Don’t destroy the suburbs. build new

“Why would I want to get to Leeds city center faster when I’m not working there? That was my first reaction to a report by the Center for Cities think tank comparing Leeds unfavorably to densely populated Marseille. I live 40 minutes from the center of Leeds and my neighbors work in Keighley, Skipton, Halifax or parts of Bradford. None of them work in downtown Bradford or Leeds. They drive to work.

It’s the English suburbs. Many people still travel to the center of a major city every day, mostly by public transport, but even in a city like London a third of people work outside the centre.

For city boosters like the Center for Cities, however, their solution to all the problems we face is to make cities bigger, denser, and more dependent on public transportation. This includes Britain’s biggest challenge – the housing crisis. Their response is to build thousands of apartments in city centers and transform existing suburbs into dense urban areas by expanding homes into apartment blocks.

Is this what people want? Do millennials want to spend their whole lives in a cramped apartment where the only outdoor space is a balcony? Is this the best environment for raising children? Densification may be great for productivity, although not all dense urban places are known for their vibrancy, but do we want a society where work is everything?

When pollsters ask the public what they’re looking for in a new home, the answer sounds like suburbia. In 2020, Rightmove surveyed 4,000 movers, finding that people wanted bigger gardens, more space, off-street parking, good local amenities and access to open space. City life meets none of these expectations. Suburbia, well done, meets them all.

We often hear suburbs characterized as unattractive places filled with boring people leading boring lives. Simon Schama once attacked journalist Rod Liddle for his “suburban face”, reflecting how commonplace hatred of the suburbs is among educated and sophisticated city dwellers.

Today, this snobbish dislike of the suburb is justified by claims that the land used by suburbs, and the cars people drive, make it bad for the planet. But once you remove the carbon impact of cars (which EVs will achieve), the suburbs may be less of an environmental issue than high-rise city living. In 2017, Anthony Wood and Peng Du presented a study funded by Chicago’s Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat concluding that high-rise development consumes more energy and has a larger carbon footprint than low-rise suburban development.

However, building suburbs requires land and much of that land is greenbelt. Even beyond the green belt, as Prince Charles discovered with the Duchy of Cornwall’s urban sprawl at Faversham in Kent, new housing development is unpopular. This is why we need real planning reform.

It is easy for ministers to choose to densify existing cities rather than develop new suburbs that improve the local environment and help make struggling cities more sustainable. New developments can also incorporate Dutch-style cycling and walking infrastructure, support biodiversity and increase forest cover. All of this in the kind of places we know people want to settle down and raise their families. Places where the car is welcomed alongside the bicycle and the bus. But to get there, policymakers will have to change their understanding of what the public wants. Britain doesn’t need denser cities, it doesn’t need new towns, it needs new suburbs.

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