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How the Built Environment Made Twentieth-Century Britain

An urban history of modern Britain, and how the built environment shaped the nation’s politics

Foundations is a history of twentieth-century Britain told through the rise, fall, and reinvention of six different types of urban space: the industrial estate, shopping precinct, council estate, private flats, shopping mall, and suburban office park. Sam Wetherell shows how these spaces transformed Britain’s politics, economy, and society, helping forge a midcentury developmental state and shaping the rise of neoliberalism after 1980.

From the mid-twentieth century, spectacular new types of urban space were created in order to help remake Britain’s economy and society. Government-financed industrial estates laid down infrastructure to entice footloose capitalists to move to depressed regions of the country. Shopping precincts allowed politicians to plan precisely for postwar consumer demand. Public housing modernized domestic life and attempted to create new communities out of erstwhile strangers. In the latter part of the twentieth century many of these spaces were privatized and reimagined as their developmental aims were abandoned. Industrial estates became suburban business parks. State-owned shopping precincts became private shopping malls. The council estate was securitized and enclosed. New types of urban space were imported from American suburbia, and planners and politicians became increasingly skeptical that the built environment could remake society. With the midcentury built environment becoming obsolete, British neoliberalism emerged in tense negotiation with the awkward remains of built spaces that had to be navigated and remade.

Taking readers to almost every major British city as well as to places in the United States and Britain’s empire, Foundations highlights how some of the major transformations of twentieth-century British history were forged in the everyday spaces where people lived, worked, and shopped.

Author Information

Sam Wetherell is lecturer in the history of Britain and the world at the University of York. Twitter @samwetherell


"This ambitious book is a major achievement, one that will speak widely to historians of urbanism, neoliberalism, and modern Britain. In its range and novelty, Foundations will help to define the parameters of urban history." —Guy Ortolano, New York University and author of Thatcher's Progress

"With original materials and analysis, this exciting book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the built environment in twentieth-century Britain and beyond. Foundations deserves the widest possible audience—not only among British historians, but also among all those interested in the ways that we are shaped by the sites in which we live. It will bring new readers into the orbit of British history."—Jordanna Bailkin, University of Washington