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Garden Cities – Blight or bliss?

How interesting that Nick Clegg in a recent interview with BBC’s Countryfile should reignite debate about the coalition’s plans for a new generation of garden cities not by affirming the potential advantages of such settlements, but by speculating on possible financial losses on the part of local property owners. See: His point (“we don’t want people [who live near the new garden cities] to lose out”) is not entirely reassuring. It raises questions about the kind of garden city the government has in mind, and gives the unfortunate impression that the government itself fears that it may be about to sell us a pup . . .

It doesn’t have to be like this. What happens if we reverse the terms of the debate, and think about the many reasons why residents (both new and current) might welcome living in or near a garden city? How might proximity to the well-planned garden city improve rather than blight property values? As early twentieth-century garden city pioneer, Ebenezer Howard, argued in his influential handbook Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1946):  “The presence of a considerable population . . . giving a greatly additional value to the soil, it is obvious that a migration of population on any considerable scale to any particular area will be certainly attended with a corresponding rise in the value of the land so settled upon” (p. 59). In any case, what might the new garden cities offer (in terms of quality of life, sustainability, work opportunities, transport links, and leisure, cultural and community resources) that would supplant blunt economic value – the price of houses – as an index of success or failure?

Throughout the world and across the generations, garden cities and suburbs have provided residents with access to employment and to retail, leisure and cultural opportunities in a context that simultaneously offers space, tranquility and a sense of community. The work of this research network (the Leverhulme Trust-funded Cultures of the Suburbs International Research Network at has examined some of the features and variations of such settlements throughout the world from Bangalore, South India to Gold Coast, Australia and has highlighted the rich cultural and civic life that pertains in such communities.

Ironically enough, given Clegg’s reification of the risks of blight, it is garden cities themselves that are now under threat – victims not perpetrators of economic and other pressures. The garden city of Bangalore has historically offered an attractive blend of economic, civic and cultural facilities, with sacred spaces among the city’s trees providing important focal points for families and neighborhoods.  Its character is, though, at risk from the recent and rapid development of new – primarily hi-tech – industry and the infrastructure that goes with it. In Australia, the city of Gold Coast again aims to offer the ideal combination of spacious and well-situated homes with work, leisure and community facilities while simultaneously accommodating the imperatives of climate change and the economic squeeze. In both cases, it is the garden cities that stand to “lose out” even though their own founding ideals, values and structures – if carefully heeded – might provide solutions to the problems that loom.

In Britain, the first of the garden cities, Letchworth Garden City, established in the early 1900s by Ebenezer Howard, was built on principles which emphasised the importance of community participation, the quality of life, sustainability and local accountability – values that recur to this day in debates about the country’s housing needs. As historian Lewis Mumford notes in his classic study, The City in History, Howard’s garden city works because it is decentralized and because it operates on a human scale (p. 586). Letchworth is fortunate in that it continues to be run in accordance with many of these structuring ideals. The Foundation which now oversees the garden city (with involvement from local trustees) holds property for the common good and invests its income in a range of civic, community, educational, recreational and health amenities for its residents.

The model is a sound and sustainable one that has the potential not just to meet the basic housing requirements of the nation but to construct integrated and vibrant settlements that people will want to invest in for the long term – not necessarily in order to accrue a profit, but because they want to contribute to the community, and thereby to reap other kinds of reward. If properly planned, with an affirmative eye to their founding principles, the new generation of garden cities could be a success for years to come. Who knows, existing householders in proximity to the new garden cities, rather than “losing out,” might stand to gain.


Jo Gill


Shifting suburbs . . .

The British Association for American Studies (BAAS) annual conference took place recently at the University of Exeter, UK. Exeter, as readers of this blog may know, is also host to the “Cultures of the Suburbs International Research Network” – with this connection in mind, the conference organisers (of whom I’m one) had an excellent excuse to give proceedings a suburban inflection . . .

It’s three weeks now since the conference finished and the thing that I really can’t get out of my head is Becky Nicolaides’ fantastic keynote speech on the closing evening of the event. Entitled “Still Shots from LA: Reflections on Diversity and the Remaking of Suburban Life,” Becky’s lecture gave a characteristically enthralling and erudite account of the shifting conditions and experiences of life in the LA suburbs.

Based in part on research for her forthcoming book, On the Ground in Suburbia: A Chronicle of Social and Civic Transformation in Los Angeles since 1945, Becky traced the social history of the area in the post-war years. Using some terrific documentary photographs and maps, Becky drew our attention to the often-overlooked complexity and diversity of the LA suburbs. Her title was particularly apt; these “still shots” catch the city and its suburbs at a particular moment in time, risking concretising their external dimensions while simultaneously (and apparently in contradiction) inviting us to look at the specificity of each site and thereby to register its difference from all of the others, its potential mutability.  What you see is what you get, but what you get might be different from what you think you see! Her aim, as she explained, was to “give you some glimpses – “still shots” if you will, in our movie lingo – of L.A. suburbia… to give you some flavor of what’s happening across acres and acres of L.A.’s sprawling landscape… and to reflect especially on how social diversification has been re-shaping suburban life…”. Becky is particular interested in the uses to which ethnic communities have put (a) the suburbs, and (b) the received view (aka caricature) of the suburbs. Her  talk closed with a compelling account of the ways in which multiethnic suburban communities have identified with new “social and spatial values”, illustrated by a You Tube video by the Fung Brothers of the San Gabriel Valley (Fung Brothers 626) which I’ll leave readers to look up and enjoy . . .

The success of Becky’s talk was evidenced by the large number of delegates who turned up for the following day’s ‘Cultures of the North American Suburbs’ panel (on a Sunday morning, please note!). Several of those choosing this panel from the 6 others on offer at the same time commented that they’d been inspired to do so by Becky’s talk. There were three great papers on offer here; the first from Martin Dines (a partner in this project) presented some fascinating new work on contemporary drama from / about the suburbs including Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. Martin discussed the staging of both plays and commented on the ways in which both simultaneously use and disavow a tradition of suburban experience and representation. Martin’s talk was followed by Cheryl Cowdy’s account of the place of design, substance vs. style, and scopophilia in two Canadian novels, Gerald Lynch’s Troutstream and Colin McAdam’s Some Great Thing. Finally, economist Alan Mace from the LSE offered a reading of the suburbs from the perspective of Bourdieau – or, more properly, he asked us to reflect on what such a reading might look like and do. In particular, how might such a reading bring the working-class suburbs, and working-class suburbanites, into view? And whose view is being privileged in such debates?

All fascinating  stuff – exciting in its range and interdisciplinarity. If you’d like more of the same, don’t forget to register for our next Cultures of the Suburbs Symposium, Hofstra University (Long Island) 27 and 28 June. Details on this website.

The Suburbs of Bengalaru

A primary aim of the Cultures of the Suburbs International Research Network, right from the outset, has been to establish global links with interested parties from a range of cultures and communities. We’re delighted to have started a conversation recently with scholars at Jain University, Bangalore (Bengalaru) who have expertise and interest in this area, including Professor Choodamani Nandagopal and Dr Soumya Chavan. I’m here in Bangalore at the moment and have taken part in a fascinating symposium, organised by Professor Choodamani and colleagues, on the theme of “The Changing Suburban Culture of Bangalore.”

As a new visitor to Bangalore, what struck me as I drove in from the international airport are the (proposed) new luxury and high-rise developments which, rather like in other growing cities such as Toronto, are planned for the peripheral land between the city centre (and its established suburbs) and the new global hub. Advertisements for these new residential communities shadow the road into town, promising purchasers such intangibles as a “life  changing experience” and “access to the many colours of nature”. In this respect, the rhetoric brings to mind advertisements in the American popular press of the 1950s for Bill Levitt’s Long Island developments and similar new suburban estates.  One of Professor Choodamani’s colleagues, Rashmi Niranjan, contributed an intriguing paper to the symposium under the theme of “Urban & Suburban: A Study from the Perspective of Visual Culture.” Her work traces the history of advertising in Bangalore and its suburbs with a particular interest in the adverts’ material properties i.e. in advertisement hoardings as street furniture. More broadly, she is interested in the role advertisements play in focalising our view – and thus understanding – of particular environments. In Bangalore, there’s a long history of the attempted legislation of the design of such hoardings, and, as importantly, of the language which they’re permitted to use.

Another paper, by Dr Soumya Chavan, traced the history of Bangalore’s suburbs from the C16th through to the present day. As Dr Chavan noted, this is an – as yet – unrecorded history. The city was founded by Kempe Gowda in 1537 as a mud fort, with two roads, and four gates, each of which was guarded by a sacred deity and marked by a temple. This structure forms the blueprint of the city such that, as Dr Chavan argued, to define the Bangalore suburbs today one must think not so much in terms of economic, planning, or juridical definitions, but in terms of relationship to particular sacred spaces. Professor Choodamani’s own work – and that of her team of researchers – on the changing suburb of Yelahanka, Bangalore, focuses in particular on the role of sacred spaces in established suburbs, and the threat to these spaces from, for example, new flyovers, development around the new International Airport and the growth of multinationals and hi-tech corporations in the area. Similarly, Vibhavari Gupta’s paper on the impact of Bangalore’s new metro system on city and suburb alike explored the effects of suburbanisation in this specific region. As she noted, where typically suburbs have been defined as low density and low rise, in Bangalore (especially, for example, in Bayapanahalli, a new suburban “village” at the east end of the metro line), suburban development comprises high density and high-rise residential buildings.

There are some interesting questions here, then, about perceptions and definitions of suburbia and some suggestive points of comparison and difference. Thanks to the University of Exeter for funding this visit, and to Professor Choodamani and colleagues, Jain University, for making me so welcome.

Suburban Invite

Below is a selection of photographs from the visit:

Dr. Choodamani, far left, Dr. Jo Gill and Mr. K. R. Ramakrishana

Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal (far left), Dr. Jo Gill, and Mr. K. R. Ramakrishana

Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal and Mr.K R Ramakrishana

Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal and Mr. K. R. Ramakrishana

Dr. Soumya Manjunath Chavan extreme left, Dr. Jo Gill, centre, Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal,and Vivienne Fenando

(from left to right) Dr. Soumya Manjunath Chavan, Dr. Jo Gill, Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal, and Vivienne Fenando

Participants and Research Students

Participants and Research Students at the Symposium

Dr. Jo Gill and Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal with faculty and research students of Cultural Studies

Dr. Jo Gill and Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal with Faculty and Research Students of Cultural Studies