Doughnut: The Outer London Festival 02.10.15

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A day-long discussion about the city’s peripheries highlighted the complexity of an area often perceived as bland and uniform, says Debika Ray

Conversing in Greenwich last month, Hanif Kureishi and Will Self painted the London suburbs in thoroughly gloomy terms. For Kureishi, the half-Indian author of The Buddha of Suburbia, growing up in Bromley was defined by explicit racism, while Self characterised his comfortable childhood in Hampstead Garden Suburb as “like being dead”. Evoking an era when men would commute en masse to work in central London, leaving women literally and figuratively on the outskirts of public life, Self described the creation of the suburbs as the “spatialisation of patriarchy”. Kureishi piped up to point out that there was one thing the suburbs were good for in the 1960s: drugs. Both dreamed, they said, of a time when they could escape the city’s sclerotic peripheries, yet both concede to having been shaped by and continuing to be preoccupied by the suburbs.

This ambivalence to the “Doughnut” – the bloated ring around the city centre – was at the heart of the day-long “Festival of Outer London”, where architects, writers, planners, historians and journalists discussed the British capital’s peripheral boroughs, considering its past, present and future. The event’s rationale, as outlined by the Architectural Foundation’s Ellis Woodman, was the city’s rapid growth over the past two decades. This year, London’s population hit 8.6 million and the Office of National Statistics predicts the number will rise to 10 million in the next 15 years – the equivalent of adding, explained Woodman, “a borough every three years”. This growth will need to be absorbed mainly by the city’s outskirts, thus the “Doughnut”, according to Woodman, merits at least as much attention as the city centre.

On the day, a series of themed sessions explored the future of the Green Belt; the post-war exodus from London; the future of housing; and the tragi-comedic status of suburban life – the last discussed by the writers of the hit TV series The Inbetweeners. "One of the great things about the Green Belt is its continuity," said landscape architect Linn Kinnear, outlining her plans for redeveloping two wetlands areas of north-east London, while planning consultant Barney Stringer argued that the increasing demand for housing made building on the Green Belt essential, pointing out the varied quality of the land that is often mistakenly assumed to be uniformly green and pleasant. "Outer London is essentially unfinished because of the Green Belt,” he said. “It's time we got on with it.” Meanwhile, architect Tom Holbrook called for a total overhaul of our existing model of living and working. “The traditional idea of people commuting to the middle from the edge is not ecologically sustainable,” he said.

In Britain at least, suburbia is often discussed in such terms – as a necessary evil and a problem to be solved. (In this regard, perhaps the festival could have offered more of a current snapshot of contemporary life in suburban London). It is simultaneously the solution to the city’s demographic changes, and a symbol of its lack of imagination; a place where new arrivals to a city go and set up new lives and diverse communities, but also where people often end up as a last resort or due to a lack of alternative. But a question to Self and Kureishi from the audience highlighted the changing nature of the suburbs. While for the authors, they were a place to grow old – somewhere to go when you’ve given up on ambition and creativity – the London suburbs today are arguably where some of the city’s most creative communities exist, with younger people abandoning its increasingly homogenous, commercialised, soulless and expensive centre for patches of south and east London. A separate discussion about the post-war exodus to Essex and the radical politics that existed there at the time demonstrated that the suburbs can undoubtedly be an area of experimentation.

It was therefore interesting to hear Dutch historians Wouter Vanstiphout and Michelle Provoost’s more positive visions of the suburbs. Vanstiphout, who has written extensively about the London riots of 2011 and the ones in Paris in 2005, argued that the problem of the suburbs was not intrinsic to their design. When it came to marginalised communities, for example, it was “top-down imposition of changes without consultation that bred riots rather than architecture itself”. Provoost, who has recently embarked on a year-long research project about housing at Central St Martins, drew on examples of creative approaches to suburban development in the Netherlands and elsewhere – communities such as Hoogvliet in Rotterdam developed in consultation with those who live there – to remind us that the suburbs have the potential to be inspiring, flexible and inclusive. In a context where population growth is rarely cited except in the context of political point-scoring, it was refreshing to hear such changes framed in positive terms as something to be celebrated, not feared.

The Architecture Foundation’s Doughnut Festival took place on 5 September in the Old Royal Navel College in Greenwich. Click here to read Will Self’s musings on the suburb: “Who are the outer Londoners?”

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Debika Ray

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The traditional idea of people commuting to the middle from the edge is not ecologically sustainable

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