In defence of suburbia


As my friends know only too well, I read. A lot. Amongst the books I read I find many good and great that are pleasure to read and stay in my memory long after I have turned the last page. Some authors can write so beautifully and lyrically that they turn ordinary history into poetry. Others have the great ability to find and distill the crucial detail, great anecdote and apt quote, and then weave them together into a rich narrative tapestry. Others still look at things from a different and unusual perspectives to give you a whole new way of understanding. David McCullough and William Manchester, Rick Atkinson and Anthony Beevor, and Niall Ferguson and Christopher Clark spring to mind respectively in these three informal categories, but there are many others, and I’m sure you have your own candidates.

It is rarely, however, that I come across a book that is such a sheer and unadulterated joy to read that it creates almost a real high, makes you smile and nod while reading, and then pushes you run to your blog and rave about it to your friends and readers, particularly if you almost never do it in the normal course of blogging.

Paul Barker’s “The Freedoms of Suburbia” (2009) is such a book, even if I cannot quite explain its effect on me.

Ostensibly, it’s a smaller size coffee table book describing, in the great English tradition of “walking books”, Barker’s peregrinations around the suburbs of London and other, mainly English, cities. But what it really is is a paean to the ordinary, an ode to freedom of people to live how they like and where they like, to make their own home instead of being at the mercy of those often well-intentioned but so often wrong who think they know better. And so, on the obverse, the book is also a gentle and non-strident but a very passionate nonetheless indictment of the many generations of architects, town planners, urbanists, politicians, sociologists, and other assorted social engineers and busy-bodies who have tried, often with at best forgettable and at worst disastrous results to shape our cities according to their grand vision of what good urban life should be – the vision that all too often doesn’t actually take into account what real people actually want.

Suburbs have been getting a lot of bad press for at least a century and a half. A small but vocal and influential crowd of bohemians, progressives, planners, ecologists, artists and social scientists have damned suburbs as dull, soulless, conformist, shallow, materialistic and barren, a dangerous sprawl that consumes green spaces outside our cities, turning them into cookie-cutter aesthetic and spiritual nightmares without any higher aspirations, deserts devoid of true community, inhabited by dumb (and often conservative) people relying on their environmentally-unfriendly cars to get around. Whole books have been written and remain to be written still about the snobbery, disdain and even hatred that pervades both our high and popular culture regarding suburbia. We can all think of the negative cultural images – TV series “Weeds” or the Oscar-winner “The American Beauty” spring to my mind instantly – but there are countless others.

While many disparage and ridicule, a subgroup amongst the self-proclaimed enemies of suburbs actually have a scope to act – architects and designers, urban planners, city bureaucrats have by and large and for a long time now shared the vision of an ideal city that is compact and concentrated. Apparently only high-density living is worth living; packing people like sardines, and increasingly stacking them up on top of each other, seems to them to be the only conceivable way to create a polis that is vibrant, exciting, and sustainable. This philosophy has resulted in decades of “urban regeneration” that have actually destroyed cities, including the widespread experiments with brutalist architecture and “social housing” blocs thatĀ turned out to be towering infernos. But experts know better.

In reality, over the past century or so most people in the developed societies, particularly the English-speaking ones, want their own small plot of land with a house that is their castle and a bit of a garden to go with it. This is their home, the oasis of peace and contentment, and the last escape from our highly regulated and constrained existence. Whatever the haters think, the suburban mode of life has given hundreds of millions of average people the best standard of life in history. Every day, people vote with their feet. It is perhaps one of the starkest examples of the vast gulf between the elite and the mass conceptions of good and rewarding life.

Lately, inner cities have been undergoing considerable revival and gentrification. A lot of people, particularly young people, aspire to live in those new cool redeveloped precincts, praised for their excitement and vibrancy, not to mention proximity to CBD jobs, as well as to restaurants and entertainment. And that’s great. To me, as I’m sure to Paul Barker, it just goes to prove the point. Can we just let people live their lives how they want to live them? You don’t like the suburbs? Don’t live there then.

“The Freedom of Suburbia” is an English-centric book. For me, all the localities that Barker so lovingly and charmingly describes are at best just names I might be familiar with, but most of them don’t mean much to me at all. But it doesn’t matter, because the themes that he rises and the sentiments he expresses are universal throughout the developed world. Whether you are an Aussie or a Yank, you can read the book and find all the parallels in the world around you.

Barker is not a libertarian or a conservative – I suspect he is actually a man of the left – but his message is a deeply Hayekian: the best change is organic, not planned. Barker himself shows, as he pops various myths about suburbs in the course of his wanderings, suburbs themselves are not static; they have their own life, they change and adapt, they create their own communities. But above all else, they are there because they serve our needs and satisfy our wants. Those who think they are better and smarter than us can’t stomach that; after all what is the point of being better and smarter if you can’t remake the whole society according to your vision of what constitutes good life? Stuff them, I say.

I spent my Polish communist childhood growing up first in one of the multi-storey concrete monstrosities that pepper the outskirts of European towns, from Bucharest to Birmingham, and then in an older, dilapidated inner city tenement, again familiar to everyone who has lived or been to the Old World (this is why, when last year I was walking around Antwerp, for example, I felt like I was back in Krakow). Polish TV for obvious reasons did not screen a lot of Western cartoons, but “The Flintstones” was one exception, probably because a show set in a fake prehistory of cavemen and dinosaurs was deemed sufficiently politically harmless. Yet even as a child I found “The Flintstones” strangely subversive. For while I of course enjoyed all the adventures and misadventures of the Flintstones and the Rabbles, what really appealed to me was their quintessential suburban lifestyle of free-standing homes with their garages and gardens, the quiet and peaceful streets, the shopping malls, the bowling alleys, drive-in cinemas, fast food joints, and wide roadsĀ filled with ubiquitous personal cars. This was life! This was the good life!

I cannot say whether my “Flintstones” experience was common or unique, but I suspect the longing is universal. Millions of migrants who move to developed world generally start in dense city districts, partly because that’s where the accommodation is the cheapest, and partly because here they are closer to the comforting support networks of their own ethnic communities. But eventually, if not as a matter of years then certainly a generation, most of them too follow the trek into the suburbs. It seems that the desire to have your own castle set amongst your own tiny kingdom knows no race, colour or religion.

Today I don’t live in exurbia or one of the new residential developments “in the sticks”. At 6 kilometres from the CBD I call my locality an outer inner city. But for all the proximity and convenience I have chosen not an apartment but a townhouse, with its own garage and its own small yard fronting a relatively peaceful and quiet street. If but for the financial considerations, I would have chosen a free-standing house. There are no dinosaurs running outside, and in some ways I’m as distant from Bedrock as I am from a Levittown. But I still understand the yearning and the pull and the attraction. Haters gonna hate. The left – for with the exception of some conservative snobby types, the suburbia-haters are overwhelmingly men and women of a progressive cast of mind – for all their self-proclaimed concern for the “common man” usually doesn’t actually give a stuff what the common man thinks, wants and needs. But this hardly a surprise, whether it’s the suburban life or Brexit. Suburbs might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they don’t have to be; there are plenty of other options out there for those too cool for suburban school. But the overwhelming majority of the people in our societies deserve the freedom to choose their life and their lifestyle. You like planning? Build yourself a LEGO town.

Thank you, Mr Barker.