Changing Landscapes of British Suburbia
‘However small, the green bit is at least as important as the box. Tiny scraps of land, which almost everywhere else in the world would be regarded as too insignificant to bother with, are treated as though they were grand country estates. Our moats and drawbridges may be imaginary, but every Englishman’s castle has its miniature ‘grounds’. Take a typical, undistinguished suburban or ‘residential-area’ street, with the usual two rows of smallish, nondescript semi-detached or terraced houses – the kind of streets in which the vast majority of English people live, each house will usually have a minuscule patch of garden at the front, and a larger green bit at the back, in slightly more affluent areas, the patch at the front will be a little bigger, and the house set a few feet further back from the road. In less well-off areas, the front patch will shrink to a token tiny strip, although they may still be a front gate, a path to take you the one or two steps to the front door, and a plant or smidgen or greenery of some sort on either side of the path to prove that it still qualify as a ‘front garden’. (The front garden with its path can also be seen as a kind of symbolic moat and drawbridge.)
‘Your Own Front Garden, You May Not Enjoy’
In all typical streets of this kind, all of the little patches of garden, front and back, will have walls or fences around them. The wall around the front garden will be low, so that everyone can see into the garden, while the one enclosing the back garden will be high, so they can’t. The front garden is likely to be more carefully arranged, designed and tended than the back garden. This is not because they English spend more time enjoying their front gardens, quite the opposite: the English spend no time at all in their front garden, except the time necessary to weed, water, tend and keep them looking ‘nice’
(Fox, 2004 pp. 124-125; original italics).
When Kate Fox (2004) wrote about English gardens, she omitted to mention alternatives to this norm. Despite her shrewd observations of these aesthetic specificities of the English landscape, she had not yet picked up on a growing trend that stands in stark contrast with the way suburban houses have been traditionally arranged (so far). In place of these little patches of green sometimes surrounded by small gates or fences, we can observe a growing trend of concreted driveways surrounded by more imposing and ornate gates.
Talking about the art of individualisation, Attfield (2000) pointed out that: ‘[t]he promotion of home ownership and ‘the right to buy’ under the Thatcher regime proved to be a popular means of gaining a sense of independence. Increased accessibility to home ownership gave rise to a particular aesthetic of privatisation through the personalisation of the façade and the front door in particular’ (Attfield, 2000, p. 203). This ‘aesthetic of privatisation’ is indeed in the majority of suburban houses still complying with the morphology of open front gardens and entrances. The gate and concreted driveways instead are features in general demarcation from the more typical layout. Here the ‘kerb appeal’ of the suburban morphology is being re-valued and the suburban landscape is being materially redefined. I first observed this trend during the walks I used to take in the suburbs of Nottingham as I was researching British Asian suburbanisation for my PhD. My interest is now expanding to regularly wondering around suburbs of different cities around the UK.
I have regularly observed that the concreted driveways and the gates as more recent features appear to be increasingly popular amongst South Asians. In Nottingham, it seemed most preponderant in suburbs like Aspley or Wollaton with a visible South Asian demography. Some of the gates notably display religious symbols as a way to assert the religious identity of the household. However, this feature is in no way restricted to South Asian household.
All of these aspects participate into changing the suburban landscape and as such are telling of wider structural changes in the making. This series starts to reflect on changing landscapes of suburbia by displaying examples of these gates in a first place in Nottingham and in a second place in Coventry.
Attfield, J (2000), Wild Things: the material culture of everyday life, Oxford: Berg
Fox, K. (2004), Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviours, London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd