Walking through suburbia, others might see faded semis, but Paul Barker sees an amazing adaptability. Garages turned into storerooms, front gardens turned into garages, front doors personalised and giving out subtle social signals. The suburb is, in his words, 'the great national balancing act between privacy and price'. 'Suburban' is regularly used as a sneer-word. Especially by architects and planners. But suburbia must be doing something right. In Britain, four out of five people (at least) live here. It is best to try to understand, Barker says, before rushing to condemn. Suburbs are an essential part of every city. Often, the most vigourous, invative part. A land of liberty. With his keen eye for revealing detail, Barker takes us on an entertaining and enlightening journey - to enjoy a tower block being festively blown up; to meet a white witch in a Croydon semi; to savour the hidden charms of Milton Keynes; and to cherish the delights of allotments, seaside bungalows and town-edge malls. He paints a humane yet provocative portrait of 21st-century living and throws down a gauntlet to anyone thinking about the future of cities, towns and countryside. Much of what passes for urban planning is, he argues, sheer bossiness and sbbery. It boils down to saying: 'Find out what all those people are doing, and tell them to stop it.' We need less planning, t more.
Paul Barker regularly writes and broadcasts on social, cultural and urban issues. He is a senior research fellow of the Young Foundation in East London, and the former Editor of New Society magazine. His latest book is Hebden Bridge : A Sense of Belonging, as well as The Other Britain, Living as Equals, Arts in Society and The Freedoms of Suburbia. Born in West Yorkshire, he now lives in North London. Philippa Lewis is a picture researcher, author and editor. Previous publications include Details: A Guide to House Design in Britain. She is married to the painter Miles Thistlethwaite and lives in Somerset. Visit Philippa's website at www.philippalewis.com