Brave New Suburbs

The back road from Middleton Tyas to Barton, North Yorkshire, credit Wikimedia Commons

Brave New Suburbs,
by Bill Hartley

The urge to live in the country has led to considerable infilling and expansion of North Yorkshire villages in recent years. Across the county there has been a range of new developments some of which impose designs better suited to suburbia than a largely rural county. Arguably one of the worst offenders has been bungalows, whose uniformity makes the approach to some villages more like entering the outskirts of a town. However, this sort of development is far less popular now than it once was, although not because of changing tastes in design. A recent BBC report, citing a housing expert, pointed out that there is far more value to be had from building a two or three storey property on the same plot. Builders, accordingly, have adopted a different approach to selling the rural dream.

Nostalgia is one of the reasons for urban to rural migration, witness a plethora TV shows and lifestyle magazines such as Country Life, together with a whole swathe of imitators devoted to particular English counties. Of course, there are only so many period properties available. These days the suburban bungalow in a rural setting has been superseded by designs meant to fit in with an imagined vernacular. Many villages in North Yorkshire now have a development grafted on which fits this description, though in terms of an actual connection to the broader surroundings, they are little better than bungalows. The result is a sterile exclave; in the village but not exactly of it. Design and the need to make a profit don’t always make for a harmonious outcome.

Villages tend to evolve and grow in a piecemeal fashion. Often this is what enhances their appeal and makes them so attractive. A mixture of housing styles down the years may reflect economic activity past and present, together with social gradations. There has of course always been infilling. For example, some villages come with a collection of council houses. These were built between the wars during a time of agricultural depression, when farmers were evicting labourers from their tied cottages. Uniform in appearance when they were built, many have since been sold off to their former tenants and have acquired some individuality, as the owners have invested in new windows and other external features.

Promoting the rural idyll means that the latest developments come with more than just a sales office on the construction site. Websites show aerial shots of the countryside just beyond the village. The emphasis is on a lifestyle that the homeowner may buy into, even though aerial views seem to emphasise the separateness of what is being built. The reason is because the design of the development means it fails to dovetail with the actual village.

The use of nostalgia as a marketing tool has been revealed by researchers at the University of Southampton. They note that an atmosphere of nostalgia has a capacity ‘to weaken consumers’ grasp on their money’. A challenge for the designer is that villages are rarely uniform in appearance, since they have grown organically down the years. A way round this is to go for a melange of styles ranging from Georgian to Victorian, sometimes with more than one on the same property. For example, windows can vary from gothic to oriel. The American publication Old House Journal describes this trend as ‘remuddling’. On a single property the effect isn’t necessarily unpleasing but used in an entire development the impression is baffling. It suggests that whoever was responsible lacked the confidence to come up with something original and instead raided the past to create a pastiche of what houses in a village are ‘meant’ to look like. Even with the passage of time it seems unlikely they will ever really fit in, the disharmony of the whole acting as a barrier.

Not all of this is to do with the actual houses. It seems that local authorities who sign off on these developments insist they should be open plan. In theory this is a nice idea and certainly looks good on the sales brochures. Presumably there are covenants in place which prevent buyers from erecting fences, growing hedges, or other barriers above a certain height. The intention is to move away from a regimented layout into a sweeping, flowing arrangement of buildings and roads. In an urban area this would probably work but villages generally aren’t like that, hence the difference is accentuated.

There is a proverb: ‘good fences make good neighbours’ and sometimes the question ‘who owns what’ can arise. A website called Boundary Problems advises on this and provides an insight into how small strips of land where no fixed boundary exists can become the source of disputes. Furthermore, open plan devoid of hedges and walls is rather lifeless and removes any sense of welcome and homeliness.

In the 1970s, architect Oscar Newman came up with ‘defensible space theory’. Admittedly he was considering town planning from the perspective of creating safer neighbourhoods, which hardly has the same significance in rural North Yorkshire. However this is a good starting point to consider what these developments end up looking like. Newman’s idea was of a socio physical development which creates a sense of territoriality. If there is a barrier separating the homeowner from the outside world, then they are far more likely to take an active interest in what is going on in their neighbourhood. When one cannot impose individuality on the exterior due to restrictive covenants, then the result is bland and runs contrary to the idea of what the developers were originally promoting: a niche in a cosy village.  In such places there seldom seems to be anyone about. It is as if every home is a show home and the lack of boundaries creates a feeling of exposure and a desire not to linger. In a village proper there are signs of actual occupancy: children’s toys perhaps, or other personal items in the front garden. Some are pristine, some are neglected but whatever the case they create a sense of vibrancy.

Adding to this separateness, such developments are usually in a cul de sac. The aim is to avoid through traffic, though in a village this is unlikely to be a problem. Not only is it insulated from traffic but also from people passing through. This is the pièce de resistance which ensures that though sharing the same postcode, these exercises in nostalgia will remain cloistered and separate.

William Hartley is a Social Historian

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1 Response to Brave New Suburbs

  1. E. R. N. Dee says:

    What do the Frogs, Krauts, Wops and Dagoes do about thoughtful urban planning better than “this other Eden”?

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