The Antiplanner’s Library: The U.K. Has Suburbs Too

Americans moved to the suburbs because of interstate highways. Or they moved to the suburbs because of federal housing policies. Or they moved to the suburbs because of federal subsidies to sewer and water lines.

Opponents of suburban lifestyles rely on the myth that outside forces caused Americans to move to the suburbs. This myth, in turn, relies on the further myth that only Americans live in suburbs. As every American tourist who has traveled the London subway and Chunnel trains knows, everyone in Europe lives in high-density cities.

Bollocks, says Paul Barker, a London researcher who wrote this 2009 book. In reality, despite decades of anti-suburban campaigns similar to those in the U.S.,
“84 percent of people in Britain live in a form of suburbia” (p. 15).

And it’s not just Britain. “Inner Paris may look much the same way it did in, say, 1950,” Barker writes. But “the population has drastically changed. The vast majority of people who would still call themselves ‘Parisians’ don’t live here. They are in the suburbs and exurbs” (p. 225).

Of course, British and European suburbs look a little different from ours. Lot sizes may be smaller, so homes are often semi-detached, or what Americans would call duplexes. But that’s largely because of some of the most restrictive land-use laws in the world. When asked where they would like to live, most Brits say a bungalow or some other single-family home (p. 83).

Duplexes or not, suburbs in Europe are still structurally similar to those in the U.S. Homes have private yards. Housing is separated from retail and other uses. People rely heavily on driving when they travel from their homes. They do their shopping at giant supermarkets and hypermarts (pp. 125-127).

Barker reviews the history of English suburbs and the parallel history of animosity to them, which goes back to at least 1829 (p. 56). Railroads and highways made it possible to spread out, but a large part of the initial animosity came from architects who did not like the styles selected by many suburban homebuyers (pp. 62-63). Today, the animosity is “usually in the name of ecology” (p. 169).

The author reviews the alternatives presented by the anti-suburbanites, including the high rises of the 1950s (many of which, like those in the U.S., were demolished in the 1990s) and New Urbanism. He scoffs at the “so-called New Urbanists” who think cities “should put everything you need within a ten-minute walk.” People haven’t lived like that, he says, for “a long time — two centuries?” (p. 55).

Instead of the plans of the New Urbanists, his preference is for “no plan.” “The freedoms of suburbia are a fine, humane creation, to be cherished; not an aberration, to be destroyed” (p. 225). In short, Barker is a fellow antiplanner.

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33 thoughts on “The Antiplanner’s Library: The U.K. Has Suburbs Too

  1. the highwayman

    The Autoplanner: And it’s not just Britain. “Inner Paris may look much the same way it did in, say, 1950,” Barker writes. But “the population has drastically changed. The vast majority of people who would still call themselves ‘Parisians’ don’t live here. They are in the suburbs and exurbs”

    THWM: That’s why there are these things called “train de banlieue”.

  2. Mike

    Even the former Soviet capital has gotten with the suburban expansion program. And that’s with anemic transit on a per-capita basis compared to cities like London, New York, or Tokyo. The canard that suburbs only exist in any nation because of forced development vectors is looking more and more like the naked emperor it always has been.

  3. bennett

    “Duplexes or not, suburbs in Europe are still structurally similar to those in the U.S. Homes have private yards.”

    I would disagree that just because the UK burbs have private yards too, that the burbs are essentially the same as ones in the US. My father lives in a west London burb. The major difference I notice is that in America, you have the walled house farm, with little to no non-residential amenities and only one or two entrances to the subdivision from a major arterial. The burbs in London remind me of urban single family living in the US. Not necessarily from a density standpoint, but the fact that people live nearer to the supermarket or town center and the don’t expierence the rush hour bottle necks in the 1 or 2 entrances to their subdivision.

    While I’m a proponent of increasing density in the American Suburbs, I’m not advocating for high rise living for everyone. I just wish US burbs functioned as well as the UK burbs I’ve seen.

  4. bennett

    Mike,

    Again, context is everything. Not all suburbs are equal. And any land development of any kind, in part, exist because of some kind of “forced development vectors.”

  5. Mike

    bennett,

    I’m not sure you appreciate the full meaning of Moscow having suburbs now. Though the towns were there during the Soviet era, population density and dispersal was very different under Communist rule. There is even an entire school of architecture peculiar to communist civic planning — Google it and enjoy. To an obsessive degree they forced their populations into urbanism, excepting only that portion necessary to maintain rural forms of production (agriculture, etc). In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that the Soviet government did virtually everything it could to prevent their cities from developing in a “Western” fashion, and yet that inexorably occurred, accelerating mightily with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Forced development vectors causing suburbs? What’s your explanation when the exact opposite forced development is applied, but suburbs wind up prevailing anyway?

    Moscow having suburbs, even substandard ones by Western standards, is the civic planning analogue to Saudi Arabia allowing nude beaches.

  6. John Dewey

    bennett: “I just wish US burbs functioned as well as the UK burbs I’ve seen.”

    Perhaps what you really mean is:

    “I just wish US burbs functioned as I think they should function.”

    Americans I know prefer shopping at very large supermarkets, where selections are varied and economies of scale enable very low prices. Those same Americans want convenience, which is why suburbs now have so many 24 hour supermarkets. Of course, few people want to live nearby 24 hour supermarkets which have huge parking lots and receive deliveries in the middle of the night. To such Americans, their suburbs just may be functioning the way they wish.

    Limited subdivision entrances are both a feature and an inconvenience. Suburban Americans I know do not want outsiders driving through their neighborhoods. So they accept the inconvenience of morning bottlenecks in exchange for the feature of freedom from cross traffic and strangers. Many Americans are now paying extra for the “inconvenience” of gated entrances. If they are willing to pay extra, it must be that the subdivisions are functioning well for them.

    My guess is that the UK has much less violent crime than does the U.S. That crime has affected our choices.

  7. ws

    John Dewey:“Limited subdivision entrances are both a feature and an inconvenience. Suburban Americans I know do not want outsiders driving through their neighborhoods. So they accept the inconvenience of morning bottlenecks in exchange for the feature of freedom from cross traffic and strangers. Many Americans are now paying extra for the “inconvenience” of gated entrances. If they are willing to pay extra, it must be that the subdivisions are functioning well for them.”

    ws:Actually, most people don’t even understand the issues regarding local congestion and limited access subdivisions that displaces traffic on to a limited number of arterials and collectors. They want limited access and their biggest complaint of the city is the traffic. I’m not sure of what fairy-tale suburb you live in, but this is the case in most built-out suburbs.

    People’s “preference” is they want a huge backyard, no cut-through traffic on their streets, no new neighbors and new homes (even if it looks like their own home), overly wide roads (but when the cars come speeding through they want speed bumps installed at no extra cost to them). And when the 24-hour grocery store (that you gave an example of) with lots of parking comes anywhere near their neighborhood (even in a single-use zoning municipality), “they” will fight the development and complain that it will increase traffic congestion, or they’ll blame the 24 hour store as creating noise during sleeping hours.

    Yep, “they” is your typical suburbanite NIMBY where they want a cocktail of development that conflicts with reality. They know what they want, but they don’t understand that their lifestyle actually creates a lot of the problems they also don’t want, too.

    And when the suburbanite looks outward and actually views their city as an entire entity, they wonder why it looks so ugly or why there is so much traffic. And then the process continues outward again because the suburb is looking old and outdated, there’s too much traffic, and the development consumed all of the open space to attract new citizens and business. So the local planning groups and developers look at expanding the suburb even more. Rinse and repeat.

    Too add to this topic:

    Suburbs in Europe look like the covers of a New Urbanist neighborhood brochure. They’re a completely different beast.

  8. John Dewey

    ws: “they wonder why it looks so ugly or why there is so much traffic.”

    How do you know what suburbanites wonder? or whether or not they think their city is ugly? I know exactly why the metropolitan area of Dallas-Fort Worth has so much traffic. I also know that if the billions spent on DART rail lines had been spent on roads, many thousands more residents would have been accomodted.

    ws, I do not think the metro area looks ugly. I especially enjoy the newer suburban towns of Southlake, Flower Mound, and McKinney. How do you know that the other residents in these suburbs think their cities are ugly?

  9. Mike

    Limited subdivision entrances, will ye or nill ye, are strongly correlated with reduced crime rates. I haven’t read anything that establishes causality, but I’m willing to stipulate an influence to some degree. It simply stands to reason that crime goes down in a location where no outsider has any reason to be present or pass through.

    It’s also true that the value of a house that backs up to a Walmart loading dock is going to be less than the same house on another street in the same neighborhood. But this is unavoidable, and is corrected within the market.

  10. bennett

    “Limited subdivision entrances are both a feature and an inconvenience. Suburban Americans I know do not want outsiders driving through their neighborhoods. So they accept the inconvenience of morning bottlenecks in exchange for the feature of freedom from cross traffic and strangers.”

    The problem is that this inconvenience is shared by those who drive on the arterial and don’t enjoy the benefits of the gated subdivision.

  11. ws

    Mike:“It simply stands to reason that crime goes down in a location where no outsider has any reason to be present or pass through.”

    ws:If you were going to rob someone’s home, would you like to be on a street where few cars drove by and your chances of being spotted are limited, or would you rather rob someone’s home on a street where pedestrians and cars had access to come through and could spot you jacking someone’s flat screen?

    I’d choose the low-dense, limited access suburb. The only crimes that are prevented from these neighborhoods are “nuisance” issues like litter. Any causality that limited access suburbs have less crime is more due to socio-economics, than anything else.

  12. ws

    John Dewey: “How do you know what suburbanites wonder? or whether or not they think their city is ugly? I know exactly why the metropolitan area of Dallas-Fort Worth has so much traffic. I also know that if the billions spent on DART rail lines had been spent on roads, many thousands more residents would have been accomodted.

    ws, I do not think the metro area looks ugly. I especially enjoy the newer suburban towns of Southlake, Flower Mound, and McKinney. How do you know that the other residents in these suburbs think their cities are ugly?”

    ws:I know what suburbanites wonder because that’s the only place I’ve lived in my entire life.

    If I had to survey the residents of these communities about what they enjoy about how they live and what they like about the area they are apart of — I’d put money they would mention characteristics that are mostly on their property. Backyard, big house, hot tub, etc. Maybe a quiet neighborhood or fun sports teams for their children, which is at least something outside of their own property lines which gives a cue as to the community feel.

    But would other aspects of the community design, other than these things mentioned above, really a factor for people living there? Probably not, they just like the big house and big lot.

    If I were a real estate agent in a TND selling a single-family detached unit, the first thing I would mention is the neighborhood and community. The first thing mentioned in these desolate suburbia subdivisions is not the community or even what it looks like or is proposed to look like, but the fact that it has whatever useless home appliance or amenity inside the home.

    New Urbanism sells neighborhoods. Suburbia sells houses without regard for what the community will feel like or look like.

  13. John Dewey

    ws: “Suburbia sells houses without regard for what the community will feel like or look like.”

    Really? What is this “suburbia” which sells houses?

    My Dallas suburban community of Flower Mound has an active planning and zoning committee and an active town council which are very concerned about what our community will look like. So do our neighboring suburbs of Grapevine and Highland Village. It turnsd out that Grapevine – through its elected representatives – chose a different look than did the other two. But all three have extensive park systems linked by greenbelts. All three have community activities such as Christmas parades and 4th of July picnics and outdoor concerts. All three have publicly funded community centers.

    My Dallas area suburbs are not unique. My brothers live in similar suburbs outside of Houston. I’ve investigated suburban neighborhoods around Phoenix and found similar amenities.

    If your particular suburbs do not have the sense of community you desire, then consider these points:
    1. you don’t have to continue living in the same place;
    2. you get out of a neighborhood/community what you put into it;
    3. if you do not live in a community where neighbors know each other, perhaps you are not qualified to offer an opinion about whether they like their suburb.

  14. John Dewey

    ws: “The first thing mentioned in these desolate suburbia subdivisions is not the community or even what it looks like or is proposed to look like, but the fact that it has whatever useless home appliance or amenity inside the home.”

    I have shopped for homes in dozens of suburban subdivisions and purchased homes in six different suburban subdivisions in five metro areas. The first things mentioned by the salespeople are always the community and the neighborhoods. It’s possible you and I may have been shopping in very different type suburbs. None of the suburbs I’ve lived in were desolate.

  15. Dan

    I live in a McSuburb. It is desolate. This, of course, is all about perception.

    When the banks start lending again and provided we can find a decent school, we’ll move to a place that has something interesting to look at and things nearby other than a poop-bag dispenser and a settling pond.

    DS

  16. ws

    John Dewey:

    The next time you’re looking at homes in such new suburban areas, ask to see an axo/aerial perspective rendering of what it will look like when it’s completed. You won’t get it unless it’s a very master-planned community (which will probably be selling some sort of quasi-NU theme, anyways).

    Great, they planned for a silly park with a playground structure (you make it sound like it was a grand Olmsted park master plan) and mandate street tree species. That’s about as in depth as telling people what color their house color can be or what their landscaping can look like in front of their yard. These are very superficial feel good things that communities like to do so they can pretend they’re preserving some sort of architectural character when they have no idea what they’re talking about.

    I’m referring more towards things like views, street character, spatial dimensions, open spaces, etc., etc. These are what make good neighborhoods.

    I retain my initial sentiments that “suburbanites” like their individual homes in regards to space and privacy provided, and are not exactly fond of the end result of what their city looks like when viewed as an accumulation of these individual properties. An overly general statement, but I still think it’s true. Maybe not for the die hard suburbia lovers.

    You assume I am willing and able to move, but I do have life experience with the very trite pro-suburbia arguments that hold little water. Urbanists / planners make some very silly arguments, too, I won’t disagree there.

  17. Dan

    and are not exactly fond of the end result of what their city looks like when viewed as an accumulation of these individual properties.

    You’d be amazed at the collection of subject-changing behaviors I’ve experienced just at school with the other parents when we start talking about the neighborhood and the cr*ppy unsafe traffic in front of our school. I addressed a group explaining why traffic is unsafe and that little can be done to alter the poor roadway design, and how the context of the community fosters the unsafe traffic. Folks know the tradeoffs of the McSuburb. They just don’t want to think about them, esp when they look at themselves in the mirror. Look down the road in DougCo and how many kids they’ve had struck by cars in the last couple years in their sprawled, poorly-designed McBurb.

    DS

  18. John Dewey

    “I retain my initial sentiments that “suburbanites” … are not exactly fond of the end result of what their city looks like when viewed as an accumulation of these individual propertiesAn overly general statement, but I still think it’s true.”

    You have no way of knowing that. The Dallas metro area builders have attempted a number of New Urban type developments. Some folks buy them. But the sprawled suburban developments is still where one found the most buying action – before this recession, that is.

    “Maybe not for the die hard suburbia lovers.”

    Which likely makes up the majority of the population. There are so many, many reasons Americans have moved to the suburbs. My neighbors – and I know them well – live here because they want good schools, low crime, lots of space, the many parks and greenbelts, the separation of residences from commercial and industrial sections, the responsiveness of small government, and the comfort of living among others in our socio-economic class.

    “Great, they planned for a silly park with a playground structure (you make it sound like it was a grand Olmsted park master plan)”

    You obviously know nothing about the parks and greenbelts in my town of Flower Mound. I regularly walk with my wife or my dog through three miles of parks and wide greenbelts. That’s a small part of the entire park system here. These parks do the include playgrounds you ridicule, but also ponds, brooks, woods, picnic tables and shelters, tennis courts, bicycle paths, and more.

    You may try to claim such a park system is consistent with New Urbanism. There is nothing “new” about communities including parks in their design. Furthermore, there is little else in Flower Mound which resembles New Urban design. We have no neighborhood centers. We have almost no high density housing. We’ve rejected transit funding proposals. Most homes are far enough from supermarkets that cars are necessary. We clearly separate commercial centers and schools from residences. And we love our town just the way it is. We will fight with a vengeance any attempts by New Urbanists who would change it.

  19. Mike

    ws:If you were going to rob someone’s home, would you like to be on a street where few cars drove by and your chances of being spotted are limited, or would you rather rob someone’s home on a street where pedestrians and cars had access to come through and could spot you jacking someone’s flat screen?

    You’re missing the human element. In that closed-off suburb, everyone there knows when someone is there who doesn’t belong. Even in today’s McSuburbs, as Dan put it, where there isn’t as much “community,” people get used to seeing the same cars parked in front of the same houses (accounting for visiting friends and family) and the same people walking dogs, biking, etc. And their kids roam the place at will, and good luck trying to get a curious kid not to investigate something “new.” Interlopers stand out like sore thumbs. You should see when solicitors try to tour my neighborhood — they end up looking like Marcus Brodie in the third Indiana Jones flick, when he goes to Egypt. Even the landscapers get scrutinized until they’ve been around for a while.

    In a subdivision with pass-through streets, people tune out the incessant crossing traffic, and the middle of that white noise is where the burglar becomes invisible. My car was broken into 3 times during the 4 years I lived in dense housing during and just after law school. (and it was an older Honda Accord, no bling.) There’s no way the coast was clear for those guys. This was an area with constant street-level activity. Those guys just didn’t get caught because nobody cared to filter them from the static.

    And Dan… if it’s that bad, people will move away. They aren’t? Well, the tradeoff of value must be acceptable to them, or at least good enough that the negatives are insufficient to overcome the transactional cost of pulling up stakes. After all, what are YOU still doing there? Wouldn’t you be a lot more at home in a nice cozy loft downtown, just off the subway line?

  20. John Dewey

    “you make it sound like it was a grand Olmsted park master plan”

    Well, it is grand relative to other cities with similar populations. Flower Mound has had a master plan for parks and open areas since 1981. Our park planners have won awards from the Texas trails Network.

    Our 684 acres of parkland works out to 10 acres per 1000 residents. By contrast, New York City has 3.5 acres/1,000 residents. Seattle has 10.3 acress/1,000 residents. We’re hardly a tourist destination, so we can’t match a city such as San Diego. But I’ll bet we compare very favorably with other residential suburban towns across the nation.

  21. ws

    John Dewey:“Our 684 acres of parkland works out to 10 acres per 1000 residents. By contrast, New York City has 3.5 acres/1,000 residents. Seattle has 10.3 acress/1,000 residents. We’re hardly a tourist destination, so we can’t match a city such as San Diego. But I’ll bet we compare very favorably with other residential suburban towns across the nation.”

    ws:Flower Mound has a population of about 65k people. The park system doesn’t look too bad, actually, but it sure does take a car to get there! I suppose that’s considered “accessible” in the suburbs.

    John Dewey:“You may try to claim such a park system is consistent with New Urbanism. There is nothing “new” about communities including parks in their design.”

    ws:No, I never did. I don’t even like NU that much, to be honest.

  22. ws

    Mike: You pretty much made up a bunch of assumptions. Which is fine, I do it too. For what’s its worth, I live on a cul-de-sac and get a bunch of random traffic that comes through. Repairmen, workers, baby sitters, friends, etc. And yes, my cars have been prowled through too.

    Assuming that you live in a cul-de-sac and that you’re impervious to crime is a the biggest joke in the world.

    Btw, an old Honda Accord is one of the most broken into cars in the US:

    http://www.statefarm.com/learning/be_safe/road/learning_besafe_onroad_cartheft1.asp

    What year was yours?

  23. Dan

    The park system doesn’t look too bad, actually, but it sure does take a car to get there!

    That disconnected road network almost guarantees auto-dependency, to the point you almost have to jump in your car to go to the bathroom (I’ve been told a million times not to exaggerate) ;o) ).

    But I lived for a brief time in Carrollton and would have appreciated a few more acres of park, and I would have hopped on the bike to get to them too, despite all the billy-bobs wanting to door me whenever I slowed them down for 3.4 seconds.

    DS

  24. John Dewey

    WS: “but it sure does take a car to get there! I suppose that’s considered “accessible” in the suburbs.”

    You seem to resent suburbia. At least, you’re quick to criticize even a highly popular suburban town such as mine.

    It would take a car for a single person to use all 58 parks in Flower Mound in a single day. My beagle and I regularly walk from my house to ten different parks in my section of the town. Though mostly connected by trails, the parks in Flower Mound are spread out so that almost everyone can easily walk to one of them.

    ws: “I don’t even like NU that much, to be honest.”

    I apologize for making that assumption.

  25. John Dewey

    dan: “That disconnected road network almost guarantees auto-dependency”

    You also seem to resent suburbia.

    Yes, almost everyone in Flower Mound must drive to reach their place of employment. That’s fine with us. Those folks who do not want to drive to work should not live here.

    No, we do not have to drive in order to walk in the parks and on the trails.

    My wife and I could walk to the nearby supermarket and drug store if we wished to do so. But we do not enjoy carrying groceries or pushing a cart four blocks. We do sometimes walk to one of the four nearby restaurants. But we more often drive to one of the other 70 or so restaurants within 8 miles of our home. I could walk to get my hair cut at one of the two shops nearby. But I prefer to employ the talent of a woman four miles away.

    Auto-dependency is a matter of choice. If we wished to be “free” from the automobile, my wife and I could easily do so. We do not because we highly value the freedom of choices the autombile provides us.

  26. Mike

    ws,

    Certainly you are correct that a closed-off subdivision does not make one “impervious” to crime. In fact, even a slam-bang alarm system and barred windows still won’t accomplish that. A burglar who absolutely, positively wants to rob one specific house will get in, whatever the owner does. The key is to make one’s home an unappealing target, and to count on the ubiquity of targets to complete the equation (security through obscurity). Heck, even a simple alarm company sign in the window can be enough if none of your neighbors has an alarm. In the jungle, you don’t have to be faster than the lion; you just have to be faster than the guy running alongside you.

    Nice auto theft stats. I can’t help but notice that the most stolen rides are the easiest to get cheap aftermarket parts for, which makes sense. I have a ’99 Accord. I’m sure the only reason it hasn’t been stolen outright yet is because you need a transponder key to start it. Thieves love my Accord because of the demand among ricers for its VTEC F23 engine (only a VTEC H22 is more sought after, apparently). These days, my ride just sits in a park-and-ride lot all day anyway. The thieves should probably take their crack at it now, because they’re never going to get a better chance.

  27. Dan

    Auto-dependency is a matter of choice.

    Riiight. Get back to me when gas is 6.00/gal. See how many people still make that choice vs resent such a large fraction of money/time spent on the freedom. Thanks!

    DS

  28. John Dewey

    Dan,

    My wife and I each commute 20 miles each way to work, in different directions. Yet our gasoline expenses for commuting consume about 1 percent of our annual income. If gasoline prices double or even triple, we’re not going to change our lifestyles. We might buy more fuel efficient vehicles, if the economics warrant it. But we’re not going to give up the freedom we have.

    For those who love suburbia, the solutions to higher fuel costs might include increased fuel efficiency, telecommuting, or even moving to a closer suburb. Giving up personal transport vehicles? Not a chance.

  29. Dan

    Just as long as you don’t think everyone wants to be or should be just like you, so policies should favor you, great! Especially since you and those like you will be a small fraction of demand in the future, if projections continue to hold.

    DS

  30. Andy

    Another comment by Dan-who-has-to-have-the-last-word.

    Here he admits that Planners think they will be right, yet they continue to want increasingly hostile government controls to get what they want. Why not just let the free market work, and if planner projections are right, then everyone will live in tiny condos and take the bus. Not that planners actually believe it or will risk their own money about it.

    But if planners are wrong…… oh, maybe you should talk to Robert Ehrlich about how planners’ predictions have worked in the past — he was only 0-5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon-Ehrlich_wager

  31. Andy

    Dan, you are such a moron and your arguments are so weak. Either you are smoking more of that stuff, or your college education was at Animal House College.

    Paul Ehrlich wrote the Bible for Urban Planner wanna-bees, “The Population Bomb”. As Wikipedia reports:

    The Population Bomb was a best-selling book written by Paul R. Ehrlich in 1968. It warned of the mass starvation of humans in 1970′s and 1980s due to overpopulation and advocated immediate action to limit population growth. The book also popularized the previously coined term, population bomb…..The book sold over two million copies, raised the general awareness of population and environmental issues, and influenced 1960s and 1970s public policy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Population_Bomb

    I am sure that Dan will have to have the last word, as he does in almost every comment section. Does he have a real life?

  32. LazyReader

    I live in a suburb too. Perhaps denser than normal. But I can walk to the grocery store easily enough. I actually despise driving but dont care as to what other people do. I just wish they’d finish building the sidewalk so I could walk to the bank.

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