IssueNovember 2007
Feature by Kate MacIntosh

Can the built environment influence human behaviour? In the post-WWII era , most architects and planners would have answered that question with an emphatic “YES”. Many decades and some failures later most would probably answer that the built environment is one of many factors influencing behaviour for good or ill.

The Scandinavian countries, together with Holland have been strikingly successful in creating new settlements which enjoy social cohesiveness, low crime and which are respected by their citizens.

But these countries work hard at consultation, have low income differentials, high taxation and high social provision. Conviviality is high on their official agendas.

British authorities opted against rebuilding many of the bombed-out rows of pre-war terraced houses in cities like London and Birmingham.

Instead, the government, planners and architects embraced large-scale public housing projects. Through the 1960s and early '70s, single-use, single-income-group estates of “point” and “slab” blocks were constructed, nominally inspired by Le Corbusier's La Ville Radieuse, but without the integrated social provision and generous private balconies.

Such repetitive housing patterns, often across huge sites, were, in many cases, more dictated by the demands of the construction industry and roads engineer, than by consideration of the urban or social context.

An early critique of this approach appeared in 1961 with the book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, in which Jane Jacobs argued that large, single-use public housing complexes destroyed the traditional, mixed-use communities that produce a vibrant street-life, social stability and the casual supervision of public space arising from streets well populated by residents who have at least a nodding acquaintanceship.

Broadwater reborn

A vivid example of this failed but redeemed utopia is the Broadwater Farm estate in Haringey. Completed in 1967, the estate won an RIBA award.

It was a deck-access scheme with the ground floor devoted to garaging. By the '70s, construction faults, poor maintenance, and a lack of social provision led to many dwellings being vacant.

In 1985 riots broke out, with running battles between the local youth and the police.

Subsequently the residents were handed a large measure of management control. Working with the local authority, £33m of urban regeneration money was invested in reconfiguring, landscaping, and a two-hall community centre (which hosts a jazz café, a health centre, and a creche).

Broadwater Farm is now regarded as a beacon of racial harmony and low crime, despite housing 39 different national groups.

Unhappy neighbours

The publication by Oscar Newman in 1972 of Defensible Space exposed the unfounded optimism which had led many architects to assume that we were headed for a classless society They presumed that informal meeting places outside the private dwelling, would automatically be adopted by happy neighbours swapping favours.

Italian hill villages and North African casbas were an inspiration, which ignored the genesis of these built forms, as the product of generations of settlement by peoples with shared beliefs and social mores.

Newman's thesis (based on studies of USA social housing) postulates that poor architectural design can encourage criminal activity. It showed that for householders to feel secure and exercise confident responsibility, it is essential for them to have control of the approach to their dwellings.

No space

This was followed by the work of Alice Coleman which sought to determine if the spatial scale and configuration of modern, high-rise housing design was a significant factor in producing social malaise.

Coleman's thinking became so integrated into official policy as to endanger all semi-private/ communal space, which became viewed as a liability. Italian hill villages and North African casbas were an inspiration

Problems with the control of semi-private spaces can largely be overcome by the framing of legal contracts, defining rights of use and responsibilities, as demonstrated in the Span Housing communities designed by Eric Lyons in Britain. Problems arise when people have little choice in their allocation of housing.

Beautiful place

The work of Charles Landry, the author of The Creative City has moved the debate onto the more positive territory of how authorities can act as enablers to release the creativity of citizens; emphasizing that only through real involvement in the process of city-forming will people feel the attachment, respect and sense-of-belonging which make ancient cities vibrant.

He seeks to open up the narrowness of planners' horizons to focus on desires as well as needs.

He has the courage to address qualitative values; ie there are some building/spaces, which send out completely negative messages, which therefore stimulate anger, resentment and are likely to become the focus of attack.

Landry recommends holistic thinking and viewing the city as an organism for containing and facilitating life. It must therefore be adaptable or will fossilise and die.

Disempowered cities

He rightly draws attention to the fact that UK local authorities are the most disempowered in Europe, because power here is so centralized.

This tendency is worsening with the creation of non-elected “Regional Authorities” and the weakening of the planning system. Things are slightly better in Scotland.

The success of the Scandinavians lies in their having always recognized that barriers reinforce problems. The way to deal with problems is to recognize them and talk them through.

Separations, be it the first ghetto of Venice, or the Israeli wall, reinforce any conflicts and create new ones.