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The Anatomy of Greater London


Paul L. Knox


London: Merrell, 2017

Hardback. 224 pp. ISBN 978-1858946511. £35


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London




‘Metroburbia’ is not a word that springs readily to the lips but in the terminology of urban studies it refers to ‘fragmented and multi-modal mixtures of employment and residential settings [along] with a fusion of suburban, ex-urban, and central-city characteristics’ (Knox 2008 : 2). Paul Knox, a geographer trained at Sheffield University and for three decades professor of architecture and urban studies at Virginia Tech, explored Metroburbia USA in 2008, providing both an insightful history of suburbanisation and a critical examination of new aspects of outer urban growth in recent decades. His monograph is a scholarly text, enriched by personal experience and research, densely written and illustrated with a small number of photographs and maps. Their reproduction was so poor that several categories of shading were difficult, and at times impossible, to distinguish. Metroburbia : The Anatomy of Greater London shares the neologism in it title but is a very different type of book. Its format (22 x 26 cm) is generous and its page composition spacious. With 260 full-colour photographs and ten maps in colour, it is a handsome volume.

For an exposition in urban history, it is organised in a conventional way, beginning with early examples of suburbia and working toward ‘megapolitan futures’. The story is presented in clear, jargon-free prose that will have a wide appeal. Rather than depicting ‘Outer London’ of suburbs and ‘exurbs’ as a sprawling mass of housing, Knox insists that this vast area ‘is highly structured’, with an internal variability of form and quality that belies stereotypical images of suburbia’ [6]. This fundamental structure comes from the historic pattern of villages and roads arranged around London in past centuries, and responds to the varied resource base afforded by the valley of the Thames and the terrain that rises from it. Seven component areas may be distinguished according to physical geography and settlement history. A useful introductory diagram on page 13 presents five historic layers of suburban growth from ‘pre-modern foundations’ to the twenty-first century.

In the first of five substantive chapters, contrasting examples of Victorian and Edwardian suburban development are discussed and illustrated by assemblages of photographs and facsimiles of large-scale Ordnance Survey maps. Thus, Bedford Park exemplifies an estate for middle-class residents, whereas Shaftesbury Park Battersea was built by the Artizans’, Labourers’ and General Dwellings Company to house members of the respectable working class. Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb are recognised as ‘Restorative Utopias’. Knox then relates how early town-planning legislation led the London County Council to create wide expanses of social housing, both within and beyond its territory, the latter being known as ‘out-county estates’. By 1914, the LCC had housed 25,000 people in apartment blocks, terraced or semi-detached houses. All of its homes were for rent and were constructed to a high standard. Throughout his text, Knox highlights the role of critical individuals in the formation of London’s suburbia, providing pictures and brief biographies of Ebenezer Howard, Raymond Unwin, Patrick Geddes and others for the Edwardian and Victorian periods.

He proceeds to show that almost half of the new housing built in England and Wales between the two world wars was constructed around London. The LCC continued to build housing for rent on model estates, such as Becontree for workers at the Ford Motor Company’s factories in Dagenham, and the Watling out-county estate in Middlesex. In addition, private developers built homes for sale, creating ‘a mosaic of garden suburbs and garden villages of varying quality – unrelieved landscapes of detached and semi-detached houses, mostly with a minimum of green space and few plantings and local amenities’ [92]. ‘Metro-Land’ became the classic example of private development, whose named evoked the ‘brand identity created by the Metropolitan Railway to promote traffic and development along its route’ to the north-west of London [96]. Many inter-war estates were served by surface railways, Underground lines or new main roads, some of which, such as the Great West Road, were lined with new factories. Many of these were owned by American industrial corporations. But not all areas of inter-war housing enjoyed good public transport, hence bicycle rides or long walks to work or shop were commonplace prior to the age of mass car ownership. Before I knew better, I used to wonder whether some suburban Tube stations – such as Colindale and Stanmore were named after estate developers rather than bearing the titles of medieval villages. Beyond inter-war suburbia, with it proliferation of new schools, town halls and shopping parades, lay the ‘cocktail belt’ composed of ‘exclusive, leafy districts of large detached houses within commuting distance of central London, settled largely by high-earning [and car owning] householders’, whose residences contributed to early ‘landscapes of automobility’ [103].

In a single paragraph, Knox recounts how the events of World War II brought this suburban expansion to a halt. In the immediate post-war years, surveys and plans proliferated as expressions of the quest for rational organisation of territory. Legislation to control and steer future urban growth gave rise to the ‘green belt’ and to a suite of new towns around London. Welfare-state constraints ‘reframed the physical development of the metropolis and grafted public housing into the fabric of the suburbs on an unprecedented scale’ [126]. Examples of this phase of development selected by Knox include Harlow new town, the office node of Croydon, ‘the estate of the future’ at Woodberry Down (conceived in 1938 but built after the war), and Alton Estate, Roehampton that some likened to contemporary developments around Stockholm. Running parallel to these expressions of social housing came their counterparts on private estates laid out by developers.

Suburban growth associated with the consumer boom of the 1960s came to an abrupt halt in the early 1970s. London’s docks closed, as did many factories on the inter-war industrial estates. Swathes of land became redundant and acquired the title ‘brownfield sites’. However, Knox argues:


The most widespread impact upon the existing fabric of Metroburbia was the residualisation of council housing. In 1980 the Thatcher government revoked the requirement of council housing to meet [high] Parker Morris standards and introduced the right of council tenants to buy their homes at a substantial discount [165].

Thus, the legal status of much of London’s housing stock was changed profoundly by political action. When London’s economy revived, employment increased and population grew once again, but affordable housing had become – and remains very much a scarce commodity beyond the reach of many. Various forms of ‘gentrification’ contributed to substantial increases in the price of housing right across the capital. Estates that had been built only a few decades previously required renovation and ‘re-imaging’, as at Woodberry Park (previously known as Woodberry Down). Eventually, many brownfield sites were redeveloped, notably at Canary Wharf and elsewhere in the Docklands that are described at length.

As he turns away from the past, Paul Knox recalls the prophetic book entitled London 2000 (1963) written by geographer-planner Peter Hall half a century ago. Hall produced a largely optimistic vision of the future, characterised by wise planning, full employment, abundant leisure, and increased personal mobility. Some of his brave new world came into being: the metropolitan economy has boomed and its population expanded, but the chance of owning a home of one’s own has become an impossible dream for many living in London. Looking toward the future, Paul Knox emphasises the need for numerous infrastructural improvements and discusses the likely impact of Crossrail that ‘is expected to bring an additional 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of central London’ [207]. To meet future demands, new housing will have to be provided by building at higher densities in parts of the existing built-up area and, Knox suggests, by a judicious abandonment of the policy of containment through developing some stretches of green belt land. Drawing on his North American experience, he envisages large developers with access to substantial land banks creating


The kind of packaged and banded landscapes that have proliferated around metropolitan areas in the USA: private master-planned subdivisions laid out with their own bicycle trails, ‘town centres’ and recreational facilities, dominated by single-family housing but containing a mixture of housing types that include condominium apartments and town houses, depending on the market segment the developer is targeting [209]

If the green belt is eroded, ‘Metroburbia will spread out as far as Reading to the west, Luton to the north, and Chelmsford and Maidstone to the east. To the south, the South Downs National Park will form a buffer between the Metroburbian edgelands’ and existing urban development along the Channel coast [209]. Of the seven physical areas identified at the start of the book, two are likely to experience the most substantial change, namely redundant or underdeveloped stretches of land along the Thames estuary, and swathes of inter-war suburbia in need of refurbishment to the north-west of the city. Recent planning exercises have identified areas of opportunity and possible intensification but whether the overall scenario for Greater London’s Metroburbia will be dynamic, resilient, stagnant, or in decline remains the great unknown, especially in the light of Brexit [214].

Paul Knox has provided a lively and beautifully illustrated account that will appeal to a wide array of readers. Many of the photographs are from his own camera, which is always a good indication of an author’s familiarity with his subject. Individual readers will appreciate his discussion of places that they know as well as his presentation of locations that they have not yet visited. They will also have criticisms. I would have welcomed a more substantial bibliography. Sixty-eight items will more than satisfy general readers, but students of geography, planning, architecture and urban history hunger for more. I think space should have been given to an explanation of the official definition of the ‘outer metropolitan area’ shown on page 131. Fuller treatment of the destructive outcome of World War II also would have been helpful, as would some mention of the ideas of sociologist Ruth Glass, who coined the term ‘gentrification’ half a century ago.


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