The built environment can be designed and modified to reduce vulnerability in many ways: vulnerability from the effects of climate change, vulnerability from rapid urban growth, but most important of all, vulnerability from crime. In my 42 years of experience as an architect and 40 years as an urban planner in 38 countries and observing 63 cities, I have seen just how environmental and urban design guidelines have evolved to accommodate the changing dynamics and demography of cities, and their direct impact on city land uses and zoning ordinances in preventing criminality in many cities around the world.
Barbara Nadel’s book, Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design surmises that traditionally, crime prevention emphasized opportunity reduction through property. Bars on windows and doors, alarm systems, cameras, gates, and other so-called “target hardening” techniques were used to protect people and property. These measures are essential for residents and businesses, and some facilities like banks. However, hardening of potential crime targets can be expensive and disruptive.
Thus, it became the responsibility of each citizen to know about basic building security, disaster planning, and emergency response, and the responsibility of the local/national government officials, architects, planners, engineers, and designers to balance security and good design with building understanding and cooperation among diverse nations and societies to create a well-designed, safe, humane environment for people to live, work, play, and study.
Two notable personalities in architecture and urban planning played central roles in discussing the importance of environmental planning and design in creating safer urban environments. One of them is architect and urban planner Oscar Newman, who wrote the book Defensible Space, Crime Prevention Through Urban Design in 1972, and the other is author Jane Jacobs, whose book, The Death and Life of American Cities, made residents and planners realize that there is a way to shape a city neighborhood and make it safer for its residents.
Eyes on the street
More a writer than an urban planner, Jane Jacobs wrote her observations and experiences as a resident of New York City’s Greenwich Village. Jacobs recounted how some areas of her village were productive and safe, while other areas only a few blocks away were nearly abandoned. The more productive neighborhoods included a mix of land uses generating round-the-clock activity; consistent block, site, and building designs; and opportunities for people to watch out for one another. These observations forever changed urban design and planning, influenced further research on crime and offenders, and led to the concept of “eyes on the street,” where streets are deemed safer when more people are on them.
According to Jacobs, there are three main qualities of successful city neighborhoods:
First, there must be a clear demarcation between what public space is and what is private space.
Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street must be oriented to the street.
And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously to add the number of effective eyes on the street. However, Jacobs emphasized that “the safety of the street works best where people are using and most enjoying the streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing.”
Criminals are not scared of walls. They are more afraid of windows, because behind windows are potential witnesses.
Effective city neighborhoods, further writes Jacobs, are largely dependent on physical planning. It should foster lively and interesting streets, make the street fabric as continuous as possible through a district, use parks and squares and public buildings as part of the fabric, and emphasize the functional identity of areas large enough to work as districts.
Crime prevention through environmental design
Oscar Newman helped establish the foundation principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), which criminologist Dr. Ray Jeffrey of Florida State University coined in the seventies. This planning concept aims to improve safety by designing physical environments to influence human behavior in a positive way. It identifies three primary principles: access control, natural surveillance and territorial reinforcement as considerations to be used during the design process for the purpose of creating a safer built environment.
CPTED encourages communities to be proactive in fighting crime. Collective environmental design decisions by planners, architects, designers, and law enforcement officials, along with residents and businesses, can affect a community by influencing human behavior and public perception of community safety. By evaluating urban design elements contributing to crime, decision makers can assess where problems might occur and implement changes before they become permanent in a building or neighborhood.
These influential principles/concepts remain the core foundation of city planning and environmental design, especially for those cities working towards a more livable, sustainable, and crime-free environment. But it’s quite clear that to attain such results, law enforcement, government agencies, local residents, planners, design professionals, and business people need to work closely together to identify crime and quality of life issues before they become serious issues.
(This is the last of a three-part series on “Building security through architecture and urban planning.” The first two parts appeared on May 7 and 14, 2014.)