In the development of initiatives to meet the requirements of Agenda 21, how might cities most effectively deal with their often vast areas of existing "suburbia" in the UK's cities?

A discussion paper prepared for the European Network on Urban Density and Green Structure

by Anne R. Beer, Environmental Planner, Professor Emeritus, University of Sheffield


Summary - Suburbia in the UK - its potential for increasing environmental sustainabilty in urban areas

In discussion of the need to make cities more sustainable, and the associated development of ideas about how the concept of the "compact" city helps to address the environmental problems caused by cities, the role and potential of the existing suburban development and its associated green structure has tended to be neglected. Yet this "suburbia" forms, and will continue to form for the foreseeable future, a major component of every UK city . A city's suburban area (here defined as low to middle density housing with gardens) contains a considerable proportion of land which is not built over or sealed in any way (mainly within private gardens). This land area can, through the straightforward design and application of locally appropriate regenerative design solutions at the level of the individual property. For example, the land can be used to:

When communities work together more elaborate regenerative design solutions can be developed at a neighbourhood level which can also be developed to maximise the potential of the open surface areas within suburban development. For example, to:

This short paper explores some of these issues. It should be read in conjunction with the paper on The role of the Suburban Garden in Human Well-being by Dunnet and Qasim of the Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield which will be added to these webpages by Jan 1999.



For the purpose of assessing the impact of its built form on sustainability, suburbia is defined as those areas of the city where the built form comprises 1, 2 or 3 storey detached, semi-detached or terrace houses with gardens back and front, at a density of 12 houses to the acre or less. This built form includes housing built privately as well as by public agencies: housing originally built for the welloff, for those on middle incomes and even for the relatively poorly paid (many of the local authority estates built in the garden city form since the 1940s, and now notorious for their social conditions and high levels of unemployment, take this urban form). In Britain, suburbia is so extensive in most cities that inevitably it has a very major impact on a city's present levels of environmental sustainability - mainly through its adverse impact on transport. With the exception of the problem estates where the layout reflected the suburban form, these suburban areas of a city have tended not to be seen as problem areas - the planners have left them well alone while they have concentrated on urban renewal and regeneration. However, what seems to have been forgotten is that the existence of the suburban urban form also creates a great and mostly untapped potential for technologically simple and low cost environmental changes, changes which could enhance the general levels of sustainability within a city relatively cheaply. In particular, these areas give scope for very local environmental planning initiatives which can be undertaken by communities themselves.


Sustainable "actions" in suburbia 

In these suburban areas local schemes could be developed to maximise the environmental effectiveness of the presence of large expanses of unsealed surface (bare earth or planted land); these occur within any area of suburbia, even when the density is relatively high. What can be done to use such spaces to enhance sustainability is a direct result of density. For instance, if one considers the extent of unsealed surface in any suburban area, it is possible to show how it allows local inhabitants to make increased use of native plants in their gardens, so improving biodiversity. Where there is sufficient space between buildings, the same areas of land could also (or alternatively) be used to plant large trees, to reduce heat loss from homes in winter, or to shade them in summer. Unsealed surfaces are also areas of land which allow the development of new surface water channels and retention areas to be considered - schemes which, if the local people are willing, can use gardens and local open spaces and roadside verges. Such local low cost water management schemes can aid in the reduction of flash flooding, thereby making the sewage system more effective and ultimately reducing the cost to the community of water cleansing.


In developing an approach to increasing the environmental sustainability of suburbia, there is a need to recognise that the problems and potential of existing suburban areas, particularly as they relate to sustainability, can be very diverse - no blanket national or even city-wide solution can be applied, since local physical and natural conditions vary greatly throughout the UK. Ultimately, it is what local people decide that they would like to implement on their own "territory" (in their homes, gardens and local public areas) that will determine whether cities become more environmentally sustainable entities. There is too much to be done for local authorities to undertake all the work themselves. For this reason somehow the local communities need to become involved in re-planning and re-engineering their own neighbourhoods, to achieve greater environmental as well as social sustainability. A mechanism needs developing to enable such involvement.


What can be achieved locally to improve levels of sustainability depends in part on understanding and using the interactions between the local physical and natural environmental characteristics which still underlie all existing built form. The pre-existing systems continue to function as much as our use of the land surface allows and can be the basis on which to build plans to enhance sustainability. The changing social characteristics of the inhabitants, as well as the associated local economic conditions, also influence what can be done on any area of land, as do the mechanisms in place to enable change. In reality, these are very complex issues which have taxed the minds of planners and academics for decades, the complexity almost creating a paralysis. We now have a situation where, if we do decide to plan to promote planning to enhance sustainability, it is very doubtful whether there are enough skilled people employed in local government, or available as consultants, to tackle the question of how to re-engineer suburbia as well as the denser urban areas, so that they function in a more sustainable way.


Suburbia - a way forward 

Perhaps, therefore, it is timely to question whether the problem needs to be treated as so complex, particularly in relation to suburbia where change can happen relatively easily and comparatively cheaply. Can the question of how to enhance sustainability in suburban areas be addressed in another way than that normally adopted by the traditional town planning process when land-use change is considered? Can we develop instead relatively straightforward, common-sense approaches to some simple tasks which will improve the way we use water, deal with waste and reduce energy consumption, at the same time enhancing biodiversity? Only so much can be done by individuals in their homes, but there are nevertheless real opportunities for community involvement in re-engineering the local landscapes to make the form of development more sustainable. Could the role of professional environmental planners be reduced by setting the limits and giving only general directions to a community? This would reduce the cost to society and give the planners time to cope with broader issues, but in these circumstances would the desired environmental changes actually take place, or are the individuals that make up communities too disinterested in concerted actions?


This suggestion is not to decry the role of the professional planner, designer or environmentalist; it is just a pragmatic approach to the vast amount of work that needs to occur on the ground, throughout Britain, if Agenda 21 is to work in our cities. There is already more than enough work requiring skills in planning, engineering and designing in the more densely developed parts of our cities as well as in the projected areas of new build that will be needed to meet the estimate of over 3 million new homes required over the next 20 years.


Local Agenda 21 and suburbia

In dealing with the existing expanse of suburbia we need somehow to by-pass the "professional", "political", and "financial" bottlenecks that have established themselves in the form of the traditional, legally based, land use planning process. The present rules and regulations act to deter people from undertaking those sorts of local actions which might lead to an enhanced level of local sustainability in land use, land management and socially sustainable attitudes, such as feeling in control of one's environment. At present the development of Local Agenda 21 in the UK is being encouraged through the excellent publications and advice produced by the Department of Environment, Planning, Transport and the Regions. All UK local authorities are busy revising their policies and plans to take account of Agenda 21. Systems of performance indicators have been set up in a variety of urban areas to measure, for instance, success in cleaning the air, success in building cycleways, success in increasing the number of insulated houses. However, all these efforts have made little difference on the ground as yet, perhaps particularly in "suburbia" which has tended to be overlooked as an issue. Each part of a city has a specific range of ways in which it impacts on the city's general level of sustainability; what is needed now is a method of working out what it is best to encourage and where. What should a local community's priorities be?


Efforts under the umbrella of Local Agenda 21 are leading to some local action, but there is nothing systematic about it; the instigation of change is sporadic rather than within a framework of plans or even goals. Most commonly, the actions which have been initiated include local projects on waste management and on increasing the area of native planting and so increase biodiversity. Each of these projects is in itself admirable but, in all but a few cases, there is a sense among those working at the community level that it is all rather haphazard. Whether anything happens in an area appears to depend on local volunteer groups, the inclination of local councillors, or the efforts of individuals. It is a sad fact that now that there is a mass of policy statements and reports relating to Local Agenda 21 by government and local government, there is an almost total lack of funds to make anything happen on the ground at the local level. Local authorities need a mechanism to enable them to disburse resources to the local community level knowing what the money is to be spent on, knowing who will be responsible for the expenditure and knowing when to expect evidence on the ground in terms of performance criteria met.


There is evidence of phenomenal local effort by unpaid individuals attempting to raise money by grant applications, often only to find their efforts thwarted by the inability to get the necessary matched funding. Instead of the efforts of these key community people going into projects actually happening on the ground, so that local communities can see their effort is worthwhile, they are spending their time writing and rewriting proposals to gain funds, attending interminable meetings in the hope of finding matched funding and becoming dispirited through waiting months if not years before the (often minimal) funds arrive. For poor communities in particular, the possibilities of increasing disposable income through participation in sustainable actions which will lead to decreased water and energy bills are great, but can only be seized if there is some overall structure within which the actions can take place.


There is little doubt that in areas of suburban built form, relatively simple and low technology actions can help to make the ways in which people use their homes, gardens, local open spaces and facilities more sustainable and, therefore, to enhance the present levels of sustainability city-wide. But a mechanism is need to enable realise this potential.


Given that the vehicle movements generated by those living in suburbia are a major factor in causing air pollution in cities, there can also be little doubt that air pollution can be reduced if more are encouraged to walk or cycle in those areas. It is the local people, not planners in town halls, who can best work out where the new pedestrian links are needed. A mechanism is also needed to enable this to happen, to make any necessary land purchases and to implement the schemes. However, the problem in UK cities is that the mechanisms for enabling these types of locally effective sustainable activity are lacking; there is no mechanism to help local communities to identify the potential of their own area for environmental change and no mechanism to fund work. Even when the work is carried out by members of local communities, some pump-priming funding is always going to be needed to get things going, to buy materials or to rent meeting rooms.


Suburbia - case study of Stocksbridge

Stocksbridge is an outlying district of Sheffield, 13,000 people, where over 80% of the built up land is suburban (medium density) in character, a detailed study is at present underway. The aim is to develop appropriate community level Environmental Plan to stimulate Local Agenda 21 activity. The intention of this project (described in the Stocksbridge Case Study) is to develop a relatively simple and straightforward methodology for use by local community groups, working with their local educational establishments (secondary and higher), to draw up a Local Agenda 21.


The methodology should ideally:

* describe in detail the data to be gathered and how to record it

* show how the information can be interpreted through the means of a community level Environmental Plan to allow examination of the present local situation in relation to a specific range of sustainability issues affecting suburban areas (local waste and water management, conservation of energy, biodiversity and the use of transport)

* indicate through example how to identify local potential for change in the way that the buildings and land are used and managed, so as to enhance sustainability in suburban areas

* provide examples of a range of regenerative design solutions to show how in suburban areas the underlying environmental characteristics of the local landscape can be used to improve local levels of sustainability

* provide rough cost guidelines (capital and maintenance).

©A.R.Beer 1998

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An earlier version of this paper was presented to the European Network on Density and Greenspace in Denmark in August 1998.

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19 Nov 1998