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Suburbs in the spotlight

Surbiton high street

There was much to excite a mind engaged with the challenges facing suburbia at this year's Imagining The Suburbs conference in Exeter, organised by the Cultures of the Suburbs International Research Network.

Robin HutchinsonFrom the multinational cast of academics, planners, designers and artists and their heady mix of research and practice presentations, it’s clear there’s much work in this area. 
The identity, role and sustainability of the suburbs have long been in the spotlight, with politicians reviving the ‘best’ of a community’s heart with headline-grabbing initiatives and funding. But one thing remains clear – communal spaces are important.
But here’s the crux – while public spaces are in vogue, with planners, architects, designers exercising their professional skills to provide new open areas, questioning ‘space’ versus ‘place’, it’s the people who use them that can be forgotten. Research reinforces what instinct tells us – people make places. They attach the value to them and provide the narrative. Spaces are what the word suggests – the gaps between.
But many ‘designed’ spaces work against the sort of activity that creates such place making narrative. By defining space for a certain sort of behaviour, the right of the community to define its use is lost. It’s not done unkindly and is done with the best possible heart.  But I’m reminded of a new theatre’s architect. When asked why there were temporary scaffold bars for stage lamps he replied, “We put the lighting bars in the right places but the lighting designers won’t use them.” He missed the irony of my suggestion they couldn’t have been in the right place then.
If spaces are for the community, create them with the community. Encouraging creative approaches from the ground up help the community to create its ‘places’ and activity. Give us canvases to work with, not paintings to frame. Our experience of working to release, strengthen and support community creativity shows not the ‘protective conservatism’ that designers fear, but rather bold ambitions that can truly excite.
If you want to see the difference, come and see us in that part of south-west London where ‘behaviour design’ has snuffed the flame of opportunity in some public spaces.
But once a community is inspired it will find hidden or neglected places to exercise its personality.
It expresses the very character and difference that prevents suburbs and urban villages merging into the grey mass that our shorthand prejudice has attached to the word ‘suburban’.
You can come and see that here, too.
Robin Hutchinson is director of The Community Brain
Image: Mitch Barrie

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