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Pronounced /ˈsʌbɜːb/Help with pronunciation

In opposition to the conventional wisdom about the irreversible flight from the inner cities, it was reported not long ago in the Economist that Britain’s city centres are booming, not only commercially, but through the willingness of people to move back to them from the suburbs.

There is so much of a twentieth-century feel about the suburbs, which have grown hugely alongside rail and road links to city centres, that it is a surprise to discover that the word is first attested as long ago as 1380. The word was a combination of the Latin urbanus, a derivative of urbs, “city”, with the prefix sub-, “under, close to”. It had a subtly different meaning then, referring to those parts of towns or cities that lay outside the city walls and thus beyond their protection, mainly occupied by the poor and indigent. It survived solely in this meaning for some two hundred years, being joined by its adjective suburban only in the early 1600s, at about the time that the suburbs began to get a bad press among metropolitan writers, who saw them as inferior and debased places of licentious behaviour (a largely deserved reputation to judge from contemporary accounts).

At about this time, Shakespeare’s plays were being performed in one of those suburbs, in the Globe Theatre in the Liberty of Bankside in Southwark, south of the river, free from interference by the City (the theatre has recently been rebuilt on another site not far away). In Twelfth Night, he has Antonio advise Sebastian that “In the south suburbs, at the Elephant, is best to lodge”, that is, in the area called the Elephant and Castle, well away from the busy city centre where he might be recognised (the placename is based on an inn sign which derives from a former smithy that had connections to the Cutlers’ Company, which in medieval times used the emblem of an elephant with a castle on its back, the link here being the ivory that was used for knife handles; the popular belief that the name is a corruption of Infanta de Castile is almost certainly wrong).

With the growth of the railways in the 1840s, and later of the motor car, the chance to move away from the crowded, dirty, insanitary and unsafe city centres into suburban villas with space and greenness and particularly a bit of garden became irresistible (greatly encouraged around London and other big cities by the railway companies, who knew very well how to generate trade). Among the people who live there, suburbs have undoubtedly been popular, despite their frequent lack of jobs, amenities or access to entertainment.

But writers have regularly castigated the repetitive and uninspiring architecture of the suburbs, built quickly all from a mould to meet the unceasing need for new homes and summed up by the term suburban sprawl (a favourite hatred of John Betjeman, who once famously exhorted “come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough”). Such writers reject the comfortable narrow-mindedness and lack of vision or opportunity which they feel is so often characteristic of the suburbs, a view summed up in the late nineteenth-century coinage suburbia. Frederic Raphael has a character say “I come from suburbia ... and I don’t ever want to go back. It’s the one place in the world that’s further away than anywhere else”.

Other vocabulary has grown up referring to the suburbs and the margins of built-up areas, most of it negative. The architect Ian Nairn coined subtopia in 1955 (as a blend of suburbia and utopia, punningly using “sub” here also in the sense in which it appears in such words as sub-standard) for his vision of an unending and undifferentiated suburban landscape, neither country nor town, ill-planned and ugly, “a limbo of shacks, bogus rusticities, wire and aerodromes, set in some fir-poled fields”. These days, environmentalists call countryside at the margins of urban areas that are blighted by fly-tipping, trespass, and vandalism the urban fringe, though one conservation body, the Countryside Commission, prefers its own euphemistic coinage, periurban areas.

So suburbs have long had a bad press. Perhaps if this trend toward inner-city living continues we shall one day once again think of the suburbs as the haunt only of the poor and the displaced?

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Page created 13 Sep 1997