Saturday, 26 April 2008

Urban growth: Suburbanisation

In 1902, H. G. Wells in his Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought wrote, ‘Already for a great number of businesses it is no longer necessary that the office should be in London, and only habit, tradition and minor consideration keep them there." By the telephone and the post office parcel service "almost all the labour of ordinary shopping can be avoided. . . . The mistress of the house has all her local tradesman, all the great London shops, the circulating library, theatre box-office, the post-office and cab-rank, the nurse inst. and the doctor within reach of her hand.’

The years 1815-50 were ones of conscious suburbanisation. Deliberately, and for the first time, new and exclusively middle-class zones were created to provide socially intact areas in stark contrast to the residential mix typical of pre-industrial towns. Architectural historians confirm that detached and semi-detached houses built for single family occupancy were the quintessential suburban type and that before 1794, when the Eyre estate (St John's Wood, London) was begun, virtually no such houses existed. Before that date attempted suburban developments, for example in Liverpool (Toxteth Park) and Birmingham (Ashted) failed and even Edgbaston proved problematical until, like Everton, sufficient numbers of the new manufacturing and mercantile bourgeoisie began to populate it in the 1820s.

The middle classes were not a homogeneous group and suburbs were consequently differentiated to reflect social gradations. In addition to the Palladian or Gothic style country villas built in their own grounds, three principal types of suburb have been identified. Firstly, village developments a few miles from the city; secondly, ribbon developments encouraged by improved road surfaces for expanded turnpike traffic; and thirdly, estates planned by speculative builders frequently between main roads.

How can this new suburbanising trend, 1815-50, be explained? The simplest argument revolves on urban size, that beyond some threshold, perhaps around 50,000 people, achieved by individual cities at varying dates, the physical unity which integrated the social, political and economic activity of the town crumbled. London conspicuously, but also Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol were already past the 50,000 mark in 1800; Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle soon followed. In the early nineteenth century each spawned discrete middle-class suburbs. Urban scale, therefore, reached such proportions as to impose diseconomies - additional costs and time which impeded business, social relations and communications. The city accordingly became more specialised or zoned, a process accelerated by railway development from the 1830s, with a central business district, workshop and residential areas. Suburbs, then, were partly a product of increasing urban size; in the wake of industrialisation the middle classes for the first time were sufficiently numerous to produce a coherent entity rather than being confined, as previously, to a few streets or squares.

Whether the building industry changed sufficiently in the 1820s to propel suburbanisation is doubtful. The termination of wartime conditions in 1815 assisted both a short-run decline in materials costs and eased building finance. Building land on the urban fringe remained easily available, and if the emergence of general building contractors heralded an organisational change in the industry, it had not proceeded very far by the 1820s; nor was it exclusively associated with suburbanisation.

Were transport changes influential? Passenger networks required passengers to generate adequate revenue to operate. Consequently they followed rather than preceded residential. Short-stage coaches, already well developed in London in 1800, evolved into horse-drawn omnibuses by 1830, later in other cities, with more capacity, easy boarding and lower fares. By their timing horse buses sustained but did not initiate the suburbanising process, though they did facilitate suburban colonisation adjacent to routes served by them. As with trams after 1870, the expectation was that transport services would soon follow suburban development. Railways influenced housing in central districts where access routes, stations and goods yards demolished properties and displaced residents, inflated land values and introduced physical barriers to mobility. But many companies opposed suburban passenger traffic especially if it was at cheap fares, and so in English cities, railways contributed little to suburbanisation.

How far architectural design created the suburb is debatable. Shaw's villas in St John's Wood (1790s) and Nash's Georgian terraces overlooking Regent's Park (1810s) were certainly appealing to the rustic aspirations of a population many of whom had recently migrated from rural areas. Yet with, middle-class preferences in Scotland loyal to tenement dwelling and an English middle class still often housed in terraces, rural influences on architecture were moderated by two other, arguably more powerful influences: a preference for privacy, and a trend towards individualism rather than communality. Both required more space between houses and neighbours.

Victorian values and in particular evangelical doctrine offered a vigorous stimulus to suburbanisation. Personal resurrection or rebirth underlay a view of individual salvation regarded as essential to counteract the social disorder of revolutionary France and the malaise of early-nineteenth century British cities. Such thinking underpinned the virtues of sobriety, thrift and cleanliness in relation to the home which was seen as having a strong moral purpose. Moral reform began with the basic unit of society, the family, in which the wife and mother was a decisive influence. (Simultaneously the family accorded her a lifetime role in a phase of shrinking middle-class employment options.) Based on a code which stressed domestic privacy, sexual separation, social distancing, and the cultivation of propriety, discipline and cleanliness, evangelical moral rearmament of the 1790s achieved a widespread acceptance in Anglican and Nonconformist circles by the 1830s. The cult of privacy, therefore, rejected street and house arrangements where congestion, communality, noise and public access damaged self-discipline, extinguished self-sufficiency and, crucially, diminished parental responsibility. It was not simply the physical structures which undermined decency and the family unit- there were many examples of generously proportioned and well-maintained terraced housing and tenement flats - it was the congestion with which they were associated. Values, not villas, preserved the residential unity which characterised the suburb.

Privacy and domesticity coincided with the emerging doctrine of `separate spheres' since by the nature of increasing technical scale and complexity business organisation was inappropriately discharged from the home. The resulting separation of work and home isolated men from house and family, and though they retained economic dominance based on their workplace, the vacuum encouraged a female supremacy in the domestic arena. This division was recognised and strengthened from the pulpit in an effort to stabilise middle-class moral values and in the expectation that they would then permeate other classes. How far the working class were willing accomplices in these family and domestic patterns and how far they were infiltrated by middle- class values for the purposes of social control and manipulation remains uncertain. What is clear is that later nineteenth-century housing at all levels became increasingly introspective, self-contained, and with this privatisation of domestic space, acquisitions of consumer goods and personal possessions were both possible and defensible, and gardening feasible.

Another line of explanation is to regard suburbs as the logical middle-class response to the intensifying death, disease and depravity thought to be products of the uncontrolled urban environment. The filth and stench of the courts, yards and streets were offensive and hazardous to all and in the absence of early nineteenth-century administrative apparatus to control it, or engineering expertise to remove it, to flee from it made practical sense. The preference for hillside suburbs exposed to prevailing westerly winds uncontaminated by industrial and domestic pollutants was understandable in the light of statistical evidence and medical explanations which stressed air-borne contamination.

To explain suburbanisation merely as a response to public health dangers is an oversimplification. Indeed, middle-class economic power itself contributed to precisely those living conditions from which they fled by deriving a rented income from slums, by reinvesting business profits to the exclusion of environmental improvement, and crucially, by diverting housing investment to the suburbs. Suburbs were themselves the creation of capital, part of the ceaseless search for new investment outlets. Suburbs provided an integrated self-sustaining capitalist mechanism in pre - 1850 years and beyond, by generating custom for property developers, suppliers of building materials, furnishers, for transport operators, retailing and entertainment interests, and by providing opportunities for water and gas companies, not to mention new outlets for lenders and landlords, and the professional activities of solicitors, bankers, savings institutions and others associated with property transactions. This `bonanza' of new horizons for middle-class employment, profit and dividends was allied to further advantages. Suburbs gave access to the cheapest land to those with the greatest security of employment and with leisure to enjoy it. Suburbs also offered opportunities for the `manipulation of social distinctions to those most aware of their possibilities and most adept at turning them into shapes on the ground'. Finally suburbs distanced the threat of social change. An 'ecological marvel', the suburb was a spatial device which inoculated the middle class against the hazards of the city without requiring them to relinquish their political control over it.

Suburbs were part of a process by which the middle classes developed institutions to control power and influence in the face of significant changes caused by industrialisation and urbanisation. Peterloo (1819), the Merthyr Rising (1831), emergent trade unionism and other expressions of class tension could be controlled by cultural and residential unity in the suburbs, an embattled response, or by manipulation of urban institutions such as the town council and law enforcement through the instruments of legitimate political power, the ballot box, or by the management of informal networks, through professional bodies and employers' associations, or by a combination of these methods. Suburbs and the suburbans were, therefore, a consciously developed cog in the mechanism for maintaining, consolidating and defending political power and the Great Reform Bill (1832) and municipal reform (1834/5) only recognised a process already under way by 1830 and which continued thereafter.

The tension between slum and suburb can be viewed as a deliberate perpetuation of the status quo in social relations through the mechanism of low wages. Profits were reinvested with a view to deriving productivity gains and further profits, a process dependent upon low-priced labour abundantly replenished by natural increase and urban immigration. Capital accumulation and reinvestment therefore neglected environmental improvement unless it directly impaired workers' health and efficiency and landlords' rental incomes. The workforce was too poor and employers unwilling to consider substantive improvements. Viewed thus, capitalist accumulation generated two crises in the urban scene. One was the deterioration of significant portions of the capital stock, to which suburbs contributed and from which cities never recovered; the second was the creation of homogeneous inner city neighbourhoods in which working-class consciousness ultimately ran counter to capitalist interests. In these senses suburbs created inherent weaknesses in the control of cities which they were designed to perpetuate.

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