Last edited 29 Sep 2016


A suburb is an area on the edge of a large town or city, typically residential in character. The term ‘suburbs’ is thought to derive from the Latin ‘suburbium’ in which ‘sub’ means ‘under’ and ‘urbs’ means ‘city’.

Suburbs became common in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries when the development of rail and road transport made commuting viable. This allowed urban areas to expand, often absorbing perimeter towns and villages.

In the mid 20th century, terraced housing was abandoned and planned garden cities fell out of favour. Instead, growth was delivered by the expansion of unplanned suburbs, large-scale clearance of the inner cities and the construction of new mass housing estates. This re-ordering of settlements separated work from home, breaking the close integration of commerce, manufacturing, leisure and home life.

Despite this, suburbs became attractive to the middle classes, some of whom wanted to move away from crowded, noisy urban centres to safer, quieter ‘leafy suburbs’ where there was more space for them and their family, better schools, the possibility of having a garden and so on.

However, suburbs continue to be criticised for being bland, sprawling and ill-defined, with insufficient density to support the social or commercial infrastructure necessary to create an effective community or urban hub.

The relentless spread of cities has been constrained to a certain extent by the creation of ‘green belts’ established in the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947 to create a buffer zone between urban and rural land, separating town and country and preserving land for forestry, agriculture and wildlife.

In recent years, this, combined with increasing migration to cities and rising population has led to the renewed ‘densification’ of city centres, which have slowly regained their popularity. Advocates of densification argue that the denser a city, the more sustainable it is, as dense cities use less energy per person than suburban or rural areas where people are spread over a wider distance and so travel more often and further.

Densification has now also been advocated for the suburbs. The word ‘huburb’ refers to a former suburb that has developed into a hub in its own right, that is, it provides a transport hub for trains, busses or trams, a cultural hub with cinemas, galleries or theatres, it is a shopping hub and so on.

Architect Richard Rogers has argued that we need a plan of action that works from the centre outwards, layer by layer, developing existing communities and clusters of activity into a denser, closer texture.

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