A new kind of bleak?

On the possible military roots of modern urban design along Granby Street and elsewhere.

9781844678570 New kind of bleak

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.

Vauxhall in Liverpool.
Vauxhall in Liverpool.

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.

Our street. Many ways in, many ways out.
Our street. Many ways in, many ways out.

‘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.

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

Join the Conversation


    1. I’d thought I would be raving about it and as you can see I’m not, quite. But I did finish it – and I do often stop books when I lose interest – and it did make me think. So not at all bad.

  1. An updating of Haussman’s designs for Paris in the 1860s…crowd control? i would hope it wasn’t deliberate – but it’s there all the same.

    What they call gated communities are common here – not just for the North American expats but the better off Costa Ricans too. They remind me of prisons with their gyms, swimming pools and tennis courts with an armed guard on the gate to the complex and cars signed in and out.
    I must see if I can order the book.

    1. Well maybe, but the Haussman Paris plans didn’t stop it being a gorgeous inner place and didn’t hinder the riots of 68, whatever the intentions might have been. Streets, however broad and militaristic, still led to others. Later on though, La Défense?

      And sorry to hear of armed guards in gated Costa Rica. Any armed and guarded community is surely a desperate measure and can’t have longevity in it.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: