Azara Blog: Financial Times survey of suburbia

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Date published: 2005/02/19

In the UK paper edition of the Financial Times (FT) on 19-20 February they had a ("House & Home") section devoted to a "survey of suburban living". (These articles do not seem to have made it onto their website.)

The problem with suburbia is that most people want to live there but the urban planning elite are violently opposed to it and so try and force the working class to live in urban shoeboxes and put up with the squalor of living in big cities. Urban life is fine for the elite because they are rich enough to frequently escape the city. And even while in the city they are insulated from the travails of ordinary urban dwellers.

The front page article jumps straight away into promulgating the usual urban blurb about suburbs: "The banality of suburban life has been the feeding ground for generations of television and film directors, but this belies its idealistic origins". The latter is referring to the "garden suburbs" of England (such as Hampstead and Letchworth). But there is a constant harping by the urban elite that the suburbs are "banal" in order to justify their own worthiness. Later in the article we get "How did suburbia become a byword for boring, bland development?" This happened because the urban elite have to convince the world that suburbs are evil.

An article on page three continues the theme, from someone who lives in Manhattan. He mentions Andres Duany, who wrote a book "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream" and works for the town-planning firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). Well you can tell what he believes. But apparently he is not against suburbs per se, just suburbs as they are allegedly currently planned. If only they had involved architects it would have all been done much better of course. Or not. As typical urban planners they hate cars and hate private space, and believe that public space will save the suburbs. Never give people what they want, the urban elite know best.

The main problems with suburban development, as with much urban development, is that is has not been "organic" but instead has involved dumping thousands of homes all built by one or two developers within a year or two in the middle of nowhere. This is why there is sameness. In the UK it is practically impossible for it to happen any other way. If an individual wants to put a house in a field in the middle of nowhere they would be refused permission (unless they were multimillionaires). If a developer instead wants to dump a thousand homes in the same field it is often approved (and developers just try over and over again until they get permission).

On page four we get four articles. One is about a suburb of Tokyo called Setagaya, which certainly sounds nicer than Tokyo itself. Another is by a woman who curses her mother for moving the family out of Manhattan when she was a kid but who is now living in Saint-Germain, a suburb of Paris. Now Paris is perhaps the finest city in the world for living, but the author seems to like Saint-Germain, and so to justify herself she says at the end "it doesn't look like a suburb at all". Another article is about how Aylesbury near London is exploding with thousands of flats and homes all dumped in a few places. Dreadful urban planning. The final article on the page mentions Port Liberté, in New Jersey. New Jersey is the epitome of bad suburban planning, with miles and miles of malls one after the other. Apparently Port Liberté is trying to do better.

On page seven Edwin Heathcote (the FT's architecture critic) continues the usual negative tirade against suburbs, with the usual ritual denonuciation of Celebration (the Walt Disney community in Florida) and Poundbury (the Prince Charles development near Dorchester). After spending a paragraph demolishing the awfulness of Celebration, Heathcote says "unfortunately, Celebration has been a roaring success". So another defeat for the urban snobs. The problem, according to Heathcote, is that the "suburbs remain resolutely architecturally conservative". Well we can't have that. Give them awful houses where nothing is at a right angle, where there is no storage and where your neighbours can see everything you do. The architecture critics will rave. More amusingly, apparently the Chinese have created a mock Californian suburb called Orange County China right near Beijing. Now that is sick. But don't blame that on suburbia, that is just the Chinese foolishly believing that American style is best. (And bring back Colin Amery as the FT's architecture critic, at least he had some useful things to say.)

On page nine we have articles about Fredericksburg Virginia (very posh, so desirable if you have enough money and don't mind commuting) and Brighton (once a bit of a joke but revived largely because of a thriving gay community and the high prices near London forcing people further afield).

And finally at the bottom of the page the first article that mentions Desperate Housewives. Well that's Hollywood, so it must be a true representation. (But of course more indicative of a fat middle-aged male Hollywood producer's fantasy.) This article (by James Harkin) is the first that actually makes some interesting points.

When cities expand, they are flattered with words like renaissance, resurgence and renewal. Suburbs only sprawl. And in architecture schools and among policymakers, there is a powerful faction arguing that they should be replaced with higher density "sustainable" communities.

The use of the word "sustainable" by the urban planning elite is just another attempt to spread propaganda about how evil suburbs are. Unfortunately the really unsustainable behaviour is by the urban elite, because they are rich and so consume vastly more resources of the world than the people they show such contempt for.

A Mori poll by the Commission for the Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in 2002 revealed that bungalows ... were by far the most sought after kind of housing in the country. Confronted with images of different kinds of homes, 30 per cent of respondents plumped for the bungalow while only 2 per cent ... chose a modern apartment. Nobody at all liked the look of the tower block.

Well obviously. It is only the urban elite who think otherwise.

More interesting than the alleged renaissance in city living, perhaps, is the creeping urbanisation of the suburbs and the collapsing distinction between the city and its orbit. ... So-called "suburban downtowns", crammed with nightclubs and leisure centres, are taking over from sleepy tennis clubs. And many economic activities -- particularly within technology and information-based industries -- have also moved to the suburbs.

Well, there has always been and will always be no sharp boundary between urban life and suburban life, instead we have communities ranging over the entire gamut of possibility.

On page ten is an article about a vast new suburban/urban development on the outskirts of Milan. It is called Milano Santa Guilia and is located on a former brownfield site. It is supposed to have been "conceived largely by British architect Norman Foster" and is supposed to be finished by 2011. Now Norman Foster is a typical member of the urban elite and so we get:

"It's a better alternative to suburbia", says Foster. "It's something that seeks to have the qualitites and [sense of] place of the city, but with the benefits of more open space, more green space, more security, less problems with the car, and a good pedestrian experience, which is, after all, what we think of when we think about our favourite cities."

So typical car hatred expressed there. Well in spite of what Foster says, Paris, the most beautiful city in the world, has huge roads and loads of traffic. It does not detract. City life is all about noise and traffic (both pedestrian and vehicular). Madrid and Barcelona are also beautiful cities. Also lots of traffic. They all have good public transport. It is only in the UK where both the roads and the public transport are rubbish. The problems are not with the car, the problems are with the urban planning elite who think the problems are with the car. Of course time will tell how well Milano Santa Guilia works, and whether it really is any different from all other large modern developments on the edges of large cities.

Also on page ten is an article expressing the usual belief that "neighbourly behaviour is in decline". Well neighbourly behaviour has been in decline since Plato. This is just a typical view expressed by adults when talking about how much better life was when they were kids. The article is mainly about the book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communities" published in 2000 by Robert Putnam, which is just a typical book in this genre. Blame it all on (1) two-career families, (2) suburban sprawl, (3) commercial television and (4) "generational change" (the modern generation didn't live through WWII). The usual trite beliefs of the urban elite.

At the bottom of page ten are two short articles, one about "the neighbours from heaven" and the other about "the neighbour from hell" and you have to wonder after reading them whether they are talking about each other.

On page eleven we get articles about education (allegedly a reason to move to suburbia) and commuting (it's a big waste of time but the price of living in suburbia and working in the city).

On page thirteen we are told that the suburbs of Cairo are booming, for the same reasons elsewhere in the world. At the bottom of the page is an article about the suburbs allegedly sprawling further and further from London. (There is this ridiculous belief amongst the UK urban elite that all of the southeast is concrete or soon to be concrete, but as soon as you get past London itself the land is mostly industrial agricultural, a waste of land in this day and age.)

The final two articles are on page fifteen and are about someone who left the city for suburbia (for the usual reasons) and loved it, and someone else who did the same and did not, and so moved back to the city. Isn't it nice to have that choice. Hopefully the urban planning elite will not be able to wreck enough towns to change that.

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