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Damilola: could better design have saved his life?

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The Peckham housing blocks where 10-year-old Damilola Taylor lived and died are to be demolished next year. The buildings have been earmarked for demolition as part of a £160 million rebuilding programme on the North Peckham Estate masterplanned and designed by Pollard Thomas & Edwards Architects. The rebuilding programme is almost halfway through but the fact that Damilola lived in one of the original 1965 buildings designed by Camberwell Council sparked a debate this week over the role of the built environment in his murder.

Anne Byrne, former development manager at the Peckham Partnership, said she would have been 'shocked' if Damilola's murder had happened at one of the rebuilt housing blocks, while the architect of the nearby Peckham Library, Will Alsop, said the design of the 1960s development was a contributing factor.

'The environment there does contribute to the discontent and violence in so far as you'd be that much closer to suicidal thoughts, 'he said.

'The new buildings are a more traditional type of architecture with pitched roofs and are certainly a higher quality of building. The great achievement is that the landscape and circulation around the building feels much safer and is more embracing. 'Damilola was attacked on his way back from a computer science class at Alsop's Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library.

But Alsop said that the existing buildings could be improved without demolition. 'It would be interesting to see what you could do with the existing form, ' he said. 'I haven't completely lost faith in this building model, it is just a question of applying imagination as well as money. '

Byrne said that since the beginning of the rebuilding programme crime has fallen and Peckham has become a safer place to live. The murder of Damilola Taylor, she said, was just 'a horrible, horrible coincidence. '

She added that crime had been cut by a reduction in density in the area.

The 2,000 homes which are being demolished are being replaced by 1,800 new ones.

Pollard Thomas & Edwards associate Roger Holdsworth agreed that Peckham has already achieved significant improvements despite this latest atrocity. 'The community is improving and the physical regeneration is helping, 'he said. 'It's about giving people ownership of the street. There are certainly far fewer places for people to linger now. '

But last week home secretary Jack Straw tore into the estate's design as a contributing factor in the tragedy. 'Bad design, those 'pile 'em high and build 'em cheap' plans for underground car parks, high-level walkways and unlit alleys, can turn the screw and add to the struggle of daily life, ' he said. 'The best tribute we can pay [to Damilola] is to learn from the dreadful errors of the past and rebuild thriving communities in all our cities. '

London mayor Ken Livingstone said that 'physical regeneration alone'would not help stop crimes such as Damilola's murder and called for a higher-profile police presence across the capital.

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