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How Architecture Contributes to Riots

Researchers looking at this summer’s London riots have concluded architecture may have helped cause them. Preposterous idea, you say? Let me explain. Apparently, many of the riots took place near public housing. Well, of course—poor people were the ones rioting and stealing. But the public housing was so complex a design that it created large spaces no one used except idle and unsupervised young people, who congregated there in large numbers, eventually spilling into the streets and giving us the term “flash mob.” “The trouble with so much architecture from the post-war period is that the state was the client—architects designed housing projects with little or no concern for the people who would actually live in them,” notes Tom Clougherty on the Adam Smith Institute blog. “The design of housing estates did not reflect the way people lived, worked and played. Rather, it reflected a utopian socialist ideology which central planners wished to impose upon them.” Steven Masty, the “London and Afghanistan correspondent” for one of my favorite Hillsdale professor blogs, goes into greater detail about this connection. He compares housing built for poor workers by private ventures with that built by social scientists using government money. The government “projects” need no explanation, as we are all familiar with their decrepitude—but the privately built projects took into account community preferences so much better that the ones still standing are much in demand. Public architects, he says, show great interest in manipulating people into arrangements befitting their grand, social visions. Unfortunately, humans are not so malleable, which means arrangements poorly suited to humans produce unintended and often frightful outcomes. This is yet one more reason structures matter to society. In choosing economic or social policy, we must first understand what humans are, and how we work, so we can structure institutions that fit. This, of course, ties neatly into why private enterprise is often so much better suited to addressing problems than public enterprise. Something about individual responsibility and initiative works better than centrally imposed programs.