Few kids grow up dreaming of suburbia. A more common teenage condition, immortalised in film, song and novel, is a yearning for the bright lights. These adolescent dreams of a more exciting existence than staid suburban environs can offer are part of our cultural lexicon.
Less romanticised, perhaps, is the reverse process: the flight from the glowing metropolis out to those same dreary suburbs. Once upon a time, I couldn’t have imagined I’d one day make this journey myself. I didn’t think I could tire of the breakneck pace of city life; the bars, the music, the exhilarating feeling of being where things always happened.
Such pleasures have always drawn thrill-seekers, artists, career ladder-climbers and socialites to urban centres. But now, as the coronavirus pandemic turns life on its head and strips away the reasons to keep us flocking into town, we’re seeing the opposite trend – dubbed a “race to suburbia” by estate agents.
This week, new research showed renters were rushing to upsize by moving away from city centres and out to suburban neighbourhoods. Rental applications in urban locations were down almost a quarter in August, according to Hamptons International.
I can’t say I’m surprised. What’s the point in paying a premium to live near your office at a time when you’re working from home? And who wants to be stuck in a flat with no garden (albeit in a trendy postcode) if future lockdowns kick in?
Suburbia, once derided as terribly uncool, looks far more enticing today. Some of us, however, have quietly been enjoying its myriad delights for a while.
I wasn’t always a paid-up member of Club Suburbia. After growing up in a suburb of Leeds, I had set my heart on hot-footing it to central London the moment I was out of university. Leeds was no backwater, of course – as a teenage clubber, I was spoiled for choice. But London had always formed the appealing shape in my mind of something bigger, more unknowable, more infinite, brimming with life-affirming possibility.
I was so impatient to reach the promised land, it almost didn’t matter that my first rental place in Kennington overlooked the noisome A3; that double decker buses hissed and screeched past our living room window all day and all night long; that the flatshare, which was all I could afford at the time, had a damp problem, a plumbing problem and a kitchen floor problem (in that there wasn’t one).
I mean, it sort of mattered, but the toxic air inside and out – and lack of basic carpentry – was a price I was willing to pay for the privilege of living in zone 2.
A year later, I decamped to another basement slightly further south. It was still a flatshare on an A-road, but just about walkable from Clapham and its riot of bars and restaurants. This was what I’d come here for, wasn’t it? This was what twenty-something life was supposed to look like; and it was fun, mostly.
Criss-crossing Vauxhall Bridge to get to and from work, I never tired of gazing out across the Thames and registering the thrill of being at the centre of everything.
I put up with the booze-drenched night bus, which lurched out of zone 1 and then snaked around every part of south London before finally depositing me somewhere near my flat at 4am on a weekend morning. I just about coped when sewage leaked into our overgrown back yard, even when a dead rat was discovered amid it. I shrugged off the lack of space.
A few moves later, up and down the Northern line from rental flat to rental flat, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I settled in Brixton for five years (where, coincidentally, I’d been born 29 years earlier). We ate in its hipster restaurants, wandered through its markets and inhaled, on the way to and from work, the aromas of jerk chicken, artisan coffee and cannabis.
Then we had a baby. And that was fine, because still the three of us could just about squeeze into our flat, and it didn’t really matter that we didn’t have a garden; we could walk to a park in 20 minutes. It was our second child that tipped the balance and sent us off on our flight to the suburbs.
Zone 4: an hour’s journey from the office, comprising a 20-minute bus ride followed by two different tubes. Far, far away from the centre of everything; just about clinging to the fringes of north London by our teeth. And I love it.
From the skylight window of our bedroom at night we can see the twinkling red illuminations of Canary Wharf on the horizon, a whole 10 miles to the south. I’m thrilled not by their proximity, but by how distant they look. Just a few miles to the north, meanwhile, there is actual open countryside we can reach without sitting in traffic for an hour.
If I occasionally felt a pang of regret about what we had left behind, the pandemic has put paid to that. I still feel the same urge to be surrounded by people and cafés and buildings. But out here, in the once sneered-at suburbs, I can’t shake the feeling us suburbanites have arrived at the perfect balance.
I still have a London postcode, but one that has cleaner air and plenty of green space; a local school that we reach by walking through a field (which, OK, used to be a rubbish dump, but still…)
If the joys of suburban life are infrequently discussed, that’s not to say they’re a secret: about 80 per cent of us live in suburban areas, though the term encompasses great variety. Despite the fact most of us live in them, in the popular imagination they remain places of uniformity and conformity; to the young, they are places where dreams go to die amid rows of identical houses.
But it rather depends on what you’re dreaming of. The origins of suburbia, after all, lie in the desire for a healthier, happier, more restful way of life. The kind of thing we’re now, once again, thinking seriously about, in light of recent events.
Made possible by improved transport links in 19th and early 20th century Britain, the suburbs offered families a better place to live, at a convenient, commutable distance from their city centre workplace. In London, the first underground railway in the world opened in 1863, eventually linking the centre with the north west outskirts and Buckinghamshire. ‘Metroland’ was born in 1915, and in the 1920s and 30s thousands of new homes were built there.
Over the subsequent decades, some of them lost their lustre, of course, and slowly but surely ‘suburban’ became a byword for middle-of-the-road and dull. The suburban housewife became code for the frustrated married woman whose own ambitions and hopes had been sacrificed at the altar of dutiful homemaking, child-rearing and cake-baking.
I am, personally, an infrequent baker of cakes, though it’s true I have done a fair bit of child-rearing, and bought a Nissan Qashqai (which has great boot space for the Sainsbury’s shop) since landing in suburbia three years ago. The only way to talk about this is with heaps of self-mockery.
But deep down I’m not ashamed of being a suburban dweller. I’m just glad that those hip city people have finally grasped what they’re missing.