Design for living transforms Crack City: Jason Bennetto describes how a crime-ridden estate is being revived by breaking down blocks of flats into more private 'family homes'

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The Independent Online
ANONYMOUS blocks of flats stare out from one side of the street. Plastic bags and weeds are all that thrive in the 'communal spaces', while graffiti covers the dark stairwells.

On the other side of the road, gnomes and hanging baskets of flowers adorn the front gardens of recently transformed homes.

These are the two sides of what used to be one of the most notorious housing estates in the country, nick-named 'Crack City'. Today there is a mood of optimism on the Mozart Estate in Kilburn, north-west London, thanks largely to the vision of an urban geographer and a crackdown on drug dealers.

Street robbery and vandalism are still fairly common but residents have started to act as a community and the fear of violence and intimidation has diminished.

The methods used to help transform parts of Mozart have been used on eight other crime-riddled estates throughout the country and are now seen by many urban reformers as a blueprint for inner city rejuvenation. During the next eight years the remainder of the estate will be rebuilt at a cost of pounds 26m. The police have praised the scheme, which they believe has helped significantly to reduce crime and the fear of crime.

Mozart estate was considered a model when it was erected 20 years ago. In contrast to the towers of the Fifties and Sixties it offered low-rise development, full of communal space with bursts of green among the red brick. Walkways, courtyards and secluded corners were supposed to provide privacy and a feeling of community for the 2,000 residents. Instead they made hide- outs for drug dealers and vandals.

Westminster City Council and the police felt radical action was needed as the crime rate soared and cost of repairs was running at double those of nearby estates. Professor Alice Coleman and her team at the DICE Project and Land Use Research Unit at King's College, University of London, believed they had the answer. Using theories based on research published in her book Utopia on Trial Professor Coleman argued that there is a direct link between crime and the design of estates. She believes people become dehumanised if placed in a large anonymous estate with open communal spaces and dingy corridors.

Instead she has broken the blocks of flats into smaller units, giving residents their own gardens and entrances, while restricting access routes and the number of people living together. This approach provides both privacy and access to the community.

The first phase of the scheme was started in 1986 when the high-rise walkways were demolished. Lessons learnt from the work have been used in similar projects in Preston, Manchester, Tower Hamlets and Bow in east London, Nottingham, Birmingham and Dudley. The plans for the third, and by far the largest phase of the Mozart improvement programme, which is funded by the Department of the Environment, Westminster council, and the private sector, are being finalised.

Changes include providing gardens for as many homes as possible rather than large open communal spaces that attract vandals. The individual gardens encourage a sense of community and pride while providing better security.

Blocks of flats have been split up and maisonettes built to reduce the number of homes on top of each other. Some taller buildings are expected to be demolished in the next few years and replaced with four-bedroom houses.

Rubbish chutes have been replaced with dustbins and new homes have been built on communal areas, including car parks. Professor Coleman said: 'The main problem is the forced sharing of buildings and grounds by too many people - we are trying to get back to single family houses.'

The serious drugs problem on the estate was largely wiped out after a police operation a year ago netted eight dealers. Anne McFadden, 58, who moved on the estate when it was first built but now lives in one of the transformed flats, believes the changes have had a dramatic effect on her life. She said: 'It was awful before, there was drug dealing and stabbings all the time. We feel a lot safer now, you don't get the noise at night or feel so threatened.'

(Photograph omitted)