Suburban Tourism: How Cool is That?
As Hinchcliffe (2005) says, ‘the literature on suburbs is extensive, and yet the subject always seems elusive. For some, the suburb is a geographical space, for others a cultural form ... for others a state of mind’ (p. 2). In other words, different commentators put different emphasis on the components of suburbs: their objective material space, imagined geography and experience of the everyday. This helps account for one of the difficulties of discussing suburbs and their potential appeal - avoiding ‘the dangers of over-generalizing about cities and suburbs’ (Phelps, 2012, p. 259). It is especially important to avoid the illusion that the city’s centre and periphery developed independently of one another. In reality, whilst suburbs have very different characters, they cannot be regarded in isolation from either the central city or its surroundings (Hinchcliffe, 2005); rather they form part of the complex urban region. Perhaps this means that traditional distinctions are now meaningless. For Lang and Knox (2009), ‘the city’ and ‘suburb’ - and perhaps ‘rural hinterland’ - are ‘zombie categories’, irrelevant in a contemporary context.
As Phelps (2012) points out, London’s suburbs are disparate and varied in their character. The Victorian development of London saw the construction of suburbs in what has since become inner London, whilst the outer suburban areas were constructed mainly in the 20th century. In both eras, suburbs frequently grew, as had other parts of the city, from a pre-existing village nucleus. Some were predominantly residential but others were substantially industrial (e.g. Wembley and Willesden), and others had a mix of small businesses and housing (e.g. Acton). The high amenity inner and outer suburbs (Camberwell, Hammersmith, Putney, Ealing, for example) provided for those moving in search of more personal independence and freedom; they helped create a market for arts and crafts products and provided a home for new colleges providing arts education and training (Phelps, 2012). Rather than there being a clear distinction between (inner) city and suburbs, we can see many shared qualities. The morphology of suburbs can echo many qualities of the inner city, with intricate street patterns stemming from village origins and complex patterns of land ownership. Nineteenth- and 20th-century suburbs mix housing with small industrial buildings capable of conversion to other uses - lofts, workshops, studios and so on - whilst some larger industrial buildings have been converted to residential loft apartments or re-used as performance spaces or complexes of studios and workshops. Indeed, it is argued that the ‘bourgeois utopia’ of high amenity suburbs are being reconstituted as locations for emerging small businesses including the professional and creative sectors, as urban businesses value proximity to home along with public and private services, amenities and green space whilst retaining links to regional professional and industry networks (Phelps, 2012, p. 266). We can see this trend spilling over into the accessible rural areas that can be seen as very low-density suburbs, often comprising small towns and villages. They are economically successful, and attractive to people and businesses priced out of the inner and central city. And suburbs are, of course, pre-eminently the scene of everyday life, since they are ‘the principal residential environment for the majority of the population’ (Whitehand and Carr, 2001, p. 182). Indeed, as London transforms into a global capital with central and inner areas colonized by global elites, the suburbs are increasingly where ‘the locals’ are to be found - if by that we mean those for whom the city is their permanent and long-standing residence.
So in terms of morphology, of objective material space, London’s suburbs have many of the qualities of the inner city. Moreover they are the real city, in which visitors who want to experience the exotic of the everyday can find it. And suburbs already receive many visitors. Visitors who are there to see friends and relations go to where their friends and relatives are to be found - to a large extent in the suburbs. Meanwhile enterprises like Airbnb make it easier to let rooms to visitors in unfamiliar areas, and rising property prices in central and inner London encourage budget hotels in outer areas. Yet we hear little of the appeal of suburbs for tourism. This apparent paradox is resolved when we consider that the imagined geography of suburbs is relentlessly negative - and has increasingly diverged from reality (Collis et al., 2010). Any suggestion that suburbs may be attractive to visitors or cool has run up against an apparently entrenched view that they are ‘maligned ... connoted an inferior form of city ... an easy [insulting] epithet ... shorthand for hypocrisy and superficiality’ not least because limited academic attention has meant our ‘understanding [has been] ... restricted to an odd mix of cliche and dated pop culture’ (Kirby and Modarres, 2010, p. 65).
This negative imagined geography of suburbs has been constructed from academic and professional discourse and from high and popular culture. Ideas of a suburban dystopia, destructive of both city and countryside, can be traced in England at least from the work of Ruskin in the later 19th century, and a key purpose of the planning system that emerged in the UK with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was to manage suburban development and prevent sprawl. However, there was always more to this than an attempt to manage land-use patterns, and attitudes were inflected with a criticism of the imagined culture and politics of suburbs. Nairn (1955) in a provocatively polemical contribution saw suburbs as: ‘The creeping mildew that already circumscribes all our towns. This death by slow decay is called subtopia . the world of low-density mess’ (p. 365).
Whitehand and Carr (2001) point to the strong professional disdain of the suburbs by architects and planners, perhaps because of a built form that focuses on the individuality of single-family dwellings rather than the collectivist form of the Georgians or Modernists. They see this as accompanied by an intellectual disdain of the suburbs, seen as places inhabited by the undereducated lower middle classes, who are portrayed as conservative and status conscious. More recently, Florida’s (2005) influential work on the Creative Class explicitly contrasts the bohemian enclaves of a dense inner city with the sprawl and (alleged) lack of creativity of the suburbs. So suburbs come to be ‘mythologized as places that exist somewhere else and are inhabited by people unlike ourselves’ (Vaughan et al., 2009, p. 9): suburbanites are ‘the Other’. Phelps (2012) sees this as intellectual snobbery, and comments that the ‘privileging of the city within academic and policy discourse may simply be the latest incarnation of “suburb bashing” by elites’ and reflect ‘imaginings of their own social worth’ (p. 268). Yet this sense of ‘suburban otherness’ may give a clue to what may attract tourists in search of the real. Indeed, as Webster (2000) says:
There is a remarkable degree of consistency indeed uniformity in external perspectives on suburbia. The defining characteristics whether viewed from the country or the city tend to be reducible to unimaginative conformist design and behaviour determined by imitation rather than originality; a lack of individuality combined with excessive social homogeneity; spatially cramped and confined conditions and a neglect for, or undermining of, traditional values. (p. 4)
He goes on to point out that some critical attitudes are much more nu- anced and interested in exploring the contradictions of suburbia. Some writing about suburbia displays a fondness, even nostalgia, or displays tensions and contradictions. And since the 1960s there has been a strand of English music that both mocks the suburbs and values them - The
Kinks, ‘Shangri-La’ and ‘Muswell Hillbillies’; The Jam, ‘Tales from the Riverbank’ as well as ‘Wasteland’.
So the relentless negativity of the imaginaries of suburbs is only part of the story; there is a fondness. But overwhelmingly, the portrayal of suburbs by academic and professional commentators, and reinforced and developed in popular and high culture, is negative. Despite countervailing and revisionist views, that is hard to change. As Salazar (2013) points out, tourism imaginaries can be immobile: ‘in some destinations tourism imaginaries are so firmly established and all-encompassing that they are difficult to escape’ (p. 36). Yet this is an imaginary that diverges from objective reality, and is out of date. Many suburbs share the morphological qualities of much of the inner city. In contemporary London, the juxtaposition of boring, conformist, inauthentic and standardized suburbs with an inner and central city that is vibrant and authentic is not only an inaccurate and unflattering portrayal of suburbs, it is an inaccurate and too flattering portrayal of the inner city. If London is turning into a ‘mass gated community of the world’s richest people’ (Kuper, 2015, p. 5), then the suburbs are the place to go for visitors who want to get off that beaten track and experience the real life of the city.