I GREW up on a council estate in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Not a high-rise – that was more a Belfast thing – but a proper house. Three bedrooms (my sisters shared, I got my own), a living room, bathroom, kitchen and even a sitting room.

We had a front and back garden and a coal bunker. There was a street lamp right outside. In my later teens the glass on the street lamp was broken and birds would sometimes nest inside. Heating on tap, I suppose.

More than we had. We had a coal fire in the living room and lots of blankets upstairs. For years my dad petitioned the council to move the street light so he could build a drive for his car. Not that we always had a car when I was a kid.

Our street had a green with a “no ball games” sign where we played football. We were on the edge of town so there were wild spaces within running distance. (Who walks when they’re 10?) And there was a shop to buy sweets and comics where I was sent to buy my dad’s cigarettes.

It is easy to romanticise one’s childhood but I had a good one, I reckon. And listening to One to One on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning I realised that’s because I grew up on what could be defined as a “defensible space”.

What is that? According to Loretta Lees, urban geographer and professor at Boston University, it’s “a residential environment whose physical characteristics – for example, its building layout, its site plan – function to allow inhabitants themselves to be the key agents of their own security”.

In other words mums could look out their window, see their kids playing and feel secure in the knowledge that they were safe. Originally developed by Canadian architect/planner Oscar Newman in New York in the 1970s, the theory was brought to the UK by British geographer Alice Coleman. In the 1980s she argued that big council tower blocks were not defensible spaces “and that’s why they had criminality, social malaise, graffiti, dog poo, urine in the lifts, that kind of thing,” Lees told Suzy Wrack on One to One.

Wrack and Lees packed an awful lot into this 15-minute programme. The rise and fall of council housing, nostalgia de la boue (the smell of urine-stained lifts as a link to childhood), the idea of safe spaces, the importance of street lighting and why a predominance of male architects can lead to the engineering of unwelcome environments. (Wrack, a football writer, pointed out that many sports stadia haven’t enough toilets for women.)

Lees also argued that since moving to the United States she has become aware of how much bigger everything feels, while in the UK, room sizes in new-builds are shrinking.

There was material here for a whole series about the transformation of public space over the last 50 years. But what stuck with me was the notion of the council estate as a utopian idea. “Back in the early days of the building of council estates in London and actually across the UK, space standards were really important,” Lees pointed out. “It was all about letting light and air in.” Perhaps I had a golden childhood after all.

On Desert Island Discs on Sunday, comedian Robert Webb spoke of confronting the possibility of his mortality when he was told that a heart attack was imminent if he didn’t get treatment.

“It’s quite instructive actually,” he told Lauren Laverne, “because my thoughts more or less in this order went Abby [his wife], the children, the rest of the family, my friends. That was what I was thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about work or money or fame or concerns about status or where I fit in the great Lego cathedral of British comedy. It was about love basically.” Isn’t it always?


Listen Out For: Shock and War: Iraq 20 Years On, Radio 4, Monday to Friday, 1.45pm

Stripped across the week, BBC security correspondent Gordon Corea looks back at the origins of the war in Iraq two decades on.