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Adaptable Suburbs

A study of the relationship between networks of human activity and the changing form of urban and suburban centres through time
High Barnet Market

The project closing conference will take place on 28 April 2014. If you wish to attend please go to our Closing Conference page for further information.

The UK’s suburbs are overlooked and poorly understood.  The word ‘suburb’ betrays their perceived status as places that are subordinate to the centre.  Urban policy has tended to treat them simply as extensions of towns and cities and as places where nothing changes, rather than as separate entities we can learn from, with their own particular characteristics. 

UCL’s EPSRC-funded Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres project challenged policy assumptions about suburbs, revealing that they have a great deal to teach us.  Looking at 26 suburban centres in outer London – places such as Barnet and Bexleyheath, South Norwood and South Harrow, Wallington and Whetstone, seen as both unfashionable and unremarkable – the research team delivered new findings about the extent of their adaptability and resilience. The research findings made it clear that often ignored places can be models of flexible form, sustaining successful spatial networks over centuries. Understanding these physical success factors helps planners and designers to create sustainable developments today.

The current project Adaptable Suburbs is underway. It is seeking to understand why the networks of street and spaces in twenty of the London suburbs already studied work well.  Extensive, multi-disciplinary analysis is being used to explore the influence of social interactions and spatial movement on the economic vitality and adaptability of places. Key techniques include space syntax analysis of street network accessibility; historical analysis of change over time; street-level ethnography, interviewing the people who use and trade in each centre and mapping their spatial networks; and detailed town centre analysis using socio-economic data.

In tough economic times, the era of large-scale, all-encompassing regeneration projects is probably over.  Instead growth and positive change will come from small-scale, incremental change specific to each place, builds directly on individual strengths and assets. Adaptable Suburbs plans to make small suburban neighbourhoods visible to policymakers; provide new information and understanding on how to make place work better; and make this knowledge available to local authority planners so it can be applied and used where it is needed.


email: AdaptableSuburbs@ucl.ac.uk - EPSRC reference: EP/I001212/1