Can built form influence social problems?

The concept of social problems is linked to a wide spectrum of contrasting definitions. Jerome G Monis defines it as “these social conditions identified by scientific enquiry and values as detrimental to human well-being”. On the other hand Malcom Spector and Jon I Kitsuse defined them as “the activities of individuals or groups making assertion of grievance and claims with respect to some putative conditions”. (

Taking into consideration the different approaches to this debate the point that the main reason for people’s behaviour is physical form can be argued. Urban form can be seen as one of the reason for social behaviour but to deny the influence of social, economical and political factors is to simplify the complexity of society and the different relationships within it. In any case both arguments will always be episodes in the long saga of traditional controversy.

Social problems have been divided into 3 groups by Kenneth C Land ( Deviant behaviour, including drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, crime and violence. Social inequality and conflict including aging, the ederly, racial and ethnics relations, the sexes and gender inequality, poverty and economic inequality and homelessness. Finally, human groups and social change which include the changes in the economy and workplace. The social problems that can be correlated directly to urban form are seen as the one under the social inequality category and antisocial behaviour.

The line of thought that establishes that the built form influences directly to social problems has been named architectural determinism and assume that the layout and form of physical environment would shape, even determine the quality of social life.

During the period following the Second World War the architects of the Bauhaus and architects such as Le Corbusier thought that they were in a position to alter society for the better through the medium of physical design. By design we understand the design of a whole town as well as the design of relatively small scale units.

Maurice Broady described this as “the architects who builds a house or design a site plan who decides where the roads will and will not go and who decides which directions the houses will face and how close together they will be, also is, to a large extent, deciding the pattern of social life among the people who will live in these houses. It asserts that architectural design has a direct and determinate effect on the way people behave” ( Maurice Broady 1968 cited in Taylor, N, 1998).

The case of the Business Academy located on Bexley and designed by Norman Foster can be an example of how a radical project has changed students behaviour towards education. Very different to the 1960’s building where students use to attend lessons, the Academy is an open-plan where lessons are carried out in alcoves and where no division of spaces have been created. The Business Academy has been seen as a success where “the proportion of children at school achieving five good grades at GCSE has leapt from just 6% to 36%” (

The results of this achievement could change the life style of the generation of students attending lessons in the building. The improvement of the education can bring a change for better work opportunities for the students and at the same time will have an impact on the perception of one of London’s most deprived areas.

A building can also change the perception of the character of a city. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum transformed Bilbao from an industrial Spanish Basque region to an international tourist destination.

But is this, just the building form, which has made the difference? To resume the success of some

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enterprises or the failure of others in physical terms is to simplify the complexity of society. We can attribute the achievement of the Norman Fosters’ project to the conjunction of a different kind of built environment, when compared with more traditional educative centres, and the introduction of new and innovative educational techniques. On the other hand the fact that such an important architect has designed a revolutionary building to be used as a school can have changed people’s perception about education. It has built a sense of identity among the pupils and indirectly has lead them to improve their performance.

On the other hand Guggenheim Museum has demonstrated the importance of power and identity. It has been part of the political strategy from an elite in order to change the image of one of the most problematic niches of nationalism in Spain, that is Bilbao. It does not only offer an optimistic view of the city but it also can be seen as the attempt of internationalisation of the Spanish culture after the cultural archaism of Francoism. It involves a tourist campaign which had the objective of promoting the city and radical regeneration projects which have improved the services and have transformed the vision of the city.

Consequently, built form is only a minor reason for the development of social problems. Social problems find causes in social conditions. Giddens argues that “everyday lives are, of course, influenced, reproduced and changed by structures of social, economical and political power” (Giddens cited in Dickens 1990, pg 3) and it is extremely difficult to generalise about these affects. Physical space is socially constructed by people’s perceptions. What Giddens calls Locales are spaces which “are indeed usually socially specified for some kinds of activities. Locales carry social meanings and symbols which are widely accepted and which considerably affect social relations” (Giddens cited in Dickens 1990, pg5). They affect how people interpret their own and people’s circumstances. Physical space is socially constructed.

There is a socially constructed perception in Britain about areas characterised by high, concrete, block of flats. This kind of housing has always been associated with high levels of graffiti, vandalism and litter. Alice Coleman argues “that vandalism take place in zones where residents are unable to keep a watch over who is entering or leaving their estates” (A. Coleman, 1985, pg158). They are seen as impersonal, stratified dwellings and undesiderable places to live. Crime, antisocial behaviour, unemployment, poverty and inequality are seen as distinctive features of these places. But factors such as poor services, no good transport links, authority government tenure and the meeting of several marginalised groups suffering from what Durkheim called anomya “condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values, and an associated feeling of alienation and purposeneless” ( are very relevant when considering the main reasons for this kind of problem.

People who are not satisfied with society, who have not got the same access to commodities than the major part of the population and that experience from the indifference of institutions, which are characterised by low skill occupations, family disorganisation, poverty, illiteracy and racism suffers are grouped in this kind of residential development which are cheap to build and can accommodate a large number of people in minimal space. These people are the product of “exacerbation of a logic of economic and racist exclusion” (Savage, Warden & Ward, 2003, pg76).

Again we can argue here whether the physical environment is the reason for these problems and again a new example contradicts the simplicity of the architectural determinism discourse. Spain, as almost all European cities is flat based. Almost 80% of the population in Spain live in flats. People in Spain have been brought up living in high density block of flats. The perception of people about living in this kind of housing is completely different to the British one. Being the common norm between the population it does not lead to any of the social problems described above. They are not associated to vandalism and poor quality accommodation. They are the standard residential housing where people live.

The areas where vulnerable groups live are characterised by poor links of transport, no easy access to schools, located on the outskirts of the city and who residents are immigrants or part of a minor ethnic group. They are tenure tenants that lack sense of identity with the place where they live, lack of resources and are victims of some conditions that are made difficult to improve their situation. The areas where they live are characterised by the use of cheap materials and an even higher density than in other areas. Families live in small flats where they have to share rooms. The combination of all this features, together with the difficulties to establish zones of autonomy and self management is what, in Spain, generate major social problems and no the fact that people live in this type of housing.

Even the new theories which aim to explain social change and society within the context of postmodernity claim that the city will evolve as mean of facilitating interpersonal communication “Although individuals live in a particular place and participate in community life in and around that place, it is interaction and not place that is the essence of life” (Clark, 2003, pg 139). Once again the importance of predominant social conditions over physical form are highlighted in order to understand the future of the cities or urban form and consequently its social costs. The global village is the sociological destination of the city. The power of media will spread urban values. Information, and no physical design, is being the basis for an explanation of the present and future society and of people way of living and behaviours. Information is the leviathan that will lead future changes and policies.

Practically speaking in planning grounds, the future of the city is called “compact city” and will be the fruit of an urban renaissance supported by governments and elite groups.

In its July 12 Spending Review the government announced “a 50% increase in new social house building…an extra 10,000 homes a year…and further plans to increase housing supply and improved affordability by funding the Sustainable Communities Plan to deliver 200,000 additional homes in the Thames Gateway and other growth areas” ( The government has named this project urban renaissance and it involves the better use of buildings within developed land to accommodate about 3.8 million new households between 1996 and 2021 and to do this the government “supports the idea of the ‘compact city’, that is a higher density, mixed use development on brownfield land close to public transport nodes” (Burton, 2002, pg 537).

This encouraged urban renaissance will imply the adoption of high density constructions in order to satisfy the demand for new housing at minimal environmental costs and this means a high proportion of apartments and terrace houses. The benefits will be “the conservation of the countryside, less need to travel by car, thus reduced fuel emissions, support for public transport and walking and cycling, better access to services and facilities, more efficient utility and infrastructure provision and revitalisation and regeneration of inner urban areas” (Burton, 2002, pg 538).

But which will be the social problems attributed to this new concept of housing form? According to Elisabeth Burton, nine social problems have been seen by population as are related to compactness (Burton, 2002, pg 547-548):

* access to superstores

* access to green open space

* public transport use

* extent of walking and cycling

* amount of domestic living space

* death rate from mental illness

* crime

* social segregation

* death rate for respiratory disease.

Again we can argue that although some of the social problems can be seen as a product of this kind of development they are not directly correlated to built form. The invocation of the high-rise horrors of post war urban Britain and the congested squalor of Victorian Britain is where Bowers see the root of this apprehension (Bowers cited in Jenks, Burton and Williams, 1996).

For example the difficult access to services may find is cause in the increase in number of users within an area but may also be seen as lack of appropriate infrastructure and therefore a failure in developer and government’s attempt of offering the necessary infrastructure for a new development. On the other hand, why does it promote crime and social segregation or how can it be associated to mental illness?

When people live in close proximity they are more aware of the existence of neighbours and there are more opportunities to informally interact with your neighbours. The relationship between people living within flats is less gregarious. It also provides casual surveillance and respect for property. For designers and housing providers seeking to promote social equity, and according to the research developed by Elisabeth Burton, higher-density housing such apartments and terraces are the best form of housing, “especially if they are developed on derelict land in areas where there are plenty of locally-provided services and facilities” (Burton, 2002, pg 558).

The extent to which built form influences social problems has therefore been seen as very limited. The confluence of several economic, social, political and environmental reasons results in the creation of social problems. In addition, the weight of the importance of the built form, when taking into consideration the different social problems, tend to change from one country to another depending on the perception of the different kind of built form by the population. This perception will always be shaped according to the culture and socialization the individual has experienced. What in some countries is seen as undesiderable form of housing in others is the common norm.

In Britain “compact city” has been proved to be the best option for future urban development if sustainable reasons are taking into account. The promotion of places that make efficient use of available space and environmental resources will lead to the adoption of high-density development. This residential housing has been seen through history as a reason for the emergence of social problems and people associate this type of built environment to vandalism, crime and social inequality. The introduction of this new model into planning practice will need to be seen together with changes in the population mentality and will meet several difficulties when confronting well rooted ways of thinking. People will have to be educated to accept the change. It will not create additional social problems if it incorporates features that improve people’s quality of life like high standard local services and an easy reach of a range of facilities.

This new concept of built form will generate debates and modification in people’s constructed reality before being able to be generally accepted, a shift in people’s attitudes towards the new form of housing. It needs to be an attractive option and it will involve action and investment from government and agencies in order to disassociate false presumptions about this kind of built form.

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