The UK riots: can we really blame architects?

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In August this year, sporadic rioting took place in cities up and down the country, starting in London and quickly spreading north to Liverpool and Manchester. The rioting progressed from a reactionary ‘protest’, to opportunistic looting and vandalism. And so began a short-lived stint of national soul searching, asking why and how, before moving swiftly onto who: other than the perpetrators themselves, who is to blame? Parents, our deficit-cutting government, social networks, and even the bankers were amongst the first to be held responsible, until urban planners, designers and architects were once again put under the spotlight.

Riots

Looting of a Primark store in Peckham, South London

As the rioting moved north from London, Building.co.uk contributor Ike Ijeh highlighted the correlation between society and architecture in his article The UK Riots: Is Architecture Irrelevant? Architects, he says, “have a clear social responsibility to improve the built environment and nourish a collective sense of citizenship and community.” But can we really blame architects, urban planners or designers?

Can we really blame the architects?

Urban planning expert, Walter Vanstiphout, draws similarities between the UK riots and Paris’s banlieue riots in 2005, suggesting that the cities may be suffering from the same chronic, urban condition: the “spectacular worsening” of a permanent crisis, which rises to the surface and then retreats into the shadows. Le Corbusier’s functional modernist concepts, which inspired the soaring blocks of flats in Paris’s suburbs, have often been blamed for that spectacular worsening of an existing crisis.

Vanstiphout argues that urban politics, planning and design are unable to seriously tackle these underlying issues:

I do not think that the reason is that politics and planning have realised their limitations to shape society. I think that the reason is that urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental.

Treating the city in this way means that we are constantly passing judgment on what the city should be, and who should be there, and what they should be doing, instead of trying to understand what the city actually is, who really lives there and what they are doing. This produces a dangerous process of idealisation, denying whole areas, whole groups their place in the urban community, because they do not fit the picture.

Although architecture and urban planning alone cannot tackle permanent and deep-rooted issues in the community, architects and urban planners are in no way exonerated by Vanstiphout. Instead, he argues that our cities are simply not designed to fit the people that inhabit them, but instead are designed to fit a grander ambition (growth, success, efficiency); ignoring what the people of the city need, for what the city wants.

Architects have not been blamed for these recent riots to the same degree as they were for the North London riots of 1985, when Broadwater Farm in Tottenham went up in flames, but accusatory tones have underpinned much of the industry’s reaction.

Looting at a Primark store in Peckham, South London

However, Editorial Director of  bdonline.co.uk, Amanda Baillieu, claimed that in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, “ there was a notable absence of anyone prepared to blame the evils of architecture”. Discussing the concept of community architecture related to Broadwater Farm, Baillieu writes:

The problem was not that architects weren’t doing a good job – many were. It was that the very people they needed to reach – now it would be the 14-year-olds rampaging around Chalk Farm or central Manchester; then it was (according to BD) Rastafarian men – have no interest in engaging in debate about their environment, or for that matter about anything much at all.

If the blame does not lie with architects, urban planners or designers, but in the general ignorance of residents not taking responsibility for, or pride in, their own built environments, then how can these issues be resolved?

The aftermath

Almost three months on and this debate appears to have gone silent: politicians and the police, relieved that the rioting is over (for now), and the perpetrators, retreating back into the darkness where little has changed, just as Vanstiphout said they would:

After a riot your average city will become more afraid, more authoritarian, more segregated, more exclusive and less tolerant. That is the real tragedy of the post-war western urban riot, first it shocks and terrifies us, then for a moment it makes us see flashes of the kind of city we should be working towards, which then fades away into the darkness. Back to normal.

In the days after the riots, the Government launched a multi-million pound support package to help the affected communities re-instate normality. Perhaps more impressively however, was the #riotcleanup, a social networking campaign started by locals to facilitate the clean up in their local area. Two architecture graduates, Lee Wilshire and Nick Varey, launched Riot Rebuild, encouraging architects and experts to donate their time for free to help repair the businesses, homes and communities affected by the violence and “linking problems with the people who can solve them”. A sign that for the majority, there is no permanent crisis? Or  just momentary flashes of the type of city that people want to be working towards?

The successful Riot Cleanup campaign was started on Twitter

Indeed, Vanstiphouts claims that the city becomes more afraid are somewhat justified. The British Security Industry Association (BSIA) reported an increase in requests for security advice in the weeks following the riots. Colin Moore, Vice Chairman of the BSIA’s Security Guarding section said:

Customers are increasingly seeking reassurance that the security measures in place are effective, and are therefore reviewing all of their security systems to further enhance the protection of staff, premises and goods.

In practise, this might mean that we will see more security products on our high streets, such as CCTV systems, road blockers, anti-vandal street furniture and fittings, anti-ram raid bollards and high-security fencing. Of course, it is important that these products are well-designed and well-placed so as not to heighten fear, but reduce it: a tricky task for urban planners. Our post on “designing out crime” explores the ways in which urban planners can balance security with civic life, and why security products don’t have to look criminal.

Street security products on ESI.info:

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