Viewpoint: Why are suburbs seen as boring?

Composite image of garden gnomes, a man washing his car, and several views of suburban housing

People tend to think of the "suburbs" of the UK as safe and boring, but much culture originates there and the leafy streets have many of the same problems as the inner city, writes sociologist Rupa Huq.

"London, Paris, New York" goes the holy trinity long used to summarise modern city living.

"Hounslow, Didsbury, Solihull" may not quite have the same ring to it.

But in 2013 in the UK it's in the suburbs, at the edges of our cities, that most people reside.

Unlike the usual presumption of suburbs as quiet, featureless places "where nothing ever happens", recent years have seen dramatic happenings in suburbs, not least the riots of 2011 in places like Ealing and Croydon in London.

In many ways the 21st Century suburb faces some thoroughly modern problems. There is crumbling infrastructure, with hollowed out High Streets. There is pressure on public services prompted by population increases, as witnessed in the annual scramble for school places.

About the author

Dr Rupa Huq is senior lecturer in sociology at Kingston University.

She is author of the books On the Edge: The Contested Cultures of English Suburbia and Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture.

Stereotypically, suburbs are full of identikit 1930s semi-detached houses. But British suburbia spans numerous types - everything from council cottage estates to opulent privately built suburban Victoriana too - all conceived in the spirit of optimism as a step up from the squalor of the city for the aspiring classes.

There is no clear definition of what a suburb actually is.

We have an inkling that it might include manicured lawns, net curtains and weekend car-washing but there is no strict formula.

A milkman talks to a woman walking her dogs circa 1960s

Filling in the blanks, a raft of 1970s sitcoms like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Terry and June and The Good Life have provided us with enduring imagery of suburbs as cloyingly comfortable and slightly naff. In such shows the status-obsessed inhabitants trapped in their soulless semis are the butt of the jokes.

So why have suburbs got a reputation for being boring? Historically, those who had the means fled the urban buzz and inner-city slums, feeding the image of safe blandness in the 'burbs.

The cast of The Good Life The Good Life was set in stereotypical suburbia, often the source of humour

British urban relations in some ways follow a doughnut model. The classic city centre at the core is a place of excitement and urban glamour associated with the cut and thrust of business. The rim around this is the inner-city. In the post-war period, many places were bombed out, with the remaining private housing supplemented by hastily built social stock including a plethora of tower blocks.

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For many the tranquillity of the suburb and easy availability of mortgages in the outer ring made it the ideal place to flee to and call home, although its peaceable quality made it dullsville in the eyes of the urban intelligentsia and many who grew up there.

But far from being cultural deserts, suburbs have been a fertile breeding ground for artistic movements. It is from the nation's Acacia Avenues that almost all post-war pop has emerged, even if its artists would rather make out that they hailed from high-rise hell and so be more "edgy".

John Lennon was raised in his Aunt Mimi's semi in Liverpool's sedate Menlove Avenue. David Bowie retrospectives stress his beginnings in Bromley, Kent - also the home of punks such as Siousxie and the Banshees and Billy Idol.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust; Siousxie from Siouxsie and the Banshees; John Lennon; Liam and Noel Gallagher Bored in 'burbia? (Clockwise) David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux, John Lennon, Oasis

More recently Oasis's sneery posturing was perfected in Burnage, an example of a local-authority built suburb some distance from Manchester city centre once seen as highly desirable for its individual houses with neat front and back gardens. Today "urban" genre dubstep is actually straight outta Croydon.

There is more to the 21st Century suburb than simply conformist folk and gnome fanciers obsessively peering out defensively behind their twitching net curtains.

A man DJ-ing at a club Create dubstep on Friday, replace chipped garden gnome on Saturday...

Suburbia has shifted to become a place of dynamism housing ethnically mixed populations, as illustrated by the 2011 Census figures, in contrast to the assumptions of uniformity.

Start Quote

Part of suburbia's allure was cleaner air, lower local taxation and a better class of inhabitant”

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This is most pronounced in London but pervades elsewhere too. To take just one example, Selly Oak in Birmingham has a substantial Asian population and among its claims to fame is the contention that it was the place where the Balti was born.

Part of suburbia's allure was cleaner air, lower local taxation and a better class of inhabitant - which often really meant a lack of ethnic residents, termed "white flight".

Yet a substantial movement of ethnic minority people into the suburbs is evidence that this post-war picture of suburbanisation no longer holds.

More recently the 2004 EU enlargement has brought white migration. But the Polish presence in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton long predates this. Many arrived after WWII.

In some areas of the UK's big cities Polski Skleps (Polish shops) are an increasing presence on the suburban landscape with former High Street mainstays like pubs increasingly closing their doors as their business model no longer commands the customer support that they once did.

A man stands in front of a speciality Polish shop

Indeed, "ethnic" commerce has helped many modern suburban shopping parades to stave off collapse in the face of out-of-town and online competition. Any visitor to New Malden in Kingston, Surrey, will see how it has become a centre for South Korean restaurants.

Five quotes on the suburbs

  • "Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but middle class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium" - Cyril Connolly
  • "Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It's sterile. It's nothing. It's wasting your life" - Ed Koch
  • "I grew up in the suburbs and basically associate the suburbs with cultural death" - Billy Corgan
  • "Do you realise that people die of boredom in London suburbs? It's the second biggest cause of death amongst the English in general. Sheer boredom…" - Alexander McCall Smith
  • "I pray for the kids in the suburbs... I pray that one day, we all graduate from similarity" - J Merridew

Source: Goodreads, Brainyquote

Gentrification has made many inner-city locations once associated with the horrors of crime and grime clean up their act as large period properties have undergone reconversion from seedy bedsitland to single family dwellings beyond the budgets of many average people.

In many ways associations of suburban privilege and squalid inner-cities are blurring and merging if not completely reversing.

All this has happened under our noses without anyone really noticing because suburbs in many ways are simply taken for granted.

They are seen as self-sufficient and not really a "problem", not urban enough for urban regeneration yet now, 100 years on from their formation, suffering the effects of economic downturn and looking somewhat worse for wear.

We should smash the stereotypes of nondescript suburbia and rather than being embarrassed by them, celebrate those places on the edges of our cities that give our nation its essential character.

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