© 2017 Neil Stacey

Living in Cities – the value (?) of evidence

I am just finishing a re-read of Charles Mercer’s 1975 “Living in Cities”, something I dipped into as an undergraduate student. At the time I was keen to better understand ‘defensible space’; I had been introduced to Oscar Newman’s ideas in Bryan Lawson’s lectures at the University of Sheffield in the late 1980’s.

Reading LiC again reminded me of Owen Jones’s Chavs in which the recent demonisation of the working class, or the lower classes, is discussed. Amongst other things, LiC refers to studies to identify the reasons for the difference between the development of working class and middle class children, with the former seemingly the source of all social ills and misdemeanours. I came away thinking that as I became “autonomous” in my teenage years, and “orbited” in physical environments that were not “maternally controlled”, it was a minor miracle that I did not “lose faith in (my parents) and come to regard them as persons of little consequence” and descend into a life of crime. Whilst Mercer does not champion these ideas, the storm cloud of environmental determinism is forming as one turns the pages. Reading LiC now, I can better appreciate the trajectory of ideas and thinking from environmental psychology which led to Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial and its determinism.

At roughly the same time as I was learning of ‘defensible space’ in lectures, I heard that Alice Coleman had been appointed to ‘sort out’ problem estates in my home town. Coleman was the darling of Thatcher. I did not like Thatcher. Her politics had ravaged my town; the closure of the steelworks in the early 80’s had devastated many families of friends. I started from a position of not liking Coleman’s ideas by association with Thatcher. Not a very academic position. However, on reading Utopia on Trial my dislike was confirmed. You can not simplify the complexities of ‘urban living’ into a set of rules about how architectural form turns some people into criminals. It raises the question, why do I think one can simplify the complexities of urban health into a set of rules about architecture – which is what this blog and my research focus implies?

Learning of Newman and Coleman inspired me to write my undergraduate dissertation about the application of defensible space ideas to Kelvin Flats in Sheffield in the late 1980’s. Interestingly Sheffield City focussed on Newman’s principles and ignored Coleman’s ‘toolkit’ of actions. Regardless, and many pounds Sterling later, Kelvin’s expensive modifications proved ineffective and it was demolished.

Coleman did not add significantly to Newman’s theories. Jacobs and Lees’ “Defensible Space on the Move” argues that Coleman’s greatest contribution was as an agent, transferring Newman’s ideas across the Atlantic and into UK policy. Jacobs and Lees’ history of Coleman’s ideas, includes the suggestion that her ideas fitted the policy, not that that policy was developed around the ideas. In other words, Coleman’s ideas almost perfectly aligned with New Right ideologies of ownership, responsibilism and the narrative that social housing was bad, private housing good.

All of the above does not amount to much. It only captures another illustration of the thorniness (the wicked-ness) of researching the design of the built environment and its effects. Re-reading LiC, and in a particular touching base with Coleman through Jacobs and Lees article, is useful at a point in time where there is a loud call for evidence based design, or evidence based planning. Yet this call comes at a moment in history when science, reason and truth are under attack. Perhaps more so than ever, evidence does not guarantee good policy, policy seeks good evidence to justify itself. What a depressing thought (scepticism is not the path of sunshine).