January 1st, 2010
[Note: before you read what follows please be aware that Alice Coleman did not adequately consider the effect of poverty and the concentration of poor families on the buildings considered and so there is a tendency on her part to blame the Modernist architects for problems in fact produced by putting large numbers of families on benefits at the lower end of the social scale in one place, and then declaring that the architecture was wholly to blame - Ed]
Psychologists blame parents for their children’s problems but overlook an even stronger influence — the design of the home. The mid-19th century crime peak arose from tenement buildings, a steady fall of crime to a record low accompanied the great spread of late Victorian single-family houses. Yet the 20th century reverted to tenements in unprecedented numbers and crime has soared in parallel as well as becoming vastly more vicious.
The leader of the new tenement psychology was Le Corbusier, whose 1923 book, Vers Une Architecture, introduced the Modern Movement. He argued that throwing people together in blocks of flats would create communities — an idea which won global support. Its validity went unchecked and Labour’s 1948 planning control facilitated its enforcement, as the popular semi‑detached house was dismissed as out-dated and up to 90,000 Victorian houses were demolished annually for comprehensive redevelopment with flats.
The first scientific report on the psychology of flats was Oscar Newman’s 1972 study of New York’s 4000 council blocks: Defensible Space. As there were only six types, he plotted antisocial incidents on their floor plans and identified eight design features that attracted the most crime. By modifying a few he produced a crime decrease and I urged the 1970s Labour government to heed his discovery but in vain. They dismissed it as an American problem.
To investigate its UK relevance my research team surveyed all 4099 blocks in two London boroughs and confirmed Newman’s findings, adding much more beside. British blocks were highly varied and had to be mapped on site, revealing 16 deleterious features, each affecting private, housing-trust and council blocks alike. These flaws are ‘variables’, each with a range of ‘values’. Thus, ‘number of storeys’ is a variable, with the actual number in a block as its value. Values are either harmless or harmful, separated by a ‘threshold value’.
The number of harmful variables in a block was termed its ‘disadvantagement score’ and zero-scoring blocks were crime-free while those with the worst crime scored 15 or 16. Crime statistics were not at first available for individual blocks so I used visible signs of social breakdown: litter, graffiti, vandal damage and pollution by urine and faeces. These seemed weaker than crime data but brought a bonus, as their separate lines of evidence all told the same story.
So did the crime figures later provided by the Metropolitan research police. The survey included 4127 one-family houses. The older ones showed a decrease in litter, etc, up to World War II, as builders evolved their designs in response to market preferences, but the newer, planning-controlled ones had up to 12 Modernist features and more problems. Well designed houses were not merely harmless but actively beneficial.
In 1988 Margaret Thatcher read my report, Utopia on Trial, and funded me to redesign seven misery estates. A city and a housing trust commissioned two more. Threshold values and disadvantagement scores identified the defective variables and the extent of change needed, so my method, Design Improvement Care for the Environment (DICE), was fully systematic and the anti-social activities disappeared amazingly quickly. A few small black spots were the very places where local authorities had rejected my redesign.
So I advocated building no more flats, modifying existing blocks and demolishing those that were too obtuse for modification. Modernist design does not subvert adults but undermines child-rearing. Strong parents find it difficult, and weak ones impossible, to exercise proper control, so each year adds more unruly children. Every type of mental disorder was significantly worse in flats than in houses.
Flats create anonymity, not community. Numerous people sharing a building cannot all know each other, or tell whether strangers are trustworthy, so they do not invite them in to become better acquainted. One misery estate had overhead walkways admitting 2160 families to each block. Another had 70 flats per corridor. The highest block crated up 27 dwelling layers. And two-storey maisonettes catered for large families, producing packs of rowdy children.
Only criminals profit from anonymity. The first DICE modification removed overhead walkways and immediately cut the burglary rate by 55 per cent. But few blocks satisfy the threshold values of only 12 flats and only six accessible from the same entrance. Six families can get to know each other and form a mini-community. So DICE built extra entrances to serve small self-contained sub-sections.
Tower blocks may have the threshold value of four flats per floor, but their other features are hard to improve. They can be ‘top-downed’ to turn the bottom two storeys into houses, or the lower part can be made a separate walk‑up block. Some councils restrict families with children to lower floors, but if these are not separated off, the youngsters still ride the lifts to daub the upper floors with graffiti and intimidate the tenants.
Modernism urges ultra-privacy, but intervisibility is needed to foster acquaintanceship. Newman found external corridors, with public surveillance from the street, had fewer burglaries, but many blocks have no street side, so DICE built extra roads, often just linking the heads of two closes.
Tenants condemn windowless internal corridors as ‘prison-like’. DICE created fenced and gated gardens for ground-floor flats, which proved better then communal entrances only. Yet individual entrances without gardens were the worst as housebreakers can easily slip into their porches and children just bang on the door or window for their friends to come out and then move on.
When they had to walk up the garden path they waited for the door to open and parents could learn who they were. They then spoke to them elsewhere and found them polite and responsive once they were no longer anonymous.
Modernism provides easy getaways for criminals through its ‘streets in the sky’ concept with many linked corridors, staircases, lifts, overhead walkways, ramps and exits. Crime is least with only one exit and one staircase. Lifts may be needed but their frequent breakdown forces tenants to become high-rise mountaineers and imprisons older ones who cannot manage that.
Delinquents prefer to ride, so lift blocks have more problems. Laundry rooms are vandalized and high shops close because of burglaries, shop-lifting and lack of passing trade. Burglars’ escape routes are also fire-safety routes. Fire experts opposed dividing the corridors and wanted grilles in the partitions to diffuse poisonous fumes to the next section too.
DICE chose vertical vents to disperse fumes harmlessly above the roofs, and shortened the corridors further by recessing fire-doors at the landing end and enclosing the inner end as a porch for the last flat. Similar end porches were built across external corridors to prevent criminals swinging out round the partition wall and defeating the division into smaller sections.
Social breakdown occurs least where people have responsibility for controlling their home and environment. DICE developed Newman’s ‘spatial organization’ concept to define the buffer zones between private space indoors and public space open to all more precisely.
Semi-private buffer zones belong to individual households but are visible to others. Front gardens help form communities, as people out working in them chat with passers-by. Back gardens allow activities that develop children’s individuality and prevent delinquency. Semi-public buffers are shared by different households and not beneficial. The sharers should be as few as possible, as in the small self-contained sections.
Each block or section should have a perimeter wall with just one access point to prevent outsiders cutting across its grounds. In one block thus enclosed, ground-floor tenants removed the window boards they had installed for fear of burglary and restored daylight. Front-garden fences for downstairs flats form part of the perimeter and the approach to the common entrance should be gated.
DICE surveyed 960 estate play areas and found older children stole from younger ones and drew them into delinquent sub-cultures. Parks have safer play areas, with adults about, but those in estates are vandalized and nearby blocks are badly affected. So no play areas!
‘Confused space’ is worse. Green spaces allow anyone to reach and break into ground-floor flats and prove to be the strongest factor in increasing crime. DICE built 234 houses on greens and crime plummeted. Also confusing are under-block shops which bring in the public so entrances need to be relocated at the rear, with front gardens added. Under-block garages cannot be seen from the flats and usually have a diversity of doors, showing that the originals have been damaged by burglars and had to be replaced.
Many garages are abandoned to rubbish and rats. When I enlarged small flats by adding two rooms made from the garages below, the tenants liked having their cars in view opposite. And they were glad to lose their lifts as a vandal had raised one with its door open and ripped a child’s legs off.
Flats were formerly alien to British culture and the benefits of houses contributed to our national character, so DICE makes ground-floor flats as much like real houses as possible, with 12 vital designs. Resident, neighbour and public surveillance sort out whether others should be acquaintances, friends, or experts on specific problems. Residents can see anything untoward outside and deal with it, assured of community support.
House facades need a downstairs room with a large bay window for seeing up and down the road, not tiny, high, recessed or even absent windows. Houses with both a front door and garage door should be double-fronted to include a room. Upstairs windows do not serve. In one notorious case, 26 Americans watched a murder below, but anonymity had robbed them of coping ability.
Sightlines from ground-floor windows should not be obstructed by shrubs, porches or garages, nor by jutting flanks of skewed adjoining houses. One architect asked to design facades parallel to the road, complained they were too ‘bland’, but attractiveness should not depend on a crooked layout.
Frontage features. Gardens should be 5m deep to let cars be parked straight in. Slanted parking may lead to fence removal but fences and gates are vital barriers that train children to keep out of others’ property and not sit on their doorsteps or knock and run away.
Fences are ideally 900mm (3ft) high, to safeguard surveillance. A good design is a low brick base to keep litter out and railings to admit light for plants and give a view of cars coming round corners, with no need to leave a strip of property outside the fence.
High hedges conceal house-breakers but trees with high branches usefully soak up carbon dioxide. Sturdy 900mm side fences minimize neighbour disputes. Modernist frontages can be self-contradictory. One estate had six‑foot front walls blocking surveillance and gateless gaps inviting intruders in. Others have no fencing, so dogs and children trespass and end gardens have short-cut paths worn bare across them. Tenants given fenced gardens can produce stunning attractiveness.
The safest layout is an ‘island site’ with front-gardens facing roads on all four sides and back gardens abutting each other in the interior. The pernicious Radburn layout of one row’s front facing the next row’s back has nil surveillance. Cars are in distant garage courts. Street-parking or in-garden parking offends Modernists but is safer and more convenient.
Houses should face through roads, not closes where children play on ‘shared surfaces’ without footpaths — a Modernist fetish precluding kerb drill. A housing officer told how his three-year-old kept to the path when they lived on a road but ran out into any road after moving to a close.
This illustrates how the fashion for closes raised our child pedestrian deaths and injuries to the worst in Europe. They also block access to places a few yards beyond their heads; the long way round needs the car. Through roads save mileage and help reduce traffic jams. Islands can be offset to make T-Junctions that check speed.
Contradicting its shared‑surface tenet, Modernism may separate vehicle roads behind houses from pedestrian paths in front — again eliminating kerb drill. There should be front roads with paths on both sides. Rear roads and back gates increase burglaries, nearly 70 per cent of which are effected from the rear.
A burglar in a police car on TV identified island sites as hardest to burgle and houses with back gates as easiest. Island sites have corner houses with front gardens round two sides but modernist layouts have end houses which expose back-garden side walls for criminals to scramble over.
Some rows of houses have many alleys leading from vehicles at the back to pedestrian access at the front. People may be cornered by attackers there and they also function as escape routes. In one estate, alleys created 19 exits and foiled police chases. DICE enclosed them inside house gardens, and there ensued an exciting episode with cooperation by the tenants’ chairman, a helicopter and the police, who successfully snagged the scoundrels.
Vehicle-pedestrian separation does not keep children off the rear roads, where they can damage cars unobserved, steal from them and take them joyriding, perhaps killing themselves or others. Parking in front allows better control and helps save children from delinquency.
DICE avoids harmful rear alleys, greens and high blank walls that offer no escape from attackers. Modernists justify such walls as blocking vehicle pollution but it is better to retain surveillance along main roads by setting front gardens back behind parallel service roads. DICE extends back gardens across rear alleys and builds houses on garage court sites. Modernist estates of houses waste land in green space.
A builder was told to leave half his site in grass, though there were already 52 public green areas in his village. Greens are our fastest growing land use and bring crime, not the alleged ‘spiritual refreshment’. They also make new houses more expensive. So the twelfth recommendation is gardens, not greens.
Someone suggested that DICE would be just as illusory as Modernism but there is a fundamental difference. Modernism was untested speculation by people trying to make a name for themselves, but DICE is based on multiple strands of hard scientific evidence.
Margaret Thatcher would have spread DICE principles universally but Labour seems wilfully ignorant and one of its methods of increasing crime has been raising the proportion of flats in new dwellings to 55 per cent. As flats come to outnumber houses, they even undermine house-dwellers’ coping ability, and several people admonishing tearaways outside their homes have been killed. It is good that London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, favours houses with gardens.
Architects are not all tarred with the same brush. I was impressed by one who was delighted to modify a bad estate he had designed originally. ‘I never wanted to design it that way,’ he said, ‘but I had to.’ I had been asked to record signs of social breakdown before he started work and also six months after completion.
He had cut out 45 per cent of the design defects and reduced the breakdown scores by 47 per cent — a remarkable extra testimony to the close influence of design. It was a pity that if he had known the DICE principles, he could have remedied significantly more defects at no extra cost.
Design improvement is an achievable route to social improvement and much easier than trying to improve the psychology of parents, which is almost impossible in badly designed homes but often happens spontaneously when the design burden is lifted. I hope that architects and planners will select socially stabilizing designs and also help home‑seekers avoid defects that cause problems. Above all, we need surplus houses to afford genuine choice, leaving unchosen designs to be discontinued.
Alice Coleman is Emeritus Professsor of Geography at King’s College, London.
David Birkbeck’s look at the shock troops of housing design continues with a dramatic reinvention
How you manage movement to and from apartments is tearing the industry apart at the moment. A proposal in the London Housing Design Guide threatens to outlaw single-aspect flats, the default setting for apartment blocks built in the past decade. The guide also recommends a maximum number of homes per floor that can share the same access. On paper the guide could be pushing developers towards building a lot more deck accesses. But in residential circles, these have the same rep as spalling concrete and bore the brunt of Margaret Thatcher special adviser Alice Coleman’s assault on everything that was wrong with housing design.
Step forward the Bolanachi building in London’s Bermondsey Spa (pictured), a development by Hyde’s low-cost home ownership arm that wraps decks serving dual aspect units round a huge atrium in the bold style you find in one of those swanky Marriott Hotels in the US. Of course, you can’t call it an atrium – it has to be a ETFE “roofed courtyard”, for the sake of the regs. Architects Levitt Bernstein has worked hard on the detail, facing access desks in warm woods, even their soffits where exposed concrete would have taken minds straight back to all those failing sixties blocks. But such problems are unlikely to be repeated. Access to the decks is protected by a double set of controlled doors and there are only six apartments to each side of the atrium. And crucially, they’re private sale.
See also my review of Utopia on Trial
See also Design Disadvantagement