So many of the UK’s major towns and cities are characterised by low density, sprawling suburbia where the car is king and the houses reference nothing of the local character creating neighbourhoods with little sense of place. Why, therefore, do so many people aspire to live in these neighbourhoods? What can be done to redevelop these mass urban areas?

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The ‘garden city’ is inspired by Ebenezer Howard (1902), and based on his desire to implement new ways of planning towns and cities to overcome issues of overcrowding and poverty. It also philosophically tried to break down the dichotomy of rural vs. urban, as his ideas brought much of the beauty of rural life into the city with park and garden space prioritised. As idealistic and fantastic as his vision was, when taken out of context and poorly designed by planners after World War Two, unfortunately it has led to many of the characterless and often ‘grey’ suburbs we know today. In particular, the dependence of residents on using their cars to access everyday services like work, school and the shops etc has led to an increase in the number of front gardens concreted over to create extra parking space, and the rise in ‘out of town’ shopping and business complexes. Designing homes and neighbourhoods where residents have no local everyday services in a ‘walkable’ distance, has contributed hugely to the current status quo i.e. to get anyway one must drive. Movements such as New Urbanism and other more recent ‘urbanisms’ are attempting to influence a change, and in particular, create urban areas where people, for example, do not need to drive for the everyday activities of life.

Another recent movement is that of the ‘pocket park’, and I had the pleasure of being at the opening of one in a sprawling, car dominated suburb of Newcastle called Fenham. The Fenham Pocket Park was ‘co-created’ alongside residents and has created both a visual, and potentially more significant, direct break in the status quo of the endless lines of parked cars, tarmac, concrete and paving slabs that dominate the public realm and streetscapes. This form of urbanism draws influence from landscape architecture, temporary urbanism, and sustainable urban design to name just a few fields. It is the field of temporary urbanism that has this notion of co-creation as a means of challenging the suburban status quo, and more widely, the general decline of our urban spaces.

“A variety of forms of temporary urbanism have emerged worldwide in response to the inability of urban design and development to deal with social, economic and ecological urban crisis” (Tardiveau & Mallo, 2014).

In conclusion, who knows what the future holds for our suburban neighbourhoods. They remain popular with those seeking space and distance from city centre activities, however they often place an unsustainable strain on many aspects of the city. Interventions like the Fenham Pocket Park aren’t necessarily the answer, but they are successful in breaking the status quo and giving an insight into a potential (co-created) future.

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References:

Howard, E (1902) Garden Cities of To-morrow (2nd ed.), London: S. Sonnenschein & Co, pp. 2–7.

Evening Chronicle (2106) Fenham pocket park opens thanks to community’s help in transforming it (online:http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/fenham-pocket-park-opens-thanks-11376171)

Tardiveau, A & Mallo, D (2014) Unpacking and Challenging Habitus: An Approach to Temporary Urbanism as a Socially Engaged Practice, Journal of Urban Design, 19:4, 456-472