Suburban special: what is a suburb?

Soulless patches of urban ennui or hotbeds of creativity? To kick off our celebration of the sticks, we joined six of the capital‘s sharpest brains at the Museum of London and asked them to nail the essence of the London suburb

  • Suburban special: what is a suburb?

    London suburbs - urban ennnui or hotbeds of creativity?

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    Joe Kerr

    Author and tutor in architectural history at the Royal College of Art

    London is important because it’s where the modern notion of a suburb – developments that are separate and distinct from the city and primarily for residents – was born in the early nineteenth century. With the growth of the suburbs, London becomes a place that is potentially threatening, unknowable, alarming and chaotic. This is the city we all know and love today. For much of the nineteenth century there were huge swathes of central London in which it was really not a great idea for respectable people to go at all.

    There is a great Punch cartoon of a middle-class do-gooder in a slum in central London looking around for poor people to help, and all he stumbles upon are other middle-class philanthropists, all disguised as poor people. The place that is safe is the place that is knowable, the periphery, and it is the centre that is uncertain. And yet today, you might argue, that relationship has somersaulted. But, if there’s one city on earth in which we can discuss the tensions between centre and periphery, London should be it. The idea of a London that agreed about anything would be very sad.

    The capital has always been really successful in creating a working tension between the centre and the suburbs – the city has hung together.One only has to go to a large American city where the centre has been more or less destroyed and the suburb is all that’s left, to realise that London is very lucky. In most senses, anyway: the outer suburbs are where new and not yet economically successful immigrant communities, and students, must inevitably live. We’ve forgotten to leave anywhere in London for people on limited incomes to live, which is a great shame.

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