I was reading Maciej Cegłowski’s excellent talk, ‘The Internet With A Human Face’ and aside from it’s persuasive argument found something interesting in the tension between his argument rooted in American reality and his German audience. I’ve also recently been reading ‘Concretopia’, a book about the post war rebuilding of Britain and realised that there, in the gap between the wars was the suburbia he wasn’t aware of. I am of course talking of Metroland, where I grew up.
This environment was enabled by a fascinating business model where the railway company created their own demand. They built houses in the middle of nowhere near London where transport to work required a train journey, giving themselves ongoing revenue and financing the building of the railway (and more). Most recently London has seen a similar excercise in commercial demand creation with Arsenal financing their new stadium (and a bit more) with property development on the old stadium.
As such Metro-land was inherently commuter based from the beginning and unsurprisingly it remains so today, although the nearby presence of the M25 has drawn off some of the rail traffic that existed before. But what’s different about a train driven suburbia? It’s still strip development, as the logic of the tracks wants a direct and ideally flat route. However it also leads to a more freeway style of node location due to the distance required between stations if the network is to be efficient. There is a greater density of housing than you’d expect of car driven suburbia as well since most houses needed to be within walking or cycling range of the station. This distinctive landscape of small towns and villages where there’s nothing to do is characteristic of Metro-land. A parade is different to a strip mall, but they’re two sides of the same coin.
All that aside, the artistic flowering of this railway suburbia wasn’t just in the lovely graphic design and dead on branding of the Metropolitan Railway company, the poetry of Betjeman, music of Elton John and writing of J.G Ballard are just as distinctively suburban and just as meaningful. In the end railway suburbia is fundamentally different and it comes down to a key phrase in Maciej’s talk:
When everyone has a car, it means you can’t get anywhere without one. Instead of freeing you, the car becomes a cage.
The railway isn’t a cage, it’s a highway to possibility.