This week, news broke that developers and local authorities in London have been filling in doorways to residential developments with steel or concrete spikes to stop homeless people from bedding down for the night.
This deeply inhumane initiative is part of a process of ‘designing out’ social problems, like crime or rough sleeping, that local authorities have been pursuing since the 1990s. The Secured by Design strategy, developed for local authorities by urban design firm Conran and Partners, forms a big part of this effort. By arranging communities, buildings and public spaces in a certain way, the strategy aims to manage people’s perceptions of disorder and crime in a particular area. The idea behind it is that if you let things slip and allow windows to remain smashed or allow rough sleepers to move into an area, then people will begin to consider an area as derelict and petty criminality will rise. The Secured by Design strategy came from the ‘New Urbanist’ school of town planning, which argued you could ‘design out’ crime and disorder rather than resort to authoritarian or zero-tolerance measures.
The main problem with New Urbanism is that it focuses on making the most of urban housing developments rather than building new ones. The Urban Taskforce that advised on London’s housing-development projects in the late 1990s worked to concentrate more building in the city. Its mantra was to ‘build up, not out’, and refurbish older buildings in the city rather than building new greenfield developments in the suburbs. Instead of trying to anticipate the growing housing demand, local authorities restricted their ambitions to managing the existing stock. The ‘predict and provide’ model of development was thrown out in favour of a ‘small footprint’. At the city limits, ‘green belts’ were extended, limiting new development. This has led to a massive shortfall in house building, which led first to overcrowding and then to a sharp rise in the numbers of people sleeping rough.