Sentimental Journey - By visiting Prof. Nick Phelps

Publication date 09-04-2015

Twenty or so years ago I stood on a cold and windswept spot in Almere New Town being a young lecturer at Cardiff University assisting on our Diploma in Town Planning field trip to the Netherlands. What better way to escape the crowds of gawping, zoned-out, tourists in central Amsterdam on the Easter Good Friday the day after my Centre for Urban Studies talk than to take a sentimental journey out of town to a suburb of sorts?

La Defense

Flickr.com / CreativeCommons / Wojtek Gurak (La Defense)

If my memory is not deceiving me, it certainly seemed like a suburb twenty years ago - devoid of people and with no there, there. Like the British New Towns which aimed for a high degree of self-containment, it seemed to have got off to a poor start. Imagine my surprise, then, to come across shopping streets and a mall nearly as diverse and crowded as those I was trying to escape in Amsterdam. To be sure other parts of this New Town, such as at Almere Poort, lie pending; empty parcels of land waiting to be filled in with long views into the distant horizon. The esplanade area just behind that busy shopping area curiously also seemed still to be a little empty. Nevertheless, Almere now seems to have a there, there and one populated by a visibly young population as one might predict in a New Town. I had also been made aware by Dutch academic colleagues of something of Almere’s New Town politics. This appears to have moved beyond the passive waiting for planned self-containment to be allocated to an aggressive mayoral local politics seeking to aggrandise this new settlement. Which raises the prospect of New Towns and new substantial suburban communities exerting distinct political effects within the metropolitan and even national political spheres. For example, until recently, Getafe’s long-serving Mayor – Pedro Castro – helped to transform this former dormitory settlement for Madrid into the ‘capital of the south’ and had even begun to carve out a national political position for himself in the process. London’s Mayor Boris Johnson came to power largely on an outer London borough, suburban, constituency and has sought to an extent to lend London’s periphery a greater voice through the work of his Outer London Commission. Milton Keynes – Britain’s last major New Town - continues to thrive and grow as an overgrown distant suburb of London as a product of our peculiarly contrived and drawn-out administrative process of where exactly to try and accommodate population and economic growth in the South East of England. 

It was a quick tour of Almere for me but in that short time it got me thinking - of whether we shouldn’t be examining New Town politics as a distinct and, as yet, rather unexplored research agenda in urban studies.                 

Nick Phelps 

Is Professor of Urban Studies and Regional Development at University College London (UCL). His research interests cover urban politics, the dynamics of suburban development, multi-national companies and economic development. He recently visited the Centre for Urban Studies to provide a guest lecture on the future of suburbia.

Published by  CUS

3 February 2016