Chapter One

Evolution of the concept: Pruitt-Igoe and Carr Square Village

Fig. I-1: Overall view of Pruitt-Igoe, a 2,740 unit public housing project constructed in St. Louis in the 1960s.

The “Defensible Space” concept evolved some 30 years ago when, as a teacher at Washington University in St. Louis, I was able to witness the newly constructed 2,740 unit public housing high-rise development, Pruitt-Igoe, go to pot. The project was designed by one of the country’s most eminent architects and was hailed as the new enlightenment. It followed the planning principles of Le Corbusier and the International Congress of Modern Architects (CIAM). Even though the density was not very high (50 units to the acre) residents were raised into the air in 11 story buildings. The idea was to keep the grounds and the first floor free for community activity. “A river of trees” was to flow under the buildings. Each building was given communal corridors every third floor to house a laundry, a communal room, and a garbage room which also contained a garbage chute.

Fig. I-2: The architect’s vision of how the 3rd floor communal corridor in Pruitt Igoe would be used.

Occupied by single-parent, welfare families, the design proved a disaster. Because all the grounds were common and disassociated from the units, no one could identify with them. They proved unsafe. The river of trees soon became a sewer of glass and garbage. The mailboxes on the ground floor were vandalized. The corridors, lobbies, elevators and stairs were dangerous places to walk through. They became covered in graffiti, and littered with garbage and human waste.

Fig, I-3: The 3rd floor communal corridor as it actually turned out, and the vandalism that ensued.

The elevators, laundry and community rooms were vandalized and garbage was stacked high around the choked garbage chutes. Women had to get together in groups to take their children to school and go shopping. The project never achieved more than 60% occupancy. It was torn down some ten years after its construction, and became a precursor of what was to happen everywhere in the country.

Fig. I-4: Vandalism to the large number of vacant apartments in Pruitt-Igoe as seen from the outside.

Fig, I-5: Pruitt-Igoe in the process of being torn down, at a loss of $300 million.

Across the street from Pruitt-Igoe was an older, smaller, row-house complex occupied by an identical population, Carr Square Village. It had remained fully occupied and trouble-free throughout the construction, occupancy, and decline of Pruitt-Igoe. With the social variables constant in the two developments, what, I asked, was the significance of the physical differences in enabling one to survive while the other fell apart?

Fig, I-6: Carr Square Village, a row-house development located across the street from Pruitt-Igoe.

Walking through Pruitt-Igoe in its heyday of pervasive crime and vandalism, one could only ask: What kind of people live here? Except that within the interior public areas of the development there were occasional pockets that were clean, safe and well-tended. Where only two families shared a landing, it was clean and well-maintained. If one could get oneself invited into an apartment, one found it neat and well maintained—modestly furnished perhaps, but with great pride. Why such a difference between the interior of the apartment and the public spaces outside it? One could only conclude that residents maintained and controlled those areas which were clearly defined as their own. Landings shared by only two families were well maintained, whereas corridors shared by 20 families, and lobbies, elevators, and stairs shared by 150 families were a disaster—they evoked no feelings of identity or control. Such anonymous public spaces made it impossible for even neighboring residents to develop an accord on what was acceptable behavior in these areas, impossible to feel or exert proprietary feelings, impossible to tell resident from intruder.

Most of us have seen high-rise apartments occupied by middle-income people that function very well. Why then don’t they work for low-income families? Because middle-income apartment buildings have funds available for doormen, porters, elevator operators, and resident superintendents to watch over and maintain the common public areas. But in high-rise public housing, there are barely enough funds for 9 to 5 non-resident maintenance men, let alone for security personnel, elevator operators, or porters. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is within these interior and exterior common public areas that most of the crime in public housing takes place.

Fig. I-7: Graph showing the increase in crime with building height, and that crime is mostly located within public areas.

Given that funds for doormen, porters, and resident superintendents do not exist for public housing, the question emerged: Is it possible to design public housing without any interior public areas, and to have all the grounds assigned to individual families?