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This page describes the Suburbs Project, a long term research project that will enhance our understanding of suburban growth in England, explaining the visual appearance and planning systems used in suburbs and what makes them interesting and special.  

Suburbs: "ordinary" yet potentially special places

Historic England’s research into suburban areas is telling us more about the ordinary places where we live.

Around 80% of England’s population are suburb dwellers. Suburbs are not quiet and unchanging, despite popular perceptions to the contrary. Historic England has identified them as worthy of special attention and is undertaking a programme of research to improve our understanding of suburbs in the face of change.

As they alter their function, become more densely populated and sometimes decline, we want to appreciate what makes our suburbs important, interesting and even unique.

The project team have identified the broad types that most suburbs fit into in order to understand the bigger picture. Many people visualise garden cities or ‘Tudorbethan’ semi-detached houses of the 1930s when they think of suburbs, but Historic England’s new research has been targeted at understanding a greater range of suburban types.

For example, municipal suburban expansion of the inter-war years is seen in every major settlement but is not well understood. Post-war ‘expanded’ towns like Swindon and Bodmin have not received the same attention as New Towns such as Milton Keynes, and privately developed exurban ‘villages’ of the 21st century like Cambourne in Cambridgeshire can tell us a lot about current suburban trends.

Existing protection

Some common themes emerge from observing suburban conservation areas around England - for example, historic, engulfed settlements with an attractive village-like character are often protected. But there are other kinds of suburban area that have received attention, albeit unevenly.

  • In Liverpool, protection was given as early as 1971 to four areas of inter-war municipal housing in the outer suburbs. These were landscapes and buildings designed to a high standard by the city’s nationally celebrated Housing Department in the 1920s and 30s.
  •  In Exeter, the Freehold Land Society estate centred on the St Thomas area was designated in 1992 in recognition of the historic interest of the society (it intended to extend suffrage in the city). The haphazard, picturesque layering of suburban housing types that resulted from its incremental development of freehold plots is both visually charming and historically interesting.

An aerial view of the Exeter Freehold Land Building Society surburban estate.
The Exeter Freehold Land Building Society laid out their estate in the St Thomas district in 1857. Given a formal road plan and generous plots, it was built up over the following century with individual and small speculative developments. © Historic England , Damian Grady.

Making new discoveries

Many of the areas the project team have visited as part of the project are not existing conservation areas, as they seek to fill in the gaps in our understanding of suburban growth. By studying the national picture over a long period (around 1840 to today) some major unifying trends emerge, as do the patterns of difference that contribute to local significance.

The major outcome of the project will be a substantial book which will provide an account of the multi-faceted reasons for suburban development and the inspiration behind its often complex character.

As an interim result of the project, we commissioned a report on how existing landscapes and suburban greens have been integrated into suburban design, which you can access below.

Aspects of Suburban Landscapes

Aspects of Suburban Landscapes

Published 5 February 2016

Inherited Landscapes and Suburban Greens 1850-2015. Research into how existing historic landscapes and green spaces have been built into suburban design in England from 1850 onwards, with more than 80 case studies.

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