The Irish Times series on Commuterland is to be welcomed, principally because it forces us to re-think many of the assumptions that are often made about life in the suburbs.   Our recent sociological study of Ratoath, Leixlip, Lucan-Esker and Mullingar in the Dublin hinterland  suggests that these outposts are neither alienated deserts nor valleys of squinting windows. Rather, they are places sustained by loose but meaningful affiliations between residents, their neighbours, friends and extended families.

In the wake of the massive housing boom that took place around the turn of the twenty-first century, public concern had been expressed about the weak regulation of the peripheral urbanisation, the impact on residents’ quality of life and the robustness of community feeling in these new neighbourhoods.  As colleagues at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth we initiated a research project to investigate the impact of suburban development in Ireland in the earlier part of the decade, before the housing boom went into overdrive and began to churn out what are now known as ghost estates.

Our study re-visits the mainly negative assessment that has been made of the suburban social fabric. The title of our book, Suburban Affiliations, underlies its main conclusions. Residents in suburban estates are not disaffiliated: they are in fact connected with the place where they live and with each other, in many different ways.  Our study maps the nature, quality and focus of these affiliations.   We identify a number of social processes at work in the suburbs which are often overlooked in other analyses:  the intensification of parenting; the activation of kin networks; the presence and use of  in-between public spaces; the reliance on an “ideology of pastoralism”, variations in the formation and composition of personal communities, the emergence of new types of local activism- all these constitute ignored or neglected processes that unfold in the new suburbs.

For a suburb to satisfy the needs of its residents, we argue, it must produce “communality”, that is, minimum levels of affiliations amongst residents, affiliations that are neither entirely superficial nor deeply intimate in content.  We demonstrate the precise contours of the “affiliative” suburb, identifying those factors that act to socially embed people in their localities (creating the possibility of intensive affiliation) and those that threaten to erode or undermine connectedness and belonging (creating the conditions for dis-affiliation). By adopting a comparative approach to the study of suburbs we are able to demonstrate significant suburban variation in levels, types and intensities of affiliation.
We think it is useful to conceptualise suburbs not as communities but primarily as arenas of affiliations.  We suggest that people who live in suburbs can aspire towards a decent quality of life, so long as a sufficient level of social affiliation can be generated in their locality.  On the basis of our investigation of four suburbs which vary in terms of their history, spatial configuration, demographic and social profile we have distilled a number of factors that support and enhance suburban affiliations:

  • residents must be able to develop a rapport with the place where they live. In our study we found relatively high levels of a sense of place.  The majority of respondents reported feeling very attached or attached to the place where they lived. These levels of attachment were highest in Ratoath and Leixlip and lowest in Lucan-Esker.
  • residents must enjoy access (in the locality or nearby) to a range of amenities and services without which life becomes difficult.  Many suburban residents access their goods and services not in the urban downtown of Dublin city but in the towns and villages in the Dublin hinterland.  Distance from Dublin city then does not necessarily impact negatively on people’s lifestyle and quality of life.
  • residents are to some extent connected with other residents. There is some kind of social fabric in place in the locality.  We found that people had on average, five to six contacts upon whom they could rely for help and support.  The make up of this network- family, friends, neighbours- varied from one suburban locality to another.  For instance, people living in Ratoath were most reliant on neighbours, whilst those in Mullingar depended in the main on family support networks.
  • residents manage to address whatever problems they may collectively face. They come to form some kind of collective entity, however fragmented it may be.  The suburbanites whom we studied had relatively high levels of social participation and activism when compared to the national average although they frequently found it difficult to have their voice heard in local government.

We believe that our study – based on 800 face to face interviews, 30 focus group discussions and a range of in-depth interviews with key informants, represents an important contribution to the literature on community in Ireland and particularly on our knowledge of suburban Ireland. Our empirical investigation has revealed the texture and complexities of everyday life in suburbia. Our study makes a contribution to the sociological literature on suburban development and sprawl because it moves the analysis beyond the dated and dystopian stereotypes that frequently accompany academic and media commentary on the suburbs.

Mary P. Corcoran, Jane Gray and Michel Peillon

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