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RIP Professor Alice Coleman 1923-2023

Alice Coleman, geographer whose study of failed council estates impressed Mrs Thatcher – obituary

Alice Coleman, who has died aged 99, was a professor of geography at King’s College London whose book Utopia on Trial (1985), in which she launched a scathing attack on post-war high-rise housing estates, so impressed the prime minister Margaret Thatcher that she was given a five-year, £50 million contract to put her ideas into practice.

Her book, inspired by the American architect Oscar Newman’s seminal study Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design (1972), was based on a “design disadvantagement survey” in which she and a team of researchers surveyed blocks of flats, containing more than 100,000 dwellings in total, with the objective of mapping “lapses in civilised behaviour” (litter, graffiti, vandalism, pollution by excrement, and family breakdown leading to children being placed in care) against design features (number of floors per block, dwellings per block, dwellings per entrance, and so on).

She detected correlations between levels of crime and antisocial behaviour and the design of estates and, in her book, advanced the provocative thesis that badly-designed social housing schemes “breed antisocial people”. Change the design, she argued, and crime and antisocial behaviour would dramatically drop.

Le Corbusier’s vision of a “Radiant City” of tower blocks surrounded by parkland was, she wrote, the “great Utopian blunder”. Taken forward in Britain by an unholy alliance of planners and civil servants, it had been “conceived in compassion” but was “essentially a device for treating people like children, first by denying them the right to choose their own kind of housing, and then by choosing for them disastrous designs that create a needless sense of social failure”.

I saw Professor Coleman speak at a Libertarian Alliance event once. My memories of the time and place are foggy – late 1980s or early 1990s and somewhere near Holborn, I think – but I remember her and what she said very well. Not because she was a good speaker. On the contrary, she was difficult to hear and seemed nervous. But somehow that made her message all the more powerful. She was not there for fun; she was there to say things that urgently needed to be said. I still have the copy of Utopia on Trial that I bought that day.

The Telegraph obituary reports that not long after Margaret Thatcher’s downfall, Professor Coleman quit as an adviser to the government. Recalling the circumstances of her departure later, she said that civil servants “continually put obstacles in her path”, and that the new Environment Secretary, Michael Heseltine, did not wish to see any project with Margaret Thatcher’s name on it succeed. Given what happened after Brexit, I do not find either assertion hard to believe.

Nonetheless, I think the Telegraph obituary underestimates her influence and overestimates how much it mattered that she did not leave garlanded with flowers. As a quote attributed to both Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan goes, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Some people contribute most to a cause by being the person who shifts the Overton Window. Alice Coleman moved the mainstream. Her achievement was to make her findings about the inhumanity of utopian architecture into background knowledge.

And how cool was this:

In 1960 Alice Coleman decided to update the national land-utilisation survey first conducted by Sir Dudley Stamp before the war, and recruited a team of some 3,000 volunteers to gather the information. With no funding available, she spent some £65,000 of her own money on the exercise. Although, due to lack of resources, less than 15 per cent of the country was covered with a published map, she reported some of the key results of her research.

8 comments to RIP Professor Alice Coleman 1923-2023

  • Paul Marks.

    Professor Alice Coleman was indeed at King’s College London – a college founded, back at the end of the 1820s, to counter the “reform”, ever bigger government and planned society, ideas of Jeremy Bentham (and his associates – for example Edwin Chadwick) pushed at the new University College of London. I suspect that Alice Coleman was the last person at King’s College London who knew that.

    “Planning society” from above, by the government (13 Departments of State was Bentham’s idea) and the “partner” Corporations, does not do good – it does terrible harm. In her research into the “planned communities in the sky” (the high rise flats) Professor Coleman showed that – and it is often true of low rise government (“public”) housing as well – some of the low rise government housing estates in a town near me (the town of Corby – about eight miles away from Kettering) won awards – always beware of any development (housing or commercial) that wins awards.

    Oddly enough the “planners” have come round to this point of view – and now do not want people to live a long way from where the work and where they shop (and so on) they want people to live “15 minutes” (walking or driving?) away from such things – but state-and-corporate planning being near will not work and more than state-and-corporate planning to be far away will work. Let people plan for themselves – let ordinary people sort these things out for themselves.

    The “philosophical radicals”, the followers of Jeremy Bentham (who founded University College London) in the very early 19th century (including J.S. Mill) accepted the Labour Theory of Value of (in his old age) Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and they also accepted David Ricardo’s theory on LAND (which later led to the ideas of Henry George – before being refuted by Frank Fetter). Both these theories, the Labour Theory of Value (the basis of Marxism) and Ricardo’s Land Theory (the basis of Henry Georgism – and still pushed by the World Economic Forum and Agenda 2030 “land use planning” U.N. Sustainable Development Goals) are WRONG – just flat WRONG, and the policies inspired by these theories are wrong, flat wrong, as well.

    By the way – I suspect the Libertarian Alliance conference may have been in the National Liberal Club – they normally were.

    Freedom Association events were at the new Cumberland Club.

  • Paul Marks.

    Yes – with the benefit of hindsight, the fall of (the coup against) Margaret Thatcher in 1990 was the end of free market influence in British government. Establishment collectivist forces closed ranks after that – and soon had us signed up for “legally nonbinding” Agenda 21 (now Agenda 2030 – U.N. Sustainable Development goals) and all the rest of it. And Prime Minister John Major was soon boasting that “we have spent more money than Labour promised to spend” – as if this was achievement.

    Professor Coleman was right to resign soon after the 1990 coup – there is no point in “advising” officials and ministers who hate liberty and want society (ordinary people) to be “planned” by government and partner corporations. We recently watched what happened to Prime Minister Liz Truss – a massive smear campaign and an “economic crises” cooked up by the Bank of England and allied Corporations.

    The Collectivist “planners” will lead the Western World to a real (rather than fake) economic crises – that is inevitable now.

  • Paul Marks.

    In case people do not know…

    J.S. Mill’s support for worker cooperatives (rather than individual and family owned manufacturing enterprises) came from his belief in David Ricardo’s Labour Theory of Value (which John Stuart Mill had been taught by his father James Mill) – the Labour Theory of Value is just wrong, logically wrong.

    J.S. Mill’s polite hostility to large scale private land ownership (indeed the hostility to large scale private land ownership among the Philosophical Radicals of the “Westminster Review” and so on) came from his belief in David Ricard’s economic theory on land – a theory which spread in the radical wing of the Liberal Party (indeed Charles Wicksteed, who created Wicksteed Park a few hundred yards from where I am sitting, was a land nationalisation man) – again this theory is just wrong, flat wrong, as Frank Fetter showed.

    As for Mr Mill’s claims that “everyone agrees” that local government (rather than voluntary cooperation) should do XYZ – this came from the reports of Sir Edwin Chadwick (a follower of Jeremy Bentham).

    The reports of Sir Edwin Chadwick are systematically biased (basically he came up with his conclusions before he did his “research”) in support of bigger and more interventionist government – but, sadly, these reports were very influential.

    In 1875 the “Conservative” Prime Minister Disraeli had an Act of Parliament passed that mandated about 40 functions for local government that councils must do – regardless of whether local taxpayers wanted to pay for them or not.

    There have been many Acts of Parliament since 1875 – but the basic principle that local government must spend to do endless things, regardless of whether local taxpayers wanted the council to do these things, was established then.

    In the United States this is called “unfunded mandates” – where local and State governments are told they must do XYZ, and are just left to find the money.

  • Phil B

    Terry Pratchett had it right in his novel Night Watch.

    People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people. As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.

    The politicians and the Powers That Be need to learn that and change their attitude.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brian Micklethwait introduced me to her writings.

    I’m grateful for the excellent people I’ve known, including those who are not with us any more.

  • Martin

    I was just 5 when Mrs Thatcher stood down so can’t claim to have any personal memories of her time in office. Nonetheless I did think I was pretty well read on this era but have to admit I’d never heard of Alice Coleman. If I have ever come across the name it certainly never stuck. It does show the value of reading through newspaper obituaries. Sometimes you do come across someone who you’d never heard of who actually led a very interesting life.

  • pete

    Where did she get £65,000 of her own money in the 1960s? That was an enormous sum at the time. Her obituary gives no clue as she doesn’t seem to have had high paying jobs.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    pete, I assume she was born rich. I wonder if she was still rich after doing that. She may not have cared; she obviously thought it was a worthwhile project and I did not get the impression of a woman with expensive tastes. There is a lot to be said for not subcontracting your philanthropy.