Reuters

A new report examines social and physical factors behind August's violent protests

This summer, 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot by police while in custody in London.

Days later, a group of 100 family members and supporters peacefully protested the shooting in front of the local police station. A few hours later, violence broke out. Police cars and a post office were set on fire. By the early morning, this violence turned into rioting that spread to 12 areas in London.

Just two days later, there were riots in 66 areas throughout the country. It’s estimated that 15,000 people were involved, more than 4,000 of whom were arrested. Five people died. So did Duggan.

The riots and looting of this five-day period were broadcast all over the world, through traditional news and social media alike. Various characterizations at the time focused on the "gangs of youths" involved in the looting, which some blamed on increasing social divisions within England.

But these assertions don't fully explain why cities across the country erupted in flames. "5 Days in August" seeks to create a more detailed portrait of the causes and effects of those riots. This newly released interim report from an independent panel (set up by the government) offers a detailed look at the events of those days and the people and places involved.

The report [PDF] argues that there’s no singular cause or perpetrator of these events. Based on an analysis of 1,984 rioters brought before courts by mid-October, the report shows that the people involved in the rioting were likely to have criminal records, to be from poor and job-poor areas, to be under 24 and to be male. Nearly 90 percent of those arrested had previously being arrested, convicted or cautioned by officials. 56 percent had committed three or more offenses.

Though some early reports contended these were essentially race riots, the racial background of rioters was fairly evenly distributed, with 46 percent black, 42 percent white, 7 percent Asian, and 5 percent made up of other races.

And though the report notes that the riots were not necessarily youth driven, youth populations made up the vast majority of rioters. Nearly three-quarters of the protesters were under 24.

The poor were disproportionately involved in the rioting and looting. Of those brought before the courts, 70 percent were living in the top 30 percent most deprived postcodes in the country. Nationally, 40 percent of adult rioters were receiving government benefits, including 10 percent who were on Employment and Support Allowance or Incapacity Benefits. In West Midlands county, home of the city of Birmingham, 61 percent of adults brought in were unemployed.

71 percent of riots took place in areas ranking in the lowest 10 percent for social cohesion, suggesting that this and other community activity may have prevented some areas from falling into disarray.

One section of the report looks briefly at areas that experienced rioting and finds some generally shared characteristics, particularly in terms of the physical layout and urban design. Riots tended to take place in areas with a high concentration of "attractive" shops, multiple access points to the shopping precinct, and close proximity to transit. All of the London riots took place near train stations, for example. Interestingly, many of these elements are considered the cornerstones of good places.

Accessibility also turned out to be an issue in places that had no rioting. The city of Sheffield, for example, has poor east-west train links, which the report suggests limited potential rioters from descending on its city center.

In its list of recommended actions, the report calls on cities to pay more attention to design.

Issue: The layout of some town centres was felt to make them easier targets for looting. Recommendation: Local emergency plans should include a full threat assessment and review of town center layouts.

It’s unlikely that any city is going to drastically reshape their downtown areas after what were just a few days of arguably damaging and dangerous rioting. But as the country reels from the impact of these events, cities may begin to think more intentionally about how design might play a role in quelling these sorts of unwanted activities. And though design is undoubtedly important, the social factors that fed into the fire-like spread of these riots are likely the more crucial to consider.

Photo credit: Toby Melville / Reuters

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