Living with Buildings – On Housing and Health

It was interesting to listen to the latest episode of Thinking Allowed, in which Laurie Taylor interviewed Iain Sinclair about his recently published book on the relationship between housing and health (Living with Buildings: And Walking with Ghosts – On Health and Architecture). As I wrote in Mapping Society, there is a long history of buildings and urban environments being blamed for the poor health of their inhabitants.  See for example the ‘Lung-Block’, a single block in New York that was found in 1906 to be riddled with cases of tuberculosis:

copy image MoL (1)

“Infection comes not only from the room, but as well from halls and stairways. An old Italian, a hopeless victim, sits out on the steps in front all day long in the sun, while the children play around him, and all through the evening, with men and women beside him. His cough never stops. The halls behind and above are grimy, offensive, lying heavy with cobwebs, and these cobwebs are always black. The stairways in the rear house are low and narrow, uneven, and thick …”[1]

copy image MoL (2)

The programme had a reading from just three years earlier, on the state of poverty in London, with Jack London writing of the disease prevailing amongst the destitute men crowding the surroundings of Christchurch Spitalfields. In fact, there is an even more apposite section in the same book, People of the Abyss, on the situation in Frying Pan Alley[2]:

“There were seven rooms in this abomination called a house.  In six of the rooms, twenty-odd people, of both sexes and all ages, cooked, ate, slept, and worked … In the adjoining room lived a woman and six children.  In another vile hole lived a widow, with an only son of sixteen who was dying of consumption.  The woman hawked sweetmeats on the street, I was told, and more often failed than not to supply her son with the three quarts of milk he daily required … And, what of the coughing and the sweetmeats, I found another menace added to the hostile environment of the children of the slum … My sweated friend, when work was to be had, toiled with four other men in his eight-by-seven room.  In the winter a lamp burned nearly all the day and added its fumes to the over-loaded air, which was breathed, and breathed, and breathed again.”[3]

copy image MoL (3)

Well into the twentieth century – and indeed in the twenty-first century, as the programme showed, buildings and cities continued to be seen as a source for physical malaise. Descriptions of the diseased body of the city have come to represent both a symbolic and a literal state of living in poverty, yet the precise causal association between urban living and urban disease remains elusive.

[1] Huber, J.B., Consumption, its relation to man and his civilization, its prevention and cure. c. 1906, Philadelphia: Lippincott. See also my earlier post on ‘The Lung Block’, here:

[2] See also the post on the Spitalfields Life blog:

[3] London, J., The People of the Abyss (2014 edition with original photographic plates; Introduction by Iain Sinclair). 1903 London: Tangerine Press. Quote from Gutenberg edition:

Thinking Allowed: Maps and Postcodes

I had the pleasure of speaking to Professor Laurie Taylor last week, in an episode of his programme Thinking Allowed, which has been running for many years on BBC Radio 4. I was invited to discuss my most recent book, Mapping Society: The spatial dimensions of social cartography, published with UCL Press last month.[1]

Click here to listen to the programme:

Mapping Society does several things: it is a chronology of the evolution of social cartography, from focus on disease in the early parts of the 19th century, to a shift to poverty towards the end of the century and then to crime in the opening decades of the 20th century. It also takes each cartographic type and shows how it is used in a variety of disciplines today, from planning, urban design through to public health – where arguably it started in fact. It also traces the evolution in types of social survey but most importantly, emphasises the spatial dimensions of urban society. In short, it focuses on the complexities of social maps, by using space syntax, a theory and method for analysing urban spatial systems as way into studying the spatial structure of social patterns.

I was a guest of Thinking Allowed alongside Professor Roger Burrows from Newcastle University, whose recent book[2] (co-authored with the inventor of the Mosaic classification system, Richard Webber) employs geodemographic profiles to categorise people on the basis of their geographical location, namely, according to the characteristics of their immediate neighbours (rather than based on personal characteristics, such as age). Now while I agree with the authors about the origins of social enquiry stemming from Charles Booth, I have a different interpretation of Booth’s aggregation of resident populations as involving a ‘neighbourhood effect’.

Booth classified streets rather than localities, and this was I believe an approach that very much recognised the importance of the spatial configuration of a person’s home address in shaping their opportunities. Indeed I maintain that the ‘neighbourhood effect’ is anchored in the opportunities that the streets where you live give you to mix both with people like yourself and those unlike yourself. As I’ve written elsewhere in response to Robert J Sampson’s brilliant study of disadvantage in Chicago,[3] the ‘why’ or ‘how’ neighbourhood effects emerge might help us draw broader lessons about the interrelationship between street configuration and social outcomes. For example, is segmentation of a deprived neighbourhood from places of work or lack of accessibility to education opportunities a factor in the entrenched persistence of its deprivation?

Booth’s use of the street – or frequently the street segment – as the unit of analysis was a fundamental component in shaping thinking at the time regarding how best to intervene in an apparently problem area, as it emphasised the tractability and specificity of the problem. As O’ Day and Englander have written, Booth’s premise was that that empirically derived evidence of distress was necessary before policy decisions could be taken by government.[4] In a sense, the moral geography that his classifications suggest moved his contemporaries’ thinking away from simply labelling an area as disordered, and therefore subject to deviant behaviour, towards refocusing efforts on the buildings and streets that were part of the problem. Unfortunately, this is something that we frequently forget nowadays when we allow ecological fallacies to write off areas, such as approaches that label areas as being prone to crime, without getting to grips with the underlying causes of crime, nor indeed the nature of that crime.

The images below are from a book chapter that I wrote for a Museum of London Docklands exhibition on the East End at the time of Jack the Ripper, that attempted to dispel the industry around his murders by contextualising the setting with academic scholarship (see chapter here: Mapping the East End ‘Labyrinth’.)

[1] Vaughan L. (2018) Mapping society: the spatial dimensions of social cartography, London: UCL Press.

[2] Webber R and Burrows R. (2018) The Predictive Postcode: The Geodemographic Classification of British Society: SAGE Publications.

[3] Sampson R. (2012) Great American City: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] O’Day R and Englander D. (1993) Mr. Charles Booth’s Inquiry: life and labour of the people in London reconsidered, London: Hambledon Press.

BBC programme on maps

Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession: episode 2 – Spirit of the Age

In a rather neat coincidence, a TV programme from 2010 that features some of the key maps that I discuss in Mapping Society, such as John Snow’s map of cholera in Soho, Charles Booth’s maps of poverty, and the 1900 rare map of Jewish East London is showing on the BBC iplayer for the next few days. It features Professor Danny Dorling, Ed Parsons from Google, and a rather more fresh-faced version of yours truly (amongst others).

In a series about the extraordinary stories behind maps, Professor Jerry Brotton shows how maps can reveal the fears, obsessions and prejudices of their age.

Religious passion inspires beautiful medieval maps of the world, showing the way to heaven, the pilgrims’ route to Jerusalem and monstrous children who eat their parents. But by the Victorian era society is obsessed with race, poverty and disease. Royal cartographer James Wyld’s world map awards each country a mark from one to five, depending on how ‘civilised’ he deems each nation to be. And a map made to help Jewish immigrants in the East End inadvertently fuels anti-semitism.

‘Map wars’ break out in the 1970s when left-wing journalist Arno Peters claims that the world map shown in most atlases was a lie that short-changed the developing world. In Zurich, Brotton talks to Google Earth about the cutting edge of cartography and at Worldmapper he sees how social problems such as infant mortality and HIV are strikingly portrayed on computer-generated maps that bend the world out of shape and reflect the spirit of our age.

Available to watch on BBC iplayer for 6 more days: 

And my tip of the day: most UK universities provide access for free to BoB: Learning on Demand, which allows staff and students at subscribing institutions to record programmes from over 65 free-to-air channels, and search the archive of over 2 million broadcasts on TV and radio.