‘Suburban’ has long been an insult flung by a certain type of city-dweller, to imply parochial, small-minded, curtain twitching and unambitious. For those who have swapped crime, pollution and noise for neat gardens and neighbourliness, however, there’s nothing negative about suburban life. News this week that renters are flocking from city centres to the suburbs suggests that in the grip of Covid, we long for space and peace - and the long-vaunted proximity to work, culture and entertainment offered by city living has become less vital now so many are now working from home.
According to a new survey from online lettings agency Mashroom, 60 per cent of London-living Brits are reconsidering where they live as a result of Covid, with half of London’s office workers craving a better quality of life. Dream destinations included Brighton, Margate, Devon and Cornwall; 43 per cent said they were searching for a quieter lifestyle, 41 per cent want better access to clean air, while 35 per cent longed for ‘a better work-life balance.’ Over summer, a quarter of rental moves were from a flat to a house (up 16 per cent in early 2020) - one lettings agent described it as ‘a race to the suburbs.’
Some of course are committed to city life no matter what, with social media divisions already opening up between urbanites and those heading for, in their view, a more boring life in the ‘burbs.
But the abandonment of London (and New York, and Paris – by early summer over a million people had already left the French capital) in favour of home-working to the sound of birdsong continues. Department for Transport figures show that in the last week of August, passenger numbers remained at just over a third of usual levels; meanwhile ‘Commuterland’ towns like Hitchin, previously the preserve of those wanting to be close enough to both get to the office and feel as far away from it as possible once the working day is done, are seeing a resurgence: with workers staying home, the high street is thriving. New shops have even opened during the pandemic - one local business manager last week told the Economist that he had done five ribbon cuttings with the space of a month and a half.
I’m no stranger to the modest thrills of suburban life. I have lived in the city centre, the suburbs and the countryside, in Sheffield, Glasgow, Sale, (a suburb of Manchester), and much more recently, in Bath, and then Manchester again. I now live deep in the countryside - but I retain great affection for the suburbs.
City living may feel briefly exciting in your twenties, when all your friends are constantly available, your life revolves around gigs, clubs and pubs and you want a social life a pizza-box’s throw from your doorstep. Even if someone has left something unmentionable on said doorstep overnight, and there’s regularly a drunken flight on your street corner. I well remember the wailing sirens carving through the night, the 6am rattle of shop shutters as delivery lorries throb and belch diesel outside, the yelling as the pubs empty and the constant traffic – and of course, space is at a premium in cities, with the average one bed flat in London’s central zone costing well over £1,300 a month.
Pollution, too, is dangerously high in the capital, with over 80 per cent of sites tested exceeding WHO limits last year and other large cities including Manchester and Birmingham also way over the recommended maximum. Unsurprisingly, it was pollution that led to the construction of the suburbs in the late 18th century, as industrialisation pushed the wealthy out of cities towards greener land, and in the 1860s, when the railways began. By the 1950s, London’s ‘Metroland,’ celebrated by poet John Betjeman, was a hugely desirable place to live.
I moved to a quiet street in Sale aged 29, and for the first time as an adult, I suddenly had a garden and a spare room. There were children living in the adjoining houses, and they’d all tip out onto the cul-de-sac and play for hours, supervised by whatever parents happened to be free.
There were shops half a mile away, trams into town and a walk to school past squirrelly parks and flowery gardens. The neighbours were welcoming, the streets felt safe, and when I moved back to Manchester six years ago, I found I could afford a large 3 bedroom 1920s semi with a front and back garden, for the same price as a one-bed flat in the city centre.
Sophisticates may mock the suburban Waitrose dinner parties and cheery garden BBQs - but they’re a lot more relaxing (and cheaper) than negotiating a city night out. My closest friends in the suburbs were our neighbours from across the road, who had kids the same age as ours and a similar attitude to wine on a week-night (a big yes). We’d throw Halloween and Christmas parties for all the kids, and pop in and out of each other’s houses uninvited, like something from a ‘70s sit-com.
Suburban living isn’t a dull closing-down, it’s an opening up - of a social life on tap, childhood freedoms, gardens and parks and more space to breathe.
Nowadays, I live in the deepest rural countryside - and while I love it here for different reasons, I miss the ease of suburban life; the passing neighbourly chats, the way there’s always someone to feed your cat and ‘keep an eye on things’ while you’re away.
Increasingly, as Covid bites harder and our cities struggle to adjust, it’s no wonder so many are heading not quite for the hills, but for the cosy avenues nearby. Admittedly, the suburbs can be claustrophobic, and there will always be a certain number of Smug Marrieds. But successful suburban living is what you make it - and luckily, net curtains are no longer a requirement.
The top 10 hottest suburbs
By Sam Wilson
As the appeal of suburban life grows, so does the property market surrounding it. Research from Hamptons International compared the sales in suburbs from July to the same time a year early and the results were staggering.
1. Quedgeley, Gloucester
Tucked away on the outskirts of Gloucester, the small town of Quedegley saw an incredible 447 per cent increase in offers for properties in the area.
2. Bicester, Oxford
Aided by the combination of Oxfordshire living with easy access to the M40, this market town has boomed and carved a niche for itself as a luxury shopping destination.
3. Chessington, London
Maybe it's the easy commute into the capital, maybe it's the appeal of having a theme park on the doorstep; either way the suburb of Chessington has seen a 300 per cent rise.
4. Clarkston, Glasgow
The first of three suburbs around Glasgow to appear, Clarkston's appeal perhaps lies in the eight golf clubs within a 15 minute drive.
5. Sanderstead, London
Situated just south of Croydon, the lure of village life while still being a stone's throw from a bustling town sees Sanderstead at fifth on the list.
6. Bishopbriggs, Glasgow
A simple journey directly into the heart of Glasgow city centre makes Bishopbriggs an ideal location for commuters who want their home life to be a bit quieter.
7. Esher, London
Home of Chris Tarrant, Esher has seen a 270 per cent increase in offers on properties. Who wants to be a millionaire? Anyone looking to sell, presumably.
8. Burnside, Glasgow
Located just a few miles north-east of Clarkston, the growing popularity of Burnside saw nearly half of properties sold go for more than the asking price.
9. Widnes, Liverpool
Positioned on the edge of the Mersey river, Widnes offers a quieter alternative to central Liverpool.
10. Loughton, London
Nestled next to the M25 and the M11, it's not hard to see why Loughton is proving a popular choice for first-time buyers.
You know you’re in the suburbs when…
- You find yourself sizing up other people’s driveways and thinking unholy thoughts. (“Phwoar, you could fit two people carriers on that one!”)
- Your local acquaintances discuss coffee mornings, church hall second hand sales and loft conversions with the same enthusiasm they once applied to gigs and club nights.
- Everyone has either a dog, a child, a garage, an ongoing home improvement project, or some combination of the four.
- You know all your neighbours’ business because you’ve been spying on them for quite some time now. You long ago abandoned the pretence you weren’t doing this.
- Every time you eat out in one of the three local restaurants, there’s a 60th or 70th birthday celebration at the next table.
Four suburban icons
1. David Bowie
Brixton-born but Bromley-raised, the future Ziggy Stardust spent his formative years on the outer reaches of south-east London. His experimental style and musical creativeness may have seemed at odds with his suburban upbringing, but he’s far from the only great artist to hail from a seemingly mundane milieu.
2. Reginald Perrin
With his dull marriage, uninspiring job and looming nervous breakdown, the BBC comedy character epitomised all that was stultifying about the Seventies’ suburban lifestyle.
3. Hyacinth Bucket
Insisting on the pronunciation of her surname as “bouquet”, the star of the Nineties sitcom Keeping Up Appearances satirised the pomposity, pettiness and snobbery of a certain type of British suburb-dweller.
4. Jerry and Margo Leadbetter
The archetypal, ultra-conventional suburban neighbours, as captured in the mid-Seventies TV series The Good Life. Social-climbing and conservative, they represented a type that every British suburbanite would have come across at some point.
- Read more: Why I’m not ashamed of living in suburbia