Suburban Spaces, Suburban Cultures

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 41 – Number 4
144 pages


Participants in the recent international and interdisciplinary project, ‘Cultures of the Suburbs International Research Network’, examine the significance of culture in shaping and reflecting the suburban built environment.

The theme of this special issue of Built Environment originates in a recent collaborative, international and interdisciplinary project, the ‘Cultures of the Suburbs International Research Network’. This 3-year initiative (2011–2014), funded by the Leverhulme Trust, brought together partners from institutions across the world (including the United King- dom, Ireland, South Africa, India, Australia and the United States) who, while drawn from various disciplines including geography, urban planning, sociology and literary and cultural studies, shared a particular interest in the cultural life of suburbs.

In this special issue, participants in the Network seek to demonstrate and evaluate the significance of culture – in its various manifestations – in both shaping and reflect- ing the suburban built environment. The articles collected here reflect on this relation- ship across a range of suburbs from Australia to Norway, Amsterdam to Toronto, Dublin to Lebanon, tracing historical precedents, pre- sent day experience and anticipating the direc- tion and effects of future policy. Suburban Spaces, Suburban Cultures thus takes a trans- historical and multi-disciplinary approach in its investigation of the ways in which the built environment is perceived, inflected and in many cases modified by diverse forms of cultural practice and representation. The shared premise of the articles here is that by starting with suburban culture, as broadly conceived, we can develop an enhanced understanding of the suburban built environment. Such an approach allows us to trace the complexities of suburban experience on a human scale, to trace change over time, to see the lived effects of building and planning policies, to attend to the ways in which different communities and diverse groups within communities experience their environment, and to trace the subtle and nuanced processes that, in the end, determine the success or otherwise of a particular space. In its widest sense, then, this special issue of Built Environment is interested in how the suburban built environment shapes and in turn is appropriated and modified by the cultural life of suburban citizens and communities.

Suburban Spaces, Suburban Cultures is organi- zed thematically and with an eye to chron- ology. In the first article, ‘Spatial Subversion in Eighteenth-Century Dublin: The Suburban Design Practices of the Fitzwilliam Estate’, Finola O’Kane examines the atypical design practices of absentee landlord Viscount Richard Fitzwilliam of Merrion, owner of 1,366 acres (552.8 ha) in south-east Dublin, who eschewed conventional markers of religious and political authority in his designs for this suburban maritime development. Next, Claire Dwyer, David Gilbert and Naz- neen Ahmed’s paper, ‘Building the Sacred in Suburbia: Improvisation, Reinvention and Innovation’ explores the intersections between faith, migration and suburban change in the suburbs of London, looking in par- ticular at the change of use of buildings (for example, from cinemas, to churches to temples) from the 1890s to the present day.

Maroun Kassab’s article ‘Legal Chaos: Sprawl in the Lebanese Suburb’ also looks to the significance of historical and political factors in the growth of the Lebanese suburbs, with specific reference to new forms of archi- tecture and emerging family structures, while in ‘The Australian Good Life: The Fraying of a Suburban Template’, Paul Burton examines the promotional practices of suburban and peri-urban developers and how these are reflected in the aspirations and experience of new suburban settlers. Mary Corcoran and Michael Hayes’s paper, ‘Towards a Morphology of Public Space in Suburban Dublin’, addresses local children’s adoption and interpretation of green space in suburban localities in Ireland; they also explore new initiatives in urban agriculture and community gardening as manifestations of a suburban civic identity. Similar processes of cultural development are explored in Per Gunnar Røe’s paper on the suburb of Skjettenbyen outside Oslo, where a built environment lauded by architects and plan- ners and pre-emptive of more recent examples of New Urbanism was transformed over time into a place more suited to the everyday needs of its residents.

In ‘Building Sand Castles in Dutch Suburb: From New-Frontier Pioneering to Diversi- fying Suburban Mobilities’, Yannis Tzaninis takes a suburb outside Amsterdam as his primary case study and traces a movement common to several other contexts – the return to the city from the once-idealized suburb on the part of residents at particular life stages. Adopting a wider perspective, Allan Cochrane, Bob Colenutt and Martin Field in ‘Living on the Edge: Building a Sub/Urban Region’ trace the expanding perimeters of the Greater London (indeed the ‘Greater South East’) suburbs and changing patterns of use, work, residence and lived experience. Finally, Roger Keil’s article ‘Towers in the Park, Bungalows in the Garden: Peripheral Densities, Metropolitan Scales and the Poli- tical Cultures of Post-Suburbia’ invites us to look again at familiar perceptions of sub- urban design and culture and to consider alternative forms of suburban settlement, politics and experience.

Suburban Spaces, Suburban Cultures, thus, offers new ways of thinking about the history, organization, design and function of the sub- urb. The papers collected here are attentive not simply to the material dimensions of sub- urban places, but to the ways in which suburbs operate as cultural spaces – spaces which are fluid, open to interpretation, and in which meaning is generated, revised and recreated in different ways, at different moments, by di- verse occupants. As this special issue indicates, this is a deep-rooted and long-term process, and one which generates new and fascinating insights in different and emerging contexts.