Suburbs: A Very Short Introduction by Carl Abbott

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Review by Liz Dexter

There are by now over 700 Very Short Introductions, on the Book of Common Prayer, the Brain, Modern Latin American Literature, Volcanoes, inter alia, and now on Suburbs. The author, Carl Abbott, is a past president of the Urban History Association and taught on urban studies and planning at Portland State University for five decades; here he displays a suitably wide range of knowledge covering the whole globe. 

The key questions are when and where new outlying development has occurred for cities around the world, what sorts of suburban landscapes have emerged, who has used and inhabited these buildings, and how those uses and people have changed.

The Introduction of course gives us our definitions, with an interesting food-related metaphor getting us going, and setting out the book’s stall in covering world suburbs, from Vancouver to Paris to Accra to Bogota. An interesting characteristic of the book is its reliance on novels for quotations and examples around suburbs (it’s lovely to see Stevie Smith and her beloved Palmers Green mentioned), and there’s even a slightly strange sub-section on ruined suburbs in sci-fi. As well as noting the continuum between hugely spreading single-storey US and Australian suburbs where there’s room, taking in British terraces through to the vertical suburbs of crowded Asian and African suburbs, the book also extends the concept of the suburb to include planned philanthropic or company towns like Port Sunlight and Bournville, New Towns and Garden Cities (in the UK and elsewhere) and the “improvised” or unofficial suburbs common to so many cities. 

Abbott is very careful to address social justice issues around suburbs, both devoting a chapter, as mentioned above, to unofficial suburbs that crop up as what are referred to as shanty towns or favelas and the way these grow and develop from a community-based self-build culture and interact with official town planning. He addresses the racist zoning policies, particularly in America, which excluded mainly Black families from home-owning in any but the poorest areas of towns with the worst infrastructure, and of course was also imposed in Apartheid-era South Africa. 

The future of suburbs is addressed at the end of the book, looking at concepts of greening, sustainability and the 15-minute city (where work, housing, leisure and buying are all close to one another). Abbott pulls together ideas of the post-suburban and draws out the similarities and differences in the timelines of older and newer cities and suburbs around the world. 

I had one minor issue with this book, which is that it is written in American English, obviously fine, but that extends to describing British railways (obviously a huge influence on the development of suburbs in London and elsewhere) as the London and Southwestern Railroad, for example, when that is not what the companies/lines were called (they would be Railways). This is a minor point, however, and the book has the usual high production values apart from that, with references, a bibliography organised by geographical region and a comprehensive index. A very decent addition to a marvellous body of information.

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Liz Dexter wrote this review in a British Edwardian suburb. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Carl Abbott, Suburbs: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2023). ‎ 978-0197599242, 140 pp., ill., paperback original.

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1 comment

  1. Sounds really interesting Liz (though I would share your minor niggle…)

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