A Follow Up…

My post on Henry Porter’s article about privacy concerns emanating from the development of technology garnered a lot more comment than most. And I was reminded of that post when reading Anna Minton’s article on the SBD award:

Not long ago, I was shown around an award-winning housing estate in east London, which was the proud recipient of a Secured by Design (SBD) award. The housing on the gated estate had small windows, reinforced steel doors and grey, aluminium, military-style roofs. The overall effect was oppressive.

I wonder if it would have been felt to be ‘oppressive’ by the residents on the night of the riots?

High levels of security have come to characterise our public buildings. This is because security has become a prerequisite of planning permission as a result of SBD, which is a design policy that has the blessing of the police.

Not actually ‘the police’, though. More the unaccountable private company that runs them.

Administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers, SBD is funded by the 480 security companies that sell the goods needed to meet the required standards. The unintended effects that this approach has had on fear and trust in communities are the subject of my forthcoming report, Fortress Britain, from the New Economics Foundation thinktank.

Ah. Is there anyone writing in the ‘Guardian’ who doesn’t have a book or a play to plug?

SBD has its roots in the idea of “defensible space”, created by the American architect and town planner Oscar Newman in the early 1970s, as a result of research he carried out in three deprived New York housing projects. His main finding was that “territoriality” created space that could defend itself. By marking out boundaries clearly, residents would feel a sense of ownership over communal spaces and would discourage strangers and opportunistic criminals from entering.

I seem to recall some of the same thinking – that ownership conveys pride and therefore safekeeping – was behind the sell-off of council housing in the 80s.

As always, it didn’t quite work out as planned. But Anna’s issue with this isn’t just with that concept, it’s with a more insidious ‘attack’ on what she sees as the role of the state:

Both in the US and in Britain the idea of defensible space was very popular because it provided a simple solution: rather than engaging with complex social relations as the underlying causes of crime, SBD promoted the idea that environmental design was the biggest influence on behaviour.

And despite the designs being mostly common sense security measures, it seems they weren’t welcomed.

Many of the recommendations, such as the need to provide good locks on windows and doors, are sensible. But the blanket application of SBD standards tends to create a threatening environment, particularly in poorer areas.

According to whom? Well, they’ve run surveys.

What we found independently was that, although increased security, and in particular CCTV, was often very popular with residents, it did not necessarily lead to feelings of increased safety, with residents reporting that the presence of CCTV could instead increase anxiety.
Security measures including gates and internal doors elicited a similar response, with residents illustrating that “defensible space” can increase fear of strangers. “Because of the doors, if you see someone you don’t know, there is an element of ‘Who is this?'” one resident commented.

Well, yes. That’s understandable.

But is it because of the doors themselves, or because of the sort of tenants selected for these schemes who might be at the door?

Incidents of actual crime were barely mentioned. By far the biggest problem was young people hanging around late into the night in the courtyard of the estate, which is surrounded by housing. On a number of occasions the play area had been vandalised. Because the young people in question were either residents or friends of residents, barring access to the estate through the use of gates did not seem sensible. The study suggested that high security was offered as a technical response to a complex social problem, which required a different kind of solution. It was clear that residents felt that “knowing people”, whether it be caretakers, youth workers or each other, was the key to creating trust.

But they clearly ‘know’ the youths who vandalised the play area, and it didn’t help!

Focus groups of residents and practitioners were given a fantasy budget to create a safe and trusting community. Both chose security features, but they decided to allocate the largest portion of the budget to “people on the ground”, including caretakers. This was a small study but clear conclusions emerged about the links between fear and trust, and the removal of caretakers, who were seen to provide “social glue” in communities.

Or, rather, were seen to provide the ‘someone else’ who would do things for the tenants. Heaven forbid a little personal responsibility would ever be taken!

Arguably, the problems at Peabody Avenue, which can also be found in countless estates around the country, could best be tackled by talented youth and community workers who command the respect of young people.

In other words, by employing more people to baby these tenants along.

Maybe it’s me, but I think the security features provided by the SBD standards might be cheaper and, in the long run, a lot more beneficial. Maybe, on this aspect alone, ACPO have it right?

And I wonder if Anna has a burglar alarm?

4 comments for “A Follow Up…

  1. November 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Burn down the bloody estate and let them sort it out.

    (Not much of a constructive comment but that’s how I feel)

    • November 9, 2012 at 5:32 am

      I think if we just wait until the police gun down another gun toting drug dealer hard-working family man they’ll burn it down themselves.

      Not that I’m too worried about that, but there are decent people on these estates who can’t get away.

  2. November 9, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Our flat block is managed by an estate agent company and, due to one burglary on the ground floor, they are installing magnetic key fob gates to the building. You have to present your lease and passport to the caretaker at 8am to get a fob, and at the moment they are giving out one fob per flat. There will, apparently, the the opportunity to purchase additional fobs at an unspecified future time.

    I am, effectively, being secured out of my own flat.

    • November 9, 2012 at 5:33 am

      I can only hope those key fobs don’t have the failure rate of our office magnetic swipe access to the doors. And, recently, to the photocopier.

      Or you might need to start taking a tent with you when you leave the flat!

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