded in the street network – the basic ingredient of society – is the critical element for sustaining the vitality of local centres,’ says Vaughan. ‘The extensive and varied activity in such areas seeds daily/weekly/periodic movement and engagement of individuals with their locality. Thus, we further propose that suburban town centres have the potential to be both socially and environmentally sustainable.


The SSTC project is funded by a three-year grant from, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
and is led by Dr Laura Vaughan (UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment) and Dr Muki Haklay (UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering)

For more information: www.sstc.ucl.ac.uk