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Beyond the suburban high street cliché - A study of adaptation to change in London’s street network: 1880-2013

Laura Vaughan, Ashley Dhanani, Sam Griffiths


This article addresses the question of how the fringes of cities develop spatially at both the local scale of the individual town centre and in relation to the wider urban network. The changing network structure of the street systems of two outer suburban areas of Greater London, Surbiton and South Norwood, are analysed from the 1880s onwards. A temporal reading of the process of urban growth in relation to the historic street network of local centres allows for a nuanced understanding of the way in which cities grow over time. Rather than conceptualising suburban growth as either a seeding of new territories in tabula rasa or a ‘swallowing-up’ of older settlements, this article argues for a measured description of the spatial, social and economic properties of urban grid intensification.

This research uses digitised historical maps, historical and contemporary land-use data together with space syntax analysis in order to identify historical-morphological parameters of change and continuity in London’s suburban street network from the 1880s. The analysis demonstrates that over the period of time considered there have been distinct stages in the spatial development of the city’s urban fringe. The results show that as London expanded to encircle new territories, the spatial relationships of fringe areas of the city changed markedly as larger scale infrastructure was built and local development intensified, with the effect of reconfiguring the local network of the case study suburbs. However, detailed analysis of the formation of suburban town centres using space syntax also uncovers distinctive and resilient spatial morphologies which have sustained varied modes of land use over time. Drawing on the theory of the urban ‘movement economy’ and our previous research in this area, the article shows how the complex balance of change and continuity realised in the spatial morphology of the suburban high street can be explained by complex scalar mechanisms of adaptability. We argue that these qualities have helped ensure the resilience of historical suburban centres even in the face of radical social change.


Urban, network, peri-urban, scale, local, London, suburban high street.

Full Text: JOSS_2013_P221-241