From Paradise To Purgatory
When the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman described suburban Neasden as ‘the home of the gnome’ he didn’t mean it nicely. London’s Metropolitan Railway accidentally created suburbia. The term ‘Metroland’ was coined in 1915 and used to describe a band of countryside north-west of London, sold as a land of idyllic cottages and gardens. But amid claims of overcrowding and seas of semis, Metroland’s 21st-century reality has been deemed disastrous.
It was a dream of paradise that was always tinged with snobbery and condescension, but at least it was better than being left behind in the ‘inner city’, with its failing high streets and rising crime. Until the situation abruptly reversed, that is.
Urban areas may still be scruffy but they’re no longer decaying. A new study shows that neighbourhoods in Hackney, Dalston and Finsbury now have surprisingly high levels of resident satisfaction, whereas outlying areas are suffering poverty and deprivation.
The first problem is that, as America found, suburbia only functions well in times of plenty because it uses land wastefully and is overdependent on cars. The diffuse road layouts mean more infrastructure per person – more roads, more lighting, drains and pavements, and longer bus routes, so suburbia requires proportionally more public spending.
The second problem is that the layout stops ethnic groups from assimilating. These spread-out areas cause more social division. People don’t talk to one another because the structure of the suburbs isn’t conducive to doing so – houses are further apart, shops tend to be impersonal barn-like supermarkets, the elderly and mobility-challenged get left behind and forgotten, there’s less to physically do and groups stay together so there’s no intermingling. The unpredictable English weather further undermines suburbia. People can’t hang out in the good sense.
For the first time social scientists are addressing the idea that suburbia is actually a wasteland, an experiment whose time came and went. As the young flee it as fast as they can, the gaps are being filled by young families who can’t afford to stay in the city centre – they expect something more than a gnome in the garden and washing the car on a Sunday, but there’s no way of easily interacting with others. It means that if you’re a misanthropic loner who’d like to be left alone, your best bet is moving to the suburbs, which isn’t how it was intended.
A few years ago I wrote a novel about this called ‘Psychoville’ which has now started to look weirdly prescient. Are there good suburbs? I visited one in Belgium – know of others?