IS THERE LIFE IN PECKHAM?
of design changes to solve inner-city depression
IT is comforting to know that as Mrs Thatcher draws up her strategy for revita- lising the inner cities, I may at last get my newspapers delivered. I first discovered that I was living in a 'no go zone' when I tried to order them: 'People round here don't pay their bills, love', the newsagent told me, 'and the paper kids would get molested.'
A mile down the road finds you on the North Peckham estate, where the residents have the daunting task of living on one of the most written about estates in the country. Channel 4 described it recently as an 'urban battle ground with DHSS work- ers on the frontline', the Daily Telegraph as 'a no go area which milkmen, postmen and even police avoid', and more recently the Sunday Telegraph as an estate 'where gangs of teenagers roam from dusk to dawn, flinging themselves on the defence- less'.
`Design disadvantagement' is acknow- ledged by both Southwark Council and the Department of the Environment as the root of North Peckham's problems. A legacy from architects of the Sixties, that period of high energy and low art, endless concrete walkways provide 'deck access' to the 72 blocks which comprise the estate. These suspended pavements also link North Peckham with three other 'high density-low cost' housing complexes in the area, the Camden, Gloucester Grove and Sumner estates — all equally notorious.
Each housing approximately 5,000 peo- ple, in appearance the estates are not unlike a modern campus university; but according to Southwark police, who are frequently accused of refusing to go into the darker corners, 'the estates are a microcosm of an inner-city area with all its worst symptoms'. The council officially refers to them as 'no go areas', and recommends 'special safety procedures' for all workers going there. There are no such procedures for the residents.
Alleged improvements have been drawn up for North Peckham by an aptly named `Task Force' and a consultative body originally advised by a Professor of Geography at London University, Alice Coleman, who since the publication of her book Utopia on Trial (Spectator, 18 May 1985) has emerged as a leading figure in housing estate redevelopment schemes.
Professor Coleman's ideas have been gratefully embraced by councils up and down the country, desperate to remedy their increasing problems. Refusing to accept unemployment, race, tenure or management as even contributory to the problems (she tells me 'I couldn't find anyone on the estate who wanted to work'), she has also been warmly embraced at Number 10. However, just as the press have distorted the horror and violence of the estate, so her solution of knocking down a few badly designed walk- ways is a gross oversimplification.
According to the residents the architect who designed the estate committed suicide when he saw his plans turned to bricks and `The world's smallest gang — David Owen'. mortar. 'He couldn't live with it,' one of them said; 'he couldn't live with what he'd done. But what about me? I have to.' The estate is a breeding ground for such rumour. There is a different horror story at the bottom of each walkway: 'And this is where an old man was stabbed to death on Boxing Day for trying to stop two boys squirting a Jif lemon.'
The extent of criminal activity remains a mystery. Police say the crime figures will say anything you want them to. However, they had 70 muggings reported in the last six weeks, which tallies with the ten fresh mugging victims that the doctors at the Camden health centre reckon to see a week.
Evidence of crime is obvious enough. On one walkway which had 54 doors opening on to it, one in four had been visibly tampered with. The charred re- mains of rubbish set on fire by children are common. There are bars at the windows and most of the ground floor flats have had their windows boarded up to replace broken ones or to deter burglars, even though 'it plays havoc with the electricity bill', and one resident thought it did not do her children (all three of them under five) much good not to have natural daylight. Of the 30 or so tenants I spoke to all but one had at least one break-in, and a lot had had several. One couple had been mugged by their neighbour who thought they had burgled his flat while he was out.
The overwhelming feeling of the resi- dents is one of fear. Fear for themselves, their families and their property. And this constant fear has worn them down. They are tough people but they are demoralised. Crime is not shrugged off but it is ex- pected. There is a sense in which they are waiting for it to happen.
According to Dr Abbas Virji who has worked at the health centre since it opened in 1976 the poverty of the surroundings is matched by their poverty of spirit. 'They have a poor working-class mentality . . . this is my lot and what else do I deserve? It is only when they go away or move out that they realise . . . . The overcrowding, the lack of space, the bad ventilation, the damp, mould, rot, it's all predisposed to illness. The lifts don't work, the lack of pride in their environment is chronic. They are trodden into a state of mind . . . there is no hope there, no ambition.'
They are defeated, and yet talking to some of the men it is impossible not to be aware of the ambiguities in their attitude. Dennis is 23, has three children and his wife is expecting another. His flat was broken into twice last year and he de- veloped ulcers through worry. The doctor prescribed sleeping tablets and sent him to a psychiatrist. 'I went for three months but he didn't do any good so I stopped.' He now insists that the flat is always occupied, which means he and his wife can rarely go out together. Anyway he refuses to let her go out on her own after dark. But he admits to knowing some of those responsi- ble for break-ins and also muggings. 'My attitude is good luck to them if they can get away with it. Just as long as they don't bother. me.' I pointed out that he had just told me he had been broken into twice. He shrugged just want to go . . . . I just want to get off the estate for good.' An ex-teacher found a • similar attitude of honour amongst thieves in her class of 11-year-olds. 'I was late for work one day and told them that I had seen four men acting suspiciously in a neighbour's garden so I had called the police. They were horrified. "0 miss, you didn't . . . you never grassed".'
By its very design the estate cannot be policed effectively. The 49 points of access guarantee an escape route for any criminal, the badly-lit walkways provide no surveill- ance and every opportunity. The links with other estates mean there is constant access to anonymous passers-by, and consequent- ly the estates blame each other.
Tenant reaction to the police is mixed. One big problem according to Superinten- dent Keswick Jones at Camberwell police station is the misapprehensions the tenants have about police powers. 'Squatters are the big problem and the residents get annoyed that we don't just come along and arrest them all. We can't arrest them without a court order but they see it as us not pulling our weight.' Aware that they do not have the total support of the residents a surgery has been set up on the estate `to bridge the gap'. The reaction has been non-existent. 'We can't do it on our own,' Jones emphasised. 'Burglary is the number-one crime but no one comes to use the marking kits.'
Since the first resident moved on to North Peckham in 1971 Southwark Council has already spent £16 million on improve- ments. Now as proof of their commitment to the regeneration of the inner-cities, the Government is to spend £35 million chang- ing the face of the estate altogether.
The walkways will come down. No longer linked, the blocks will stand separ- ately with their own 'defensible space', i.e. a garden. Access points will be reduced and recentred and this will have the sup- posed effect of making each block more like a house with an entrance used by everyone. Top storeys, although the blocks are only five storeys high, will also come down. The plans will take ten years to implement, and for the residents it will be tantamount to living on a building site.
According to Professor Coleman, to remedy an estate's problems you calculate its 'design disadvantagement score'. In her book Utopia on Trial she claims to prove scientifically that too many bad design features lead to deviant behaviour. As `proof she cites five examples of this behaviour, graffiti, faeces, urine, litter and vandalism, measured at arbitrarily selected places. With its badly lit walkways, broken rubbish shutes directly under bedrooms,
etc, North Peckham not surprisingly has a high score of 13.1. According to Coleman- logic by removing the bad design features you reduce the design disadvantagement score, and thus the probability of deviant behaviour.
n such an intimidating estate design is undoubtedly important; removing walk- ways will make it pleasanter, less disorien- tating for visitors, and may well reduce the number of muggings. Improving facilities for rubbish disposal will help those who at the moment have to walk the length of the estate to dump theirs, and should improve the general standard of hygiene. Above all, the tenants should be reassured that some- thing is being done.
One cannot help, however, but share their resignation that such amendments will make little difference.
Whilst design is one, it is not the over-riding factor. By excluding all other variables from her study — the methods of which are not scientific, she does not distinguish between council and owner occupied properties studied, and anyway how on earth do you measure urine? Professor Coleman fails to acknowledge the historical and social context in which housing, especially council, is based and which explains why areas like North Peck- ham have become the Eighties equivalent of the Victorian slum culture.
Throughout Britain the way slum clear- ance was arranged ensured that the most problematic and difficult-to-live-on estates fell to the lot of the most socially disadvan- taged groups. All four estates mentioned are ghettoes of 'problem families' as the residents will readily admit. At 41 per cent North Peckham has the highest density of unemployment in London. It also has the highest percentage of mentally, physically handicapped and educationally sub- normal; the second highest number of children in care and the third highest percentage of single-parent families and pensioners living alone. Between 30 and 40 per cent of the tenants are of ethnic origin, and this percentage (based on the 1981 census) does not include the significant number of Vienamese now living there, who have formed a tight community.
Allocation, tenure and management are nevertheless dismissed by Professor Cole- man as totally irrelevant. When I spoke to her she assured me she had her own statistics which showed that crime and vandalism were much higher during periods of full employment, and that it was an insult to those unemployed to suggest they were more likely to be criminally inclined. The testimony of those on the Gloucester Grove estate does not back her up. When the estate first opened, 'things were bad enough but you could leave your door on the latch even if you were on the ground floor'. Now 12 years on, few people live on the ground floor and those who do insist on having their windows boarded up.
Housing, Utopian or not, exists within a structure of cost, management and tenancy or ownership. To use design remedies to eliminate crime, without paying regard to those who commit it, might well result in improvements but at best it can only be a hit and miss approach. This has already been established where improvements such as entry phones have worked on some estates and been sabotaged on others.
Last year Southwark council was owed £24 million in rent arrears. No amount of pulling down walkways and erecting de- fensible space is going to ensure it gets paid. The faulty heating systems which encourage all sorts of illness will not suddenly improve; council workmen are not likely to start working more efficiently nor will they start arriving sooner than the three weeks tenants currently have to wait for their windows to be boarded up after a break-in. And the morale of the tenants constantly worn down over a period of living in such frustrating circumstances, until 'one day you realise you can't go out unless you've taken a pill' is not going to be boosted by the added noise of concrete mixers and demolition work.
Had the estates been a success the original plan was to have made it possible to go from the Elephant and Castle to Crystal Palace without once having to walk on ground level — suspended walkways taking you all the way. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. As for the im- provements, Dr Virji Laughs. 'I can't see any way of improving it bar pulling it all down.'
Joanna Coles is on the staff of the Daily Telegraph.