Space Syntax, or; a little semantics goes a long way.

by robertmcnicol

So there’s this slightly shady organisation called “Space Syntax” who’ve been a little bit silly.

I’ve not really talked about the riots on here. Though I’m not devoid of thoughts on the subject, this is mainly because I think that riots are an incredibly complex urban phenomenon and it’s not something that I feel particularly qualified to comment on. During the riots I was merrily commuting between leafy hove and a bit of lovely Frank Bridge at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m not saying that nice, side-parted middle class vicar’s sons can’t ever comment on matters that don’t concern their immediate experience. I’m merely saying that the impetus behind rioting and looting is so foreign to me, and the brew of complex and contradictory motivating factors – coupled with the inherent randomness of big cities – such a vast area to try and comprehend, that this subject seems a little above my proverbial pay grade.

Having put that thrilling caveat in, I do feel entirely qualified (by which I mean brain-between-the-ears qualified) to tear apart the analysis offered by Space Syntax. (Of course, you dear readers both don’t actually need telling any of this. You’ll read their work, scoff, chortle, roll your eyes and reach for the skittles. I do this for my own smug self-satisfaction.)

Space Syntax claim that “the spatial configuration of large post-war housing estates is the key influence” behind the riots. Yup. Uh huh. Why? Well, according to Bill Hillier of Space Syntax, large post-war housing estates are full of “over complex” spaces, where the kids can hang all on their lonesome and come up with nasty plans to steal dvd players from cash converters, unsupervised by adults. The hanging about that is, not the stealing. Moreover, “this pattern of activity … is not found in non-estate street networks.” Huh. So kids never hang around unsupervised on, I don’t know, street corners. Or in car parks. Or playgrounds. Or at school. Or at home, ffs.

Look, I’m not a romantic for “post-war” housing estates (by the way, it’s been 65 years, when do we stop using that term please?). I’ve read my Lynsey Hanley, and I’ve walked around enough housing to know that some housing estates are shit holes, some are poorly designed, some are interesting and stimulating, some are great. And I’m not going to pretend that the design of places doesn’t influence people’s behaviour. Of course it does; I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it didn’t. But this sort of “research”, that tries to hitch its flimsy waggon to the runaway cargo ship of the latest public catastrophe, this futile attempt to posit a singular, subjective, pseudo-quantifiable constant as the catalyst for the most random of urban events, is demeaning to all involved.

Right, well done for getting to the end of that. Have a pretty picture.