On 27 October 2005, two French youths of Tunisian and Malian descent died of electrocution in a local power station in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Police had been patrolling their neighborhood, responding to a reported break-in, and scared that they might be subject to an arbitrary interrogation, the youngsters decided to hide in the nearest available building. Riots immediately broke out in the high-rise suburbs of Paris and in hundreds of neighborhoods across the country. The unrest persisted well into November. The media attributed the widespread violence directly to the living conditions in the drab concrete housing blocks, which often formed the backdrop in images of burning cars and people throwing Molotov cocktails.
Accepted wisdom has it that the continuing social unrest in the banlieues, as these suburbs are called, is a direct result of their built form: repetitive slabs and blocks of modern housing, often in large isolated estates. But this logic—of a direct and causal relationship between the built environment and human behavior—is not at all new. In fact, environmental determinism accompanied the very making of the French suburbs in the postwar period and the development of modern urbanism more generally. Why is it that we assign so much power to buildings? […]