The Other Way is Essex: The Suburb and its Social Potentials
Ewan Cooper, Senior Architect
Suburb: Leigh-on-Sea, Essex
“I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched
and almost untouchable, unchanging,
deep rooted; places that might be points
of reference, of departure, of origin.”
Georges Perec (1974:91)
“For our house is our first corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.”
Gaston Bachelard (1992:4)
In 1997, I left Leigh-on-Sea, a sprawling Essex suburb on the Thames Estuary. I moved to London, to the first of many student flats, in whichever corner of the City suited my work and life as I studied and practiced interior design and architecture. Apart from a brief return to ‘Leigh’ for a job in 2001, I lived in London for nearly twelve years. My time there lead me to meet my wife while working for our diploma at what was then (appropriately) called ‘The London Met’.
Two more moves down the line, we set up home in a small, but decent three bedroom terraced house in Noel Park. Wedged between Wood Green High Street and the North Circular, Noel Park is just about ‘in’ London. However it meant we could cycle to work in the centre, while enjoying city life, and yet we had enough room and money left to knock the house into shape and start a family.
Now our daughter, Florence, is two and a half. I am writing this in my large new kitchen-diner, overlooking a relatively big garden in my new house, back in Leigh-on-Sea, just a few streets from where I grew up. Our new home is yards from the Belton Hills Nature Reserve (we used to call it ‘Leigh Cliffs’), where I used to make dens in the summer and ride sledges in the winter. Returning to the suburb that I called home as a child has given my family a chance to rekindle lost connections, but importantly build new relationships with our neighbours and form friendships with the other young families that surround us. We are putting down deep roots, binding us to the place and affirming our decision to relocate.
But as I start to unpick the decision to return to the suburbs, it occurs to me that there may be fundamental reasons for returning that are beyond the prosaic and inevitable forces, which pull at young, working families. My mother cares for Florence during the three days that my wife and I are at work, which is great for everyone. But we could have paid for childcare. We have a bigger house because money goes further and the air is undoubtedly cleaner but there are compromises – usually in the form of a kind of cultural deficit. It is possible, however, that there is something hidden in our decision-making that connects to a primal and deeper need, that London (or at least our corner of it) was unable to offer us. It is certainly the responsibility of an architect that designs for both the city and the suburb to interrogate these lived realities in the hope of revealing any possible fundamental value of each condition in the hope of becoming a better designer.
Our old home at Noel Park (London Borough of Haringey) was built at the end of the nineteenth century by The Artisans, Labourers & General Dwellings Company, a puritanical Christian organisation behind several of the Victorian garden estates. The planned community consisted of two thousand houses, a church a school, and (critically) no pub.
While the houses were well-built and there are beautiful moments in the bricks and turrets, with several attractive decorative features there was something missing socially that the absence of a pub hints at. This missing social element and the potential of suburbia to support a family-centred life is what drove us to sell up in search of the latent beauty of the suburbs.
As an architect, I am aware that our new home may be considered less attractive or of less architectural merit than our old home in Noel Park. But this might be irrelevant when set against the potential of our new home and new neighbourhood as an adaptable shell and place full of potential for our imagined future. Our walk-in-wardrobe has become a place for Florence to hide, her imagination is sparked by the shoe boxes, the domestic debris and the dark folds of the coats. The houses in our street are separated in, some cases by garages or side gardens, in ours by a shared alleyway. Will this become the place for new adventures and exploration by our daughter and our neighbour’s young son? The places for discovery extend beyond the end of the street and the cliffs to the shops and schools and swimming pools and gyms, and yes, pubs! The public house is a propagator for friendships and communities, and like all the others in the street, adaptable, robust, domestic and welcoming. It is a meeting place, a performance venue, a place to celebrate, to confront, to grieve and to console, a room for succour. Our suburban home, street and wider neighbourhood, centred on affordable, social venues, offer shared places that remind us of how much we need each other and how much the wider community has to offer.
The suburbs offer families more than simply extra space, but the opportunity to enjoy space as a family and wider community. For me, the return to suburbs has offered my family not only the extra space to store a boat, a motor bike or a paddling pool, but the social space to consider using them and the opportunity to join in. The suburbs can offer further potentially cohesive places of encounter and growth, which the city, all too frequently, do not. Ultimately, my relocation to the suburbs was in the hope that Leigh will provide Florence’s first corner of the world, as it did for me.
Reflecting on the sense of rootedness that my suburban life has given me, I am keen that residents of the suburban places I design have not only generous individual spaces within their homes but streets and greens spaces ready for adaptation, change and growth through play and communal activity. At Oakfield, Swindon we have pulled together the surrounding communities of Nythe, Park North and Walcot by creating a large public park and pedestrian connections with safely designed streets that are surrounded by allotments, a school (which has proposed to reciprocate by offering its new neighbours spaces for communal use) and a community forest. We have designed ‘homestead’ blocks around shared outdoor space with low private fences that give access to a communal world beyond the end of the private garden. The imagination of the new community will define the nature of the shared places, but the opportunity to embrace the yet unimagined is there.
Thinking about my family’s own experience and my aspirations as an architect, I have come to conclusion that the best suburban places combine the stability required for rootedness and sufficiently flexible in their public space and public venues to enable new communities to develop.
Ewan Cooper has worked for twenty years in commercial and domestic interiors and redevelopment and worked on a variety of public and private sector projects.
His work includes large urban regeneration, mixed-use developments, community, healthcare and specialist housing for older residents. He is currently the Project Architect on Oakfield Village.