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This paper will revolve around the concept of utopian urbanism in the context of the urban environment and its effect on social behaviour. Focusing on council housing and its relationship to the London riots of 2011, I will attempt to form a comparison with other major urban riots notably Broadwater Farm 1985. I will explore the causes associated with the riots particularly those popularised by the media and then attempt to analyse other reasons behind anti-social behaviour related to the urban environment.
The recent riots in London were not the first to engage politicians and academics in a debate of how architecture plays a role in civic order, and if it is or isn't to be blamed for social violence in urban environments. The Broadwater Farm riot of 1985 is generally regarded as the first major riot that placed architects in the firing line, with the masses blaming them for a failed experiment in urban planning and was seized on as evidence of the socially divisive effects of post-war modernism.
The Broadwater Farm riot was sparked by the arrest of a black man, Floyd Jarrett near a Tottenham council estate due to a suspicious tax disc and the searching of his house which subsequently led to the death of his mother from a heart attack. A peaceful demonstration by relatives outside the local police station gradually escalated to an uprising against the metropolitan police who were accused for being hostile and oppressive towards the overwhelmingly black community in the area.
It is quite astonishing, when one looks at the recent riots of 2011, how history repeated itself. The riots of 2011 similarly were sparked by the shooting of Mark Duggan, a black man, by the police in Tottenham, which led to a peaceful demonstration by family and friends which subsequently escalated to widespread rioting across the city and country.
Both events saw looting, indiscriminate violence and arson, which lasted for days and resulted in physical and moral devastation of neighbourhoods and communities, and both events were arguably linked to council estates.
The theories that emerged, after both series of events at the two points in time, concerning the riots and their link to council estates generally fall in two categories: those that point a direct finger at estates as being a direct cause of social failure through their architecture and spatial layout, and those that see violence in estates as a symptom of more complex social and economic issues.
Social Inequality and Consumerism
In the 2011 riots, consumerist culture and lack of social equality which leads to a deprivation in the ability to consume was a common theory amongst many. Historian David Starkey in a BBC interview said " the riots were completely superficial: the looters were shopping with violence. It was extended commercialism. The key image was the woman coolly trying on a pair of trainers outside a looted shop".
Amid the bleakness of the country's social landscape in the predominant culture that revolves around consumerism and media propaganda that incessantly enforces the egregious, deceitful message that "you are what you wear, what you drive, what you watch and what you watch it on, in livid, neon pixels" there is no surprise the riots happened at all. Those "defective and disqualified consumers" who smashed shop windows to take, often unnecessary materialistic things; shoes, electronic goods, clothes, feel like they live a life un-fulfilled, one that is polarized from the rest of society. The riots may have been triggered by the shooting of Mark Duggan; but they were fuelled by the want for equality: the need to consume.
It is however possible to argue that in reality not every rioter on the streets instigated looting, and that many, if not the majority, were simply there causing havoc and were drawn in to the prospect of grabbing something for free in an instinctive opportunistic, perhaps peer-pressured, chaos. In this case, the police were to blame partly in their inability to cooperate and keep up with the continuous outbursts of violence which seemed to spring up everywhere, anytime with no seemingly obvious pattern of movement, yet also in their lack of strict enforcement which subsequently led to the belief that there will be no consequences in the actions of the rioters.
In Owen Hatherley's essay Something has Snapped and it has been a long time coming, he writes that the 2011 riots that took place were due to occur, and even late in coming considering the major social inequality amongst society, which is further exasperated by the "trickledown dribble of social housing built over the last two decades ... where the deserving poor are 'pepper-potted' with stockbrokers." What he is specifically talking about is not the existence of council housing per se, but rather the existence of council housing in areas of far higher income. Putting poverty next to extreme consumerism creates a state of deprivation where the condition in which social isolation becomes an unbending reality endured un-wilfully by residents. What becomes is a dual yet incoherent existence of two socially isolated peoples living side by side, only physically, yet not sharing the city psychologically: A parallel existence which only ever meets when a line is broken and intersects the other in an often hostile nature; a city that runs parallel life spheres ( separate enclaves of people) living at the same time at the same place but hardly converging.
A similar example is given by Lynsey Hanley's "Estates: and Intimate History" with her description of the Cutteslowe Walls in 1950's Birmingham, where barbed wire-topped walls were built to divide a planned single mixed tenure community into two; those living in privately owned homes, and those in council tenements. In London, walls were not literally built, yet a psychological barrier has been shaping up since the beginning of gentrification where, as Hatherley put it, "organic delis stand next to pound shops, crumbling maisonettes next to furiously speculated-on Victoriana, of artists shipped into architect-designed Brutalist towers to make them safe for Regeneration". Perhaps the "giant Tesco, just opposite the Jobcentre", represents this reality best: the ultimate symbol of consumerism opposite a symbol of financial despair. The poor battered with images of what they couldn't afford, what they'd been told time and time again they were worthless without.
Yet if we look at cities like Paris, where miles of decaying no-go-zone vertical sub-urban sprawl, "Banlieue", at the outskirts of the city form a whole world completely alien to any middle-class Parisian, one would see London's council estates in a very different light. One thing London was successful at accomplishing was the complete avoidance of visual and physical social segregation, Council blocks are found in all areas of the city; tower blocks stand next to Georgian and Victorian mansions, be it Hackney, Tottenham or Chelsea; and that, Londoners are proud of.
Hatherley believes that this form of urban structure "was a ludicrous way to build a city, to live in a city" and has always wondered when London's "boosterist self-congratulation" for creating a socially integrated city "would collapse in on itself".
Yet what other reasoning can there be? Should a Parisian model of social segregation; dump all the poor outside the m25, be implemented in London? Will that even work? One should only look at Paris 2005 to see the neglected masses come tearing through the bourgeois neighbourhoods of Paris, burning, looting, and destroying. Then the critics, exactly as in London, blamed the "youths" for their lack of moral values and disrespect for their own society.
Gang Culture and Ghettoisation
Some mainstream media and government representatives attributed the riots to a "feral", "educational underclass". David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Theresa May, Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith all stressed how gangs had played a part in the riots. Yet the almost universal misconception that council estates are dangerous places, "blighted" by crime and drugs is so entrenched in the minds of all people, including those that live on estates, that the degeneration of the estates became a self-fulfilling prophecy yet in reality was part invention and part poor social policy.
With film-directors using the austere and complex layout of estates to produce gritty, often exaggerated realist dramas like Kassovitz' La Haine (Hatred) and Bullet Boy that set a benchmark on which estate tenants find little hope to escape, negative stereotyping becomes reality. Obviously the very reason film directors choose to use council estates for the location of gang films is the fact that gang violence has indeed repetitively occurred in and around council estates since the 70's. But the reality is that gang culture really exists everywhere, equally as much in traditional urban areas, however the appeal of creating a label in which the gang image could be contained, made council estates easy targets as they tended to be self-contained by nature of design and were relatively alien to the majority of the population who lived in traditional houses, therefore making council estates an untapped virgin space awaiting an identity. This resulted in a strong marketable brand; films set in council estates: gangs, drugs, crime, while the quaint old streets of Nottinghill: love stories featuring Hugh Grant, though ironically was also location for the massive Nottinghill race riots of 1958.
The stereotypical image of council estates no doubt affects the moral and self-respect of council tenants and induces a social rift between those living on an estate and those who don't which is further increased by the economic differences of the two. The latter a result of poor social policy towards council housing.
The council's social housing reforms that led to the replacement of long term tenants, the majority of which working class, with short term licensees who tended to be unemployed, homeless or single-parent and generally uneducated led to devastating social changes within estate communities. The new tenants, having no prospect or any economic freedom found themselves in a stagnant island of social isolation with a dependency on welfare and little to resort to other than crime.
Martin Luther King Jr's saying "people who have a stake in their societies, protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously seek to destroy it" is a prophesising outcome of the social unrest in both Broadwater Farm and London 2011. Therefore is it the sense of exclusion that causes this loss of stake? Or perhaps is it the consequences of increasing urban poverty, or the widening gaps of income between the rich and the poor, or the regional employment variations, or the lack of ethnic identity or economic climate which for most part affect those very citizens the most?
Iain Duncan Smith created a hypothetical situation in which a Martian would arrive in the UK and visit a council estate and when asked of their impressions of social housing would respond with "Social housing is clearly there to separate the most disadvantaged, dysfunctional and vulnerable people from the rest of society. It's an objective you have achieved very efficiently."Writing in the times he talks about the "dysfunctional" communities he has visited "many of which had become fertile grounds for drug dealers, gang recruiters and violent moneylenders". He writes: "For years now, too many people have remained unaware of the true nature of life on some of our estates. This was because we had ghettoised many of these problems, keeping them out of sight of the middle-class majority. But last month the inner city finally came to call, and the country was shocked by what it saw."
Wouter Vanstiphout similarly described the ghettoisation of council estates in the creation of walled "citadells" or "fortresses" for the economically deprived, forming a ideology of territorialism in which a "them and us" stance is held within its walls. In the riots of Broadwater Farm, the rioters consciously stayed in close proximity to the estate in full knowledge that the police would not enter. To the rioters, the estate was their territory since they knew it all too well.
The "siege" of the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham underlined the then popular accusation that architects of the massive housing programmes of the post-war years were the root cause of social breakdown in cities. Politicians and the public alike saw council estates as vertical ghettos and places that encouraged social violence; in short they blamed the architects for their supposedly failed foresight into social needs of the population in urban environment.
This time around, albeit to a lesser degree, opinion hasn't changed much in some circles. Ikeh Ijeh, an architect, writes on the riots of 2011, "the legion of dystopian housing estates built in the 1960s are incendiary examples of how bad architecture can foster urban spite." While another architect Joseph Rykwert wrote "Cities incite riots - and herding people in high rise reservoirs of social aggression doesn't help... we need to think about public housing and public space - quickly." Iain Duncan Smith from the work and pensions office, wrote in the Times about the ghettoisation of estates, "many of which had become fertile grounds for drug dealers, gang recruiters and violent moneylenders", and Shiv Malik from the guardian wrote " it was clear in some August flashpoints that council estates residents were the majority of those involved in rioting".
Following the riots, urban consultants Space Syntax produced a statistical study accompanied with visual analysis revealing the relationship between violent outbreaks and their proximity to council estates. In north London, which spanned from Hackney to Tottenham, 84% of verified incidences occurred within a five minute walk of both an established town centre and a large post-war housing estate. In south London, which included Brixton, Vauxhall, Camberwell, Walworth, Clapham and Clapham Junction, the number was 96%. Further research revealed that six out of ten people convicted for rioting in the North London lived on estates, while that number was nine out of 11 of convicted rioters in South London.
Bill Hillier, founder of the consultancy, conjectured that "the overly complex [spatial] layout of these housing estates have an effect on social patterns often leading to social malaise and anti-social behaviour". According to the report these "overly complex" spaces result in "underused spaces" which are populated by large groups of unsupervised children and teenagers, where peer socialisation can occur between them without the influence of adults." "This pattern of activity and the segregation of user groups is not found in non-estate street networks, of which only 25% were affected by riots. An analysis of court records also revealed that the majority of convicted rioters in the study area lived on large post-war council estates".
Without a doubt there is a strong relationship between riots and council estates, however using statistical reports as a formula for understanding architecture cannot be taken into account unless all other evidence is thoroughly researched too. What Space Syntax reveal is that council estates are most likely to contain people who are prone to react aggressively to social problems. That has already been made clear with the ghettoisation of council estates, therefore becoming breeding grounds for criminals. What they failed to reveal is the actual role played by architecture in the shaping of social behaviour. This type of spatial determinism will be discussed further later on.
Spatial Determinism in council estates
The idea that space determines behaviour in a very direct manner has been tossed around since the mid 20th century. The earliest noteworthy discoveries in the field of environmental psychology can be dated back to Roger Barker a social scientist who created the field of ecological psychology. His observations expanded into the theory that social settings influence behaviour and that this "behaviour setting" helps explain the relationship between the individual and the environment.
Two theorists in this field are Oscar Newman with his book, Defensible Space, published in 1972 and Alice Coleman with her acclaimed work Utopia on Trial, 1985, which lead to the "Colemanisation" reform of hundreds of council estates throughout Britain. Both analysed how the design of housing contributed to levels of crime and vandalism in the immediate area, and will be explored further in order to form a parallel with the recent events which struck London in 1985 and 2011.
Newman and Coleman theory
Oscar Newman's Defensible Space theory encompasses ideas about crime prevention and neighbourhood safety. The book contains a study from New York that pointed out that higher crime rate existed in high-rise apartment buildings than in lower density housing projects, concluding that the main reason was that residents lost control of their environment and felt they had no responsibility when too many people shared the same space.
In his Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space, he outlines the key functions in which to allow inhabitants themselves to become agents in ensuring their security. He places four important factors which will achieve this goal; Territoriality - the idea that one's home is sacred, Natural surveillance - the link between an area's physical characteristics and the residents' ability to see what is happening, Image - the capacity of the physical design to impart a sense of security and Milieu - other features that may affect security, such as proximity to a police substation or busy commercial area.
Alice Coleman's work focused on statistical measures covering thousands of council dwellings in an attempt to accuse the architecture of modernist estates as the main factor of anti-social behaviour. She dedicates chapter three to the "Evidence" that the design of council estates can really lead to social malaise among the inhabitants. Listing five "proofs" of the causes, she begins with Litter, Excrement, Graffiti, and Vandalism with the assumption that those alone are enough to "prove" that council estates are the cause of those symptoms of social degradation.
Coleman singled out the walkways present in council estates, originally designed for freedom from the hierarchal structure of traditional streets, as the biggest error in estate design and the primary reason why crime is rampant. Her study led to the "Colemanisation" reform which saw the removal of thousands of interconnecting walk ways across many estates throughout the county. According to Coleman "modernist design not only makes crime more possible but also makes people more criminal".
The problem with the Newman and Coleman theories is that they measured architecture with social problems, which for the most part were far more complex than publishing statistics and using those to come up with a conclusion. Coleman's five proofs of architectural failure, are direct symptoms of high density / low income urban environments. Bill Hiller from Space Syntax criticized her findings and put them down to the fact that because "larger blocks are bigger they would contain larger quantities of litter".
She writes "Litter dropping is a lapse in social behaviour which has become increasingly common as flats have multiplied", yet virtually every neighbourhood blighted by economic and social problems has a similar problem, taking for example Victorian Harlesden. It is not due to existence of flats but rather the lack of pride in a community, perhaps a results of economic hardship or certain cultural dominance that disregards the urban landscape as no more than a transport route. Graffiti, is a problem all over the city, and not limited to council estates. Graffiti can be found even in middle class non-council neighbourhoods such as Camden or trendy east London. Vandalism and excrement, equally exist everywhere and is not limited to council estates, both naturally occurring in areas with relatively high proportions of homelessness and young uneducated or unemployed youth.
What Coleman's "Evidence" proves is that, if anything, the urban landscape is directly affected by the people who live in it. To quote George Simmel "the city is not a spatial entity with social consequences but a sociological entity formed spatially." And if the vision of the architects behind the estates, notably Broadwater is to be noted, the spatiality of Broadwater and many other estates is a direct cause of the society within. Wouter Vanstiphout, in describing the architectural intention and modernist ideals of the Broadwater Farm estate said "The architects imagined that the city does not stop at the ground floor of the building, but rather went up throughout the building. The building becomes an extension of the city, an extended public space".
The design of Broadwater Farm was an absolute result of idealist planning, that put at the centre of design how people live and interact with each other. It was a new idea of public / private space. "The liberation of urban space and the possibility of freedom in council housing led to literal freedom and freedom abuse." "The liberation of old hierarchal society led to the liberation from society on a whole."
The architecture of Broadwater Farm in many ways succeeded enormously in creating the visionary new type of society intended. The concept of " free community", despite otherwise believed, is in fact the way it was sought to be, the concept of freedom of movement exists so does the concept of liberation of urban space, and the liberation of social hierarchy. The existence of a powerful sense of solidarity held amongst residence within its walls is only testament to that. When a member of the community was harmed, whether justifiably or not, everyone felt the urge to resist "outsider" oppression. If anything the concept worked too well, and drowned in its own success, it allowed people to territorialise public space, and turn it into a pseudo-public private space which belongs to one's own. In Oscar Newman's Defensible Space, the concept of Territoriality works literally in the sense that the rioters knew where they belonged, their "citadel" was their scared space where no outsider who entered would be able to orientate. His concept of Natural Surveillance is also rooted in the local community that when police did eventually enter during the riots in order to protect fire engines, they were pelted with rocks and bricks from unknown places from above. The police were clueless as to where they all came from, and also helpless. Yet the tenants knew how and where to observe and attack them.
The supposed failure of council estates stems from the failure of the council to identify them as extensions of the city, instead seeing them as private spaces. Colemanisation which led to the removal of walkways, adding more doors and turning each building into a single autonomous unit where people can only walk in and out in one direction, like any other private apartment building is the ultimate symbol of this spatial misunderstanding. Although statistics did show that the Colemanisation effort reduced crime significantly, the result is an overlooked deepening social problem that was temporarily covered up with no serious long term solutions. Rather than striving to rescue the estates and create a more harmonious society, she solved the crime problem by converting once public spaces to strictly controled private compounds. The failure to understand the spatiality of the estates and their new form of social interaction led to the destruction of their identity. Vanstiphout sums up this reality "The truth of urban riots is that they have always turned out to be the opposite of a learning experience for a city. Riots have nearly always resulted in politicians simplifying the problem even more, and looking away even further. After a riot your average city will become more afraid, more authoritarian, more segregated, more exclusive and less tolerant".
The rioting and violence that occurs, when related to council estates, is not the fault of the architecture, but a fault of the social problems within. Yet this architecture plays a relatively important role in that it brings people together, far more than in traditional urban environments, and therefore acts as a platform from which people are able to express their anger effectively. The architecture's enormous capability to create a strong community created an effective vehicle for expression which subsequently led to vandalism, litter and crime, and eventually its downfall.
Considering council estates are extensions of the city, it is interesting to note Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City. He writes about the importance of social proximity in urban environments, which he states "increases productivity and aspiration". He states that when people are around others who are highly productive and successful, that person tends to work harder. If we consider this at a larger scale, an urban society would grow socially and economically far more than one which lives in rural areas. Although Glaeser is obviously talking about the literal proximity of a person to a city, the parallels between council estates is interesting. The point being that when a council estate has socially diverse population, the society as a whole would grow more successful. Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney makes a similar point when she wrote in the Times "There used to be a mixture of unemployed people, single mums, and families where the head of the family was in employment." in reference to the once safer, and more successful estates, "Now some estates are made up of only unemployed people. The thing about living on a council estate is that there is not much hope".
The sensitivity in which the image of estates can be exploited lies within the very principles of modernism where "honest architecture" and functionalism is a of the utmost priority. The nature in which modernist architecture strives for truth subsequently leads to the mirroring of the inner population. A sick society in a modernist estate means a sick estate which is revealed to the outside through lack of maintenance, deterioration of facilities, vandalism, graffiti and so on. This is why traditional architecture tends to be more robust in terms of social balance, since any signs of a sick society are hidden behind its street-facing facade, yet still equally present in dangerous alleyways and courtyards. It is much easier for people to see a dangerous estate yet turn a blind eye to the deterioration of the traditional urban fabric with the belief that if it cannot be seen, it's not there.
A more reasonable approach to solving the crime problem and general social disintegration in council houses is to understand that they are intended to be part of the urban landscape, that they are extensions of the city and that they should be approached in the same manner any traditional neighborhood would be. Estates are microcosms of the city, and therefore should have a more representational demographic within them. A more diverse population is necessary to maintain a normal sociocultural environment and to avoid the creation of social, economic or ethnic ghettos. The thin line between public and private spaces in council estates should be recognized and the raised walkways should be treated as public streets and therefore be maintained in the same manner. The Broken Window Theory is an interestingly relevant example where a study concluded that cleaning up the physical environment is more effective than misdemeanour arrests.
It is important to understand that the reason behind the original conception of modernist estates, and the reason people and architects alike felt compelled to experiment with different types of social interaction with space was rooted in the ugly nature of post-war society in Britain. The continuous rows of workers housing, dirty and dangerous streets, led to the visionary ideals in which estates are now based. Now estates are living through the very same difficulties which tainted the now middle class houses of old: social divisions and a wide economic gap which created areas of deprivation which subsequently went though urban decay and neglect.
The sole allocation of these estates for council use has to have a major effect on its behavioural outcome. One must not only look at council estates to see that this is very true. Taking Harlesden in NW London, a place I am very familiar with, or Croydon for instance, the concentration of people of a certain social class has resulted in an almost identical urban landscape and social attitude yet with a scenic Victorian architectural backdrop (though somewhat unkempt). Not a week goes by without some form violence, mostly small fights that are overlooked by authorities yet with the occasional need for police presence. Yet Metro Central Heights, once a council estate, in Elephant and Castle enjoys swimming pools and private concierge.
Clearly then, it is not only in council estates where ghettoisation occurs, where property is unmaintained and derelict, where streets are dirty and vandalised. This occurs in every part of the country where no stake in society is present: where people only exist yet don't participate in society. that is what truly is a ghetto: the overrepresentation of a certain group of people, be they part of a certain economic, social, racial or age group. This over population of a single group helps form, perhaps, a community based on isolation or disintegration which primarily becomes independent from the rest of society. This is how social tension begins: the growth of an isolated community in a predominantly integrated one, especially one that is on a different economic level.
Admittedly those 'failed' council estates are many, Broadwater, Heygate, Aylesbury, Ferrier, Stonebridge Park, Stockwell, Caledonian Road, Highbury, Kensal Green and Nightingale to name but a few of the so vertical ghettos where it is not so difficult to see why blame falls on the building as opposed to anything else: lack of maintenance, graffiti, vandalism, boarded up windows, poor finishes; a generally neglected built environment, that creates an unwelcoming atmosphere to say the least.
Yet we often forget about Frederick Gibberd's "Lawn" at Harlow, Lubetkin's Highpoint in Highgate and Spa Green estate in Clerkenwell, Well Coate's Isokon, Maxwell Fry's Kensal House and perhaps the most brutalist of all; Goldfinger's Trellick and Balfron towers that defy the social prejudice towards council estates and the label of "vertical ghettoes". Those latter council estates are in fact highly valued. Apart from the vastly improved facilities such as plumbing and heating and more generous living spaces compared to older pre-war housing, those estates often provide priceless views over the city rarely seen even in multi-million pound penthouses. Why then have those particular estates escaped this generally regarded view of danger zone?
Outside the Balfron tower for example is a green open space that is bustling with dog walkers, children playing in the open, old couples strolling around and people exercising. That was the vision conceived by those early modernists, and it works very well. The urban environment is positive and fosters a kind of wellbeing rare in the tight labyrinthine streets of London which can often feel claustrophobic.
An article published by the Nottingham Post wrote about the proposed demolition of The Lenton Estate built in the 1960's and containing around one thousand flats which received so much protest from residents who have lived there for decades and generations. One resident who grew up in one of the flats wrote "There's nothing wrong with the Lenton flats per se, just some of the people who've wormed their way in there over the last decade or so. The older residents are a terrific bunch, & there are plenty of decent working folk living there too"
A sixty year old lady said in an interview "We don't want to move out the area, I've lived here all my life and I don't want to leave, There's a great sense of community here. I run the breakfast club at the church [on the estate], there's a nursery here. We don't want to move."
And why would they? The Lenton Flats offer very spacious rooms far bigger than older homes, with great views and a strong sense of community. What is clear however is that in recent years the community has seen an increase in residents of lower income who due to social differences have marred the image of the once "successful estate".
Considering the economic climate where young people can no longer afford education, cannot find jobs and have no way to escape, there is no surprise to the creation of this ill-fitting society which in reality is a product of the modern day social climate. Not the architecture.
Churchill's quote "We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us" may be conveniently used to describe failed architecture yet this "conveniently overlooks the wider social and political structures that contribute to the production and inhabitation of the built environment", "to blame the architect for society's disruption is to forget the political conditions which promote those disruptions".
The hijacking of social housing by an irresponsible social policy which sees council estates as convenient isolated islands to dump the socially and economically oppressed is not the way forward. It is obviously easier to blame the architects for failed utopianism rather than delve into the challenge of solving the root of the problem. The riots were little more than "a sobering reminder that cities are for people, that people make cities, and that cities rely on a precarious social balance that can be wrecked by the irresponsible. Leadership and good action are now essential".