Sustainable suburbia

Posted on 05 June 2010 2 comments

Suburbia often gets a bad press. Writers love to satirise or mock it as bland and boring, or even worse, stifling and oppressive. More seriously, the charge against suburbia today is that it is environmentally unsustainable, at least in the car-centric incarnation that we’ve been building in Britain for the past few decades.

Suburbia may be unfashionable, but most of us in Britain live in suburbs (or aspire to settle down in one).

The design of suburbs has changed over time. London is full of examples of suburbs of different scale and density. During the 1920s and 1930s when London underwent a housing boom (and when most people didn’t own cars), the suburbs grew up around the expanding public transport network. This London Transport poster from 1930, for example, encourages Londoners to move to Harrow.

London Transport poster from 1930 promoting Harrow Garden Village
Poster image from the London Transport Museum

In the past few decades, many new suburbs around Britain have been designed around the car. These suburbs are usually of low density and situated away from public transport, and often away from shops. Therefore, the business of travelling – whether for leisure, shopping or work – falls almost entirely on the use of the car.

Today, architects, planners and policymakers recognise that new suburbs must be walkable neighbourhoods with easy access to public transport, shops, local businesses, leisure facilities and open spaces. Key to making this happen is raising the density of new suburbs. But what does density mean in this context?

Density is normally measured by the number of dwellings you can fit on a plot of land. The greater the number of dwellings, the greater the density. Here is a description of density from a 2003 publication by the Greater London Authority titled Housing for a compact city

“Density describes how many people or households occupy an area of land. Density is usually expressed in terms of the number of habitable rooms (bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms and large kitchens) or dwellings per hectare – hrh or dph. In addition, it is now common to assess the density of a development in terms of the number of people, bed spaces or even children accommodated.

…the number of dwellings per hectare will not describe the size of each dwelling, and measuring density in terms of habitable rooms gives no impression of how many rooms are actually inhabited.

…The area used to calculate density is generally the net site area, which includes gardens, public spaces and access roads within a development.”

A new report by MJP architects titled Sustainable Suburbia examines the effect of raising the density of suburban developments. The report argues that:

“…raised density, reduced car dependancy and suburban viability can be achieved whilst retaining key qualities of the suburban environment, the family house and garden in a green setting.”

The key findings of the report are on display in an exhibition at New London Architecture until the 12 June 2010. The exhibition panels can also be viewed as a presentation on the Sustainable Suburbia website. A full version of the report can also be obtained via the website.

Essentially, the report argues that the aspirations of many home dwellers – the private house and garden – can be met by building suburbs designed around a high density typology. This typology includes a mix of different housing types such as:

  • detached houses
  • town houses
  • L-shaped houses (terraced)
  • mews housing
  • apartment blocks

This mixture not only raises the density of the development but adds variety to the landscape. Different densities are achieved by varying the mix of housing types. The greater the density, the more land that is freed up for other uses such as parks or other green spaces.

Another important aspect of raising the density of a neighbourhood is that local transport, businesses, schools, and leisure facilities become more viable once there is a sufficiently high number of people to support such amenities.

Compact suburbs encourage the design of neighbourhoods that are not dominated by roads but by walkable streets. The MJP report states that a hypothetical suburb of 10,000 dwellings can still offer most residents a maximum walking distance of about 10 minutes to a high street.

The MJP report also includes a comparison of two neighbourhoods in Milton Keynes:

  • Greenleys: a “car suburb” of the 1970s with a net density of 25dph; and
  • Wolverton: a terraced neighbourhood from the 1880s with a net density of 52dph

Of the two neighbourhoods, the report states:

“In spite of the much smaller plots and higher densities of Wolverton, the dwellings are seen as more desirable than in the more traditionally suburban Greenleys…

…Because of its density and the way it is designed, Wolverton is a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario. In fact the most enduringly popular suburbs are often developed at densities similar or higher than Wolverton…”

It’s interesting that in looking at the challenges of creating attractive, walkable suburbs, we can look to the past to find so many examples of neighbourhoods that possess these qualities.

In 2001, the Communities and Local Government department under the Labour Government published a guide to good urban residential design: Building Better Places to Live by Design. Here’s an extract from Chapter 5: Housing layout and urban form:

“It is important to appreciate that some of our most attractive and enduring residential environments have the simplest of structures and are often nothing more than a regular pattern of rectangular blocks. Their visual quality comes not from the two-dimensional layout, but from the mix of activities and from the quality in detailing of the buildings, the landscape and the interfaces between these elements. The block structure works in terms of providing direct and convenient routes for movement, in making efficient use of land and in providing a tried and tested framework around which a quality place can be crafted.”



24 August 2012 12:56 GMT

It’s interesting this idea of higher density being more sustainable. It flies in the face of much populist sentiment that decries the new suburbs with barely space between the houses (of course, part of the criticism there is that the houses themselves are often in the ‘McMansion’ style, which can hardly be considered sustainable).

It makes sense though, in terms of transport and services. It possibly makes less sense in terms of urban farming, but I think it’s been shown convincingly that you can grow a lot of your own food on a balcony, so a small suburban plot could also be productive when used effectively (and of course, I do realise people value their garden for more than food production) – and especially if combined with community gardens and urban farms, which have the advantage of promoting a more involved and resilient community, as well as local food production.

A. Hussein blog author

24 August 2012 19:43 GMT

Thanks for your comment. It seems the key to raising densities is finding the right mix of housing types i.e. getting the right balance between low-rise apartment blocks and terraced housing in new neigbourhoods and suburbs.

As you mention, community gardens or allotments could provide the means of growing your own food if you don’t have a garden. Although allotments may sound old-fashioned, they are still popular in Britain.

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