I’ve just finished reading a book about architecture and urban design that I quite enjoyed. At first I set off reading it at a great pace, describing it to Sarah as ‘thrilling.’ In hindsight that was probably because the author was describing walking around places that I’ve walked around myself. He was having similar opinions to me too, which also helps generally.
But as the book wore on I found myself tiring. Doing imaginary walks around places I’ve never been and, I felt, focussing too much on aspects of architecture and not enough, for me, on the lives people are living in the places.
So in the normal course of events I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning the book on here. But towards its end, when he reaches Belfast, he makes an extraordinary claim:
“As the most famous sectarian divide in Belfast, the Shankhill-Falls model of urbanism could be considered something specific to Belfast, a form that emerged purely because of the need to stop people’s houses being burned down and car bombs from getting into housing estates. The late Martin Pawley listed the innovative features in a 1997 essay on architecture under the influence of terrorism: ‘No new housing estate can be easily entered in a vehicle by one route and left by another. Except in a few old residential areas and where street patterns render it impossible, no car park or access road can be found within 12 metres of a residential building.’ Similarly the open plan of streets, hard to police and easy to riot, were made into something controllable and enclosed. And yet it’s hard to see this as remotely specific to Belfast (or Derry, or Portadown). In Liverpool in the 1980s a Trotskyist council replaced towers and tenements with a strikingly similar pattern of brick cul-de-sacs separated by perimeter walls; the suggestion of the ur-postmodernist Essex Design Guide in the mid-1970s enshrined the notion of ‘Defensible Space’ in speculative and public housing. Barratt Homes are planned in a not dissimilar way. And in the UK, rather than submitting plans to the army, we submit them to the police, in the form of Secured by Design, a legal requirement for any new area of social housing. The guidelines are almost exactly the same. What a visit to West Belfast does is make crystal clear the military roots of contemporary urban planning.”
I knew I’d long disliked cul-de-sacs but ‘the military roots of contemporary urban planning?’
Well it’s made me think. And it’s certainly true that the ‘one way in, one way out’ approach to estate design must make it easier to police. But have they been done like this over the last 30 years to deliberately ‘kettle’ the working classes?
I don’t, by the way think the author is right in describing ‘Secured by Design’ as a legal requirement for social housing. I’ve always viewed it more as a police campaign and one we were always more than happy to argue against in the ‘Places by Design’ programme of events I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. That an area needs to breathe, to be porous, to work. That streets need to lead to other streets, that real danger comes from places which are not overlooked, places there is no way out of.
But ‘military roots’ of all of this? Well, he mentions Liverpool and it’s certainly true that after the 1981 riots many of the old terraced streets in Liverpool 8 and elsewhere where replaced by exactly what he describes. So you can no longer walk easily around much of Granby – not much more than the precious last four original streets are truly ‘porous.’ And a few weeks ago when I tried to walk around Vauxhall in North Liverpool – an area I’ve known very well in the past – I found myself getting frustratingly and frequently stuck down streets with familiar names that now lead nowhere.
So it does feel like constraint, it does look like whole areas could easily be controlled by very few police or military personnel. But planned as a long term civil defence/offence strategy? That sounds too co-ordinated, too Big Brother, to be entirely plausible.
And how does it explain the fact that, increasingly, middle class housing is being built in cul-de-sacs too? Some of it even with gates on right from the start, so the moneyed inhabitants can be locked in if they’ve been doing too much shopping and braying at the rest of us out of the darkened windows of their 4x4s?
I don’t know, but at least the book has added to my urban armoury (more military speak, see?) When I’m walking around places now, along with looking for the design features that might be making them work, I also look for how difficult or easy it might be – did they ever deem it necessary – for the wielders of power to control and constrain the people of a place.
‘A new kind of bleak, journeys through urban Britain’ by Owen Hatherley is published by Verso and costs £20. I borrowed my copy for free from Liverpool Central Library.