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Selecting where to live (city-vs-suburbia expanded)

A leisurely perambulation along neighborhood streets on Sunday has provoked additional reflections on the topic that I started to scratch earlier and also cursorily mentioned towards the end of this recent post: Living in city versus living in suburbs.

Coincidentally, a fellow American [prospective] expat has emailed me earlier today asking for an advice on this precise topic. That was more than enough for me to realize that I was long overdue to expound my theories on selection of residential area.

As a disclaimer, please don’t expect me to state an explicit advice on where to look for accommodations in London. From residential perspective, I am familiar with just two areas, Greenwich Borough area in Southeast London and St John’s Wood in Westminster, which I will be mentioning below. There are certainly many other great areas to make home; I am just not actively aware of their specifics to address them in any meaningful way. Hopefully, you have access to other advisors who can help you with that. If I get any first-hand information about any specific areas, I will be sure to post it as follow-ups herewith.

Now, think about your choice of the town or neighborhood to make your permanent home back in America. What did you base it on? I would bet that all following considerations figured in your decision: safety of the area; local infrastructure and attractions; reputation of local schools (for those with kids); community make-up; proximity to friends and family; and, not the least, affordability of your desired type of housing. To no one’s surprise, those same considerations figure in the selection of temporary (i.e., for no more than a few years) place to stay for an expat.

Let’s address these in overall terms.

Safety certainly increases as you move out from a city to suburbs (and further to the countryside). So, on the balance, living in Surrey affords a lot more safety that living in Westminster. Safety from crime, however, goes hand in hand with the community make-up, so it follows that there must be some neighborhoods in a given city that could be as safe or even safer than some neighborhoods in largely idyllic suburbs. You simply need to be very picky and do your homework before settling on an area.

There is also automotive safety. Suburbs lend to less traffic – especially through traffic – which reduces some dangers inherent in the proliferation of our preferred mode of transportation. On the other hand, you may need to drive a lot more if you live in a suburban area just to get places, which reverses the argument. (Don’t forget: Driving in UK is very much unlike what you may be used to in the States; this was my latest entry on the subject).

Here, we are touching on local infrastructure. As I wrote in this original city-vs-suburbia post, living in the city allows you easy access to various amenities next door, from restaurants to playgrounds, from grocery shops to theaters, which makes for a much simplified routine in doing practically anything. Plus, accessibility of entertainment venues, be it stadiums, cinemas, museums or local eateries, affords a lifestyle quite different from having to hop into a car or onto commuter train for every outing.

Conversely, out in the country, you get peace and quiet…

The quality and variety of the infrastructure is a big deal, though. You may be perfectly happy to buy all your groceries at the lone nearby supermarket, but should there be two of them equidistant to your house, are you going to tell me that you would not appreciate the choice? As far as quality… There are at least two perfectly maintained children playgrounds in the area of St John’s Wood that we know well; there is only one playground within ten minutes walk from our house in Mottingham, and it is dilapidated and nothing to look at…

On to education. Overall, state schools in London are worse than those in suburbs, just as public education in New Jersey on average in considerably stronger than in New York City.

I am of opinion, however, that it matters little as far as grammar/elementary schools are concerned (sounds a bit hypocritical from a guy who fled New York City for New Jersey when his first child was nearing kindergarten 😛 ). Do I think that the gap in quality is so tremendous as to make a visible difference for early years? I don’t. It’s what you do for them at home that counts at that age, IMHO. But if your child is older than 10, and you are not looking for expensive fee-paying schooling, then certainly look outside London. Kent and Surrey are reputedly good choices.

Community make-up and proximity to your existing (if any) social circle cannot be underestimated. IMHO, the worst attribute of expat suburban living is that it could be much harder to establish yourself socially, given fewer people with backgrounds similar to yours who live nearby. Especially, if your ethnicity plays a role in your social life: Ethnic groups tend to gravitate to urban areas.

Finally, the affordability of what you believe are the acceptable accommodations for your family. A three-bedroom, one-bathroom flat in St John’s Wood costs considerably more than a four-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom house with a garden, garage and private driveway in Mottingham.

For us, the last consideration was decisive, as we could not envision fitting ourselves into less than six rooms, and the cost of similar housing in central London was prohibitive for our means. That was likely a mistake. Even though we are not that far from the city center, our entertainment programme – be it museums, galleries or musicals – certainly suffers from the need to commute back-and-forth for most attractions; the friends that we have in London live pretty far away (in St John’s Wood, as it happens, as well as farther north); there are almost no one we can socialize with locally, on the basis of them having very little in common with us (Mottingham is a blue-collar neighborhood, and – sorry for the inadvertent snobbery – I am a white-collar type of guy; moreover, I am a Russian-American of Jewish ancestry, – try finding a similar recipe where I live!)…

Moreover, one of the reasons for looking for accommodations in Southeast London in the first place was proximity to Canary Wharf, where I work. But St John’s Wood, which is located on the Jubilee tube line that goes directly to Canary Wharf, affords approximately the same duration of commute that what I currently have.

To be honest, Becky’s education was a serious consideration as well, conforming to my above-stated views. There are some state schools in our vicinity that are above average, which, coupled with short commute, appeared attractive. In the end, however, we put her into an expensive independent school, which was certainly a possibility in the central London as well.

I know of one advantage of our area over central London: Driving to the Channel Tunnel is literally a straight road from our house; you would have to add an hour-plus each way from an area such as St John’s Wood.

Many expats do settle down in St John’s Wood, which is very clean, rather quiet, very close to the city center, and, subsequently, full of people who share background with yours. Some parts of it are positively upscale, but there are also social housing areas nearby. No matter. The infrastructure is excellent and the location is hard to beat if urban living appeals to you. People on expat packages (look here for definition) who have their living accommodations subsidized, may not even care that housing costs are really high in that area…

To summarize, what would make you decide to choose city or suburbs for your expat place of residence? For my money, it’s the following questions:

Are you looking to be in the center of vibrant activity (city) or do you crave peace and quiet (suburbs)?

Do you need to socialize and have easy accessibility to entertainment venues (city) or are you content with spending the bulk of leisure time at home (suburbs)?

Do you like going for walks (city) or prefer to get into the car for every outing (suburbs)?

Do you desire central, however tight, living accommodations (city) or prefer spacious quarters, however remote (suburbs)?

Do you want to put your tween or teen into a state school (suburbs) or expect to pay tuition at a better institution (does not really matter)?

I don’t know if I was able to give anyone advice here, but at least I hope I started any prospective expat who reads this on a path of thinking that allows you to make the best decision in the end.

Good luck!

A good resource is UpMyStreet, which provides plenty of demographic, infrastructure, crime and other data for any location in the UK.


  1. Heather


    This is useful information and I appreciate it. I personally would very much like to escape the endless driving I do here, in a pretty suburb of NYC. I also worry about the expense with fuel prices rising. On prices of everything I will consult UpMyStreet. I also was referred to “rightmove.”

    Until my husband is certified in his medical area (probably Jan or Feb of ’09), we cannot begin to see what is available for him in the way of employment wth the NHS. But the tips on Kent and Surrey are good to have, and we will look at what opportunities could be there. We will try and get materials from the Office of Education to start preparing our 13 year olds for the tests they will have to take for admission to state schools.

  2. Ilya

    Happy to be of help, Heather. If you think that I might be able to provide advice on anything, please don’t hesitate to email.

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