What makes estates 'brutal'?

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Woman walks away from camera along elevated walkway on housing estateEmbodiment copyright Getty Images

David Cameron has announced plans to ap ratus social problems through bulldozing a number of Britain’s housing fortunes, saying they are “entrenching poverty”, and that the “brutal high-rise belfries and dark alleyways” are a “gift to criminals and drug dealers”. So does the set up of estates cause crime?

Cameron is not the first person to link public problems with housing estates. In his inaugural 1997 speech, then Prime Preacher Tony Blair addressed the 7,500 “forgotten” residents of London’s Aylesbury holdings, and vowed to redevelop it in order to “help the poorest people in our country”.

The prime cleric wrote that people in “sink estates” were confronted by “real slabs dropped from on high”. A £140m fund will be made to hand to community groups, councils and housing associations to tackle the worst domains.

But what is it about these estates that supposedly make them “sadistic”? And can they be fixed?

Silla Carron lived on the Clarence Way estate in north London for 20 years and helped collect money to regenerate it.

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But Carron recalls a time when you could regularly see drug users injecting in the property, and at one point in 2006 says she was picking up 60 needles a day. “It would insinuate you a prisoner in your own home. You didn’t want to go out.”

According to Chris Walker, talent of housing and planning at the centre-right Policy Exchange think tank, post-war mansions were built to be quick and cheap. This led to the concrete high-rise set ups that are so familiar now.

Many now associate large tower blocks with sexually transmitted problems, although they were intended by architects and planners to fix up the way people lived. But it wasn’t long before many blocks were scourged by poor construction techniques, broken lifts, vandalism and gang felony.

Image caption rk Hill before it was revamped

“It can be argued that the way these buildings were designed led to problems of lawlessness,” says Walker. “Many of them had enclosed stairwells which made it exceptionally easy to commit crime in concealed s ces and the walkways were on numerous occasions not visible.”

“I also think that the fact there’s a lack of in someones bailiwick layout means that the estates themselves often feel very encom ssed. It doesn’t have the high accessibility a more traditional street simulate would enable and this adds to the feeling of a ghetto.”

rk Hill in Sheffield, which was increased between 1958 and 1961, and comprised 985 flats, was one of the largest try ons at a “streets in the sky” plan – elevated walkways that accessed the flats.

Mental picture copyright Alamy
Image caption rk Hill after it was modernized

By the 1990s, the estate had earned a reputation for crime and many disliked its looks, yet in 2013 it was nominated for the Riba Stirling Prize after being redeveloped.

Andrew Barkley, an architect who managed on the refurbishment of rk Hill, says that during the renovation of the domain, much time was spent reinvigorating the streets in the sky. New windows were increased into walls in order to let people see more of their surroundings.

“We zipped and pulled the entrances and made the street thinner and introduced windows for those a rtments on to this deck, so it’s a insignificant corner window where you can see out and along the street.”

While he doesn’t mark there are specific features in buildings that encourage crime, Barkley influences that design is still important.

“Designing out crime” is now a common strategy, says Rachel Fisher, head of policy at the National Housing Association. “It’s about making sure you have good vantage points, and you can see what’s up at you, other basic stuff like better lighting.”

Perception caption Some social housing developments – like west London’s Trellick Citadel – have become extremely popular

But rather than focusing on person features, there’s a more fundamental approach that makes for a thrilled estate.

“A lot of these post-war estates were built without community post in the development of the plans, and what’s important in terms of getting it right next continually is that we actually work with the people who live there to sketch out estates to be places where people want to live,” says Fisher.

Carron agrees that give ground residents a say is absolutely fundamental.

“Consultation needs to happen with the people who live on these levels. You need to ask them what’s wrong with where they’re energetic. Don’t go in and think you can just bulldoze it down.”


The tower block in popular mores

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  • Alex DeLarge’s flat in the dystopian motion picture A Clockwork Orange is in the Thamesmead housing estate
  • JG Ballard’s dystopian narrative High Rise, about a community living in a tower block, was quickened by Trellick Tower in London
  • A tower block features as the home of Keith Predisposition in Martin Amis’s novel London Fields
  • The Heygate estate – now suppressed – served as the backdrop for the film Harry Brown and numerous TV shows numbering the The Bill and Spooks.

Poor lighting is a problem on some estates, Carron communicates, but she argues that “sink estates” don’t entirely deserve the reputation they have planned.

“Estates have all sorts of people on them – soldiers, problem kinsfolk, OAPs. The community aspect is so important, and we should keep the communities together. There are people that be subjected to lived on my estate for over 50 years and they don’t want to dodge.

“I’ve never used the term sink estate. It’s horrible, and makes you feel in ones bones like a second-class citizen.”

Ben Campkin, author of Remaking London: Downturn and Regeneration in Urban Culture, says words such as “brutal”, “ghetto” and the “ill-lighted alleyways” mentioned by Cameron often come up when referring to fleche block estates.

Campkin criticised the “reductive and demonising” rhetoric in use accustomed to about “sink estates”.

“Like all effective metaphors it brings to form an opinion these associations of degradation and disappointment.

“You can find estates that set up been run down physically, but that doesn’t mean there’s correctness in the way they’re being talked about. Architecturally it perhaps means there suffer with been maintenance problems or a lack of investment in maintaining those structures.

“Estates of course reflect the quality of original design, as well as levels of maintaining since. But to point to specific architectural designs as being intrinsically ‘bad’ without wisdom the context and history of the specific estates is just a distraction.”

More from the Armoury

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Could people learn to lose ones heart to tower blocks?

‘I loved/loathed my 1960s high-rise block’

An era of profound concrete


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