Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Why we wanted to live in the suburbs

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They were invented by the railways. In this case the poster was produced by the Underground Group, a private sector conglomerate at that time. The original tube lines did not make money as the capital cost of boring was huge, and for quick trips across Central London, a bus or taxi was still then faster – due to the time it took to get down to the platforms and back up again. Business got better when extensions into what was then open country started to be added around the turn of the century.

East Ham, where I grew up, developed very quickly between 1890 and 1910, and the District Line and London Tilbury and Southend Railway both benefitted by the huge increase in commuting that resulted. The row houses were all to the same pattern – developed in response to the 1875 Public Health Act which specified minimum standards for the first time. So the builders built to those standards and tried to keep the frontage as small as possible to limit the cost of the local taxation (known as “the rates” and calculated then on frontage). That is what is illustrated here and is what we wanted to get way from. To a house with a garden and some degree of separation from your neighbours. Single leaf brick walls between houses do very little to attenuate sound. And their view from their back windows was over our yard!

Typical East Ham house

In the interwar period, the Metropolitan Railway made more out of property development than from running trains. The London North Western wasn’t then interested in running commuter service – it was a Main Line (in fact it called itself “The Premier Line”) and was above such concerns. Which is why the Underground map has a bias to the North West still visible to this day.

The twenties and thirties were the era of the semi-detached. Every house had a garden front and back and towards the end of the thirties a garage too. This pattern was restarted in the fifties – at least for private sector development. But in Britain, facing a housing crisis, the public sector built more and faster and some of the outer estates are still the most desirable. Debden in Essex for example.underground111.jpg

Boxmoor is beyond the limits of growth set by the Green Belt – the edge that development had reached by 1939. The Town and Country Planning Act tried to stop the sprawl and “ribbon development” but it simply leapfrogged the belt and continued after the war. By then the Premier Line was BR Midland Region and electric trains were carrying commuters (like me) into Euston, with easy connections to the Bakerloo Line at places like Harrow and Wembley.

It is now of course the reverse that we are pushing – density is what it is all about now. And here in the suburbs of Vancouver, the side splits and bungalows are being pulled down long before they are life expired to build townhouses. And the gardens are fast disappearing as car parking seems to be much more important than roses, or lawns, or vegetables.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 21, 2007 at 3:06 pm

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