From country to suburb: The why and the how of suburban development. A universal phenomenon with examples from south-east London.

Defining the suburb

There is little agreement among commentators a to what defines a suburb, but there is even less as agreement as to the factors that bring them about. One thing is certain: that suburban development is a complex combination of a large number of volatile factors that involve political economic and social structures and human psychology. The factors are also ones that variously have their origin in national (or even international) regional or local contexts.

If we accept the definition of a suburb as a new residential development on a greenfield site that has a physical, social, administrative and economic relationship with another urban area, then we touch on virtually all the key factors. They include an inability of the urban area physically to cope with its own expansion, the availability of a site on which development can take place and infrastructure to link to the two. But alongside these are more subtle factors: political policies that encourage or inhibit development; landowners being prepared to allow the type of development that the economy is generating, or convenient transport at the right price. Broadly these causes fall into three categories: demand; the role of the entrepreneur and infrastructure.

When all these are taken into account, what appears to be the most confident and solid of development: hundreds of tons of bricks and mortar, wood and glass and the fresh hopes of new inhabitants, is in fact a very fragile thing indeed.