The sitcom “Suburgatory,” novelists such as Richard Yates and endless suburban mom memes are a testament to the hold these outer reaches of cities have on public imagination.
In Britain, the poet John Betjeman coined the term “Metro-Land” to fondly refer to the suburbs on the edge of north London.
Peter deGraft-Johnson is 26 and has lived in various parts of east London for five years. The poet and writer grew up in Essex in southeast England but moved to the capital as a student.
“I was drawn [to London] by the creative culture,” he told CNN. “I wanted to be part of that progressive, challenging cultural industry so I thought I’d come, almost Dick Whittington style, to find my fortune! But also to be part of that [world].”
DeGraft-Johnson spent the UK’s spring lockdown alone, at a family friend’s house where he was lodging. He later moved to another property in the city with a friend.
The poet told CNN that he’d long been frustrated by what he viewed as London’s “extortionate rents and cost of living.”
“That just made me increasingly frustrated. But I put up with all that for the art, the culture, the people,” he said. “And then obviously the lockdown [happened] and the nightlife, the hospitality industry, the poetry and film sectors have all been decimated. And now there’s even less of that gravity … to keep me here.”
The average rent in Sidcup, a suburb to the south-east of the city, was £1,185 ($1,544) a month, while rents in Wallington, a leafy town on London’s southwestern edge, were around £1,190 (£1,551).
DeGraft-Johnson is now considering leaving the city, a decision he says was partially motivated by the experience of lockdown.
He’s not alone. Estate agents have noticed plummeting inquiries about popular city centers and a rise in people wanting to move to suburbia and even further afield, to the countryside.
“Renters searching in the capital are home-hunting in the outer zones,” a recent survey by the property website RightMove found. The researchers found that suburbs almost an hour’s drive away from the city center were attracting increasing interest.
“Chessington in Kingston upon Thames has seen the biggest annual rise in rental searches in London, with searches almost doubling (up 99%) compared to the same period in 2019,” the report noted.
“People have reassessed their home situation and [during the pandemic] they’re using every nook and cranny of their houses because [they’re] working from home,” Timothy Bannister, Rightmove’s Director of Property Data, told CNN.
Sarah Hicknmott, an estate agent who works in southwest London, said the rising numbers of professionals working from home were behind the move to suburbia.
“[People are] much more driven to find actual space — a garden, or even just a balcony,” she said.
“When [the UK] came out of lockdown [in July] everyone’s requirement [for a house] was two beds and a garden — because they want office space and a garden. They want somewhere with fresh air.”
The researchers and estate agents CNN spoke to pointed to two major changes to working life that were driving the housing shift. First, people were spending more time at home and wanted more space. And secondly, people don’t need to commute as often into city centers for work.
“It’s a trend, for sure,” Richard Donnell, Research and at Zoopla, a major property website, told CNN.
“Covid-19 has created a search for space. People are thinking, ‘we’re not going to go out as much, we’re entertaining at home.'”
“And there’s a big difference in commuting two days a week [to a city] compared to five days a week. With two days a week, you can go much further afield.”
Donnell said interest in outer London areas including Enfield, Barnet, Bromley, Twickenham, and Kingston had surged.
Wendy King, a university lecturer, moved to a rental property in the southwest London suburb of Twickenham recently from west London.
The 41-year-old currently has a mix of working practices, spending some days teaching in person and others working from home.
“I used to live in the New Forest [in southern England],” she told CNN.
“It’s beautiful — it’s green and leafy and I love the countryside. And my husband loves major cities and big skyscrapers.”
King said the pair eventually settled on Twickenham as a compromise.
“Twickenham has enough leafy green to remind me of the New Forest, but it’s close enough to the city to have enough of those pubs you want to go into, there’s a theater and it’s 20 minutes into central London,” she said. “So you get the best bits of the city.”
Meanwhile another cohort of city dwellers wants to flee further, to villages.
Bannister told CNN that people living in the British cities of Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Birmingham as well as London were looking to escape from major metropolitan areas entirely.
“City residents contacting estate agents to buy a home in a village rose by 126% in June [and] July compared to the same period last year,” Rightmove said in a press release.
“The shift in more buyers looking to move outside cities began in April and is continuing.”
Ed Davey is part of the group leaving urban life altogether. The 39-year-old Londoner is moving with his family to Lewes, a county town in southern England, in December 2020.
“We’re running out of space in our two bedroom flat,” he told CNN.
“I’m working from home and I’m in [my three-year-old’s] nursery, my laptop’s on a stool on the bed, there are nappies everywhere and zoom calls happening and it’s crazy. In Lewes, I can commute in a couple of days a week and we can have a garden.”
The future of city life
Some businesses are also relocating from urban centres. IWG, an office space provider, said in a September press release that it was increasingly offering suburban locations as a response to “an evolution of the market, as businesses choose to offer workspace close to where employees live.”
Footfall in local town centers has also rallied more quickly than major city ones.
“The smaller centers are recovering faster than larger [ones],” Lahari Ramuni, researcher at urban policy think tank Centre for Cities, told CNN.
“If you zoom in on Manchester, local centres like Bury, Rochdale, Bolton, […] what we find is that those places are doing better than Manchester city center itself.”
“It’s a combination of factors — in larger city centers, there’s more office space and commercial space than in the smaller local centers where it’s more residential. And it’s also about what’s accessible to people.”
“Our research indicates that during and after the coronavirus lockdown, local high streets have been people’s lifeline for essential retail and services and as a gateway to local parks and green space,” Cathy Parker, a professor at the university, said in a statement in September.
“[This has] been coming over the last four or five years, people’s interest in the high street has been reignited and Covid has made that a more of a particular [phenomenon],” she told CNN.
“In East Dulwich we’ve seen an increase in sales [since reopening.] People have been very supportive,” she said.
“We feel very lucky that we’re not in central London [during the pandemic] – we have access to our customers.”
But Ramuni pointed out that inner city life may well bounce back. “Bear in mind that the demand of cities has ebbed and flowed throughout centuries,” she said.
“You had people moving in during the industrial revolution, you had people moving out during the Second World War. It’s very much cyclical. And it’s easier for smaller city centers to bounce back [with footfall] than major ones, because small centers didn’t have the same [high] level of footfall as [cities.]”
The researcher also pointed out that for many people working remotely or leaving an urban center simply wasn’t possible.
Centre for Cities found that up to one in two workers in London could shift to working from home, allowing people more flexibility in terms of housing. But for workers in less wealthy cities such as Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke, that amount drops to fewer than 20% of workers.
“The number of jobs where you can work from home aren’t as pervasive as you might think,” Lahari said.
“And we’ll probably still see some presence of offices in city centers because they’re accessible there.”
Bannister echoed her comments. “It’s not that there’s a decline in the city,” he said. “There’s still people moving in. It’s more that there’s this additional cohort who are looking to move away to the suburbs and the country. It’s a mix of both.”
As house prices rise and new residents flock in, the suburbs are enjoying a moment of popularity. But it remains unclear whether their newfound desirability is here to stay or whether these areas are merely providing a safe haven for people reeling from the consequences of the pandemic.
Whether or not the change is permanent, the appeal of suburbia is understandable in an era of turbulence.
“A verge in front of your house and grass and a tree for the dog,” Betjeman said, describing the charms of the London suburb of Harrow in the 1973 documentary Metro-Land.
“Variety created in the façades of each of the houses — in the coloring of the trees.”
He added: “In fact, the country had come to the suburbs. Roses are blooming in Metro-Land just as they do in the brochures.”