CRIME is conditioned before it is committed. There are two general stages before a crime is committed: the context and conditioning of the criminal, and the design of the places where the crime will take place.
In the first stage, lack of education and job opportunities due to poverty, culture of organized crime, and lack of enforcement and community involvement are the critical factors. In the second stage, criminals consider the environments where they will less likely be apprehended, as well as places that will most likely have no witnesses.
The first stage is complex, as it is influenced by many factors. But the second stage is where urban planning and architecture can directly affect and deter some factors of crime through the design of the streets and the neighborhood.
In the book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell said that context is essential to conditioning. “Criminologists Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge,” Gladwell wrote.
He went on to quote Wilson and Kelling: “Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions. If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passerby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place.”
Eyes on the street
We always knew which streets to avoid at night, and usually these are the areas that are poorly lit, and areas that are covered by a blanket of towering walls. In the provinces, the talahiban areas are automatically notorious for potential crime.Criminals know that there are fewer witnesses in these areas.
In areas that have high walls, the usual crimes on the street are stabbing, abduction and hold-up. People inside the houses do not see if someone needs help, and it reduces the possible chance of witnesses. On the other hand, when a crime happens behind the walls, such as those perpetrated by akyatbahay or salisi gangs, and forced entry, people on the street are less likely to become potential witnesses. One of the consequences of high walls is that people in the neighborhood are oblivious to the fact that a drug laboratory exists in the area.
Jane Jacobs coined the term “eyes on the street” in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. In order for the streets to be safe she said “there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.”
Problems of Philippine street design
Culturally, Philippine streets have adopted the high wall and high gate design. The main reason is the notion of high crime rates along the streets, encouraging seclusion as a method of protection. There are merits to these concerns, but as it spreads to the entire city, coupled with the challenges of urban sprawl, homes and buildings throughout the city become uninvolved and fragmented. The space in which the criminals operate expands. The first problem of enforcement and police protection is the fragmentation of streets.
It is difficult to change culture overnight. But small changes that are overlooked can go a long way. Local government units should be more active in religiously making sure that even the small things are done well, such making sure that all streets are well-lighted, most especially in elevated walkways and overpasses, underpasses, and known transportation terminals. Lighting is one of the most effective deterrents against crime.
LGUs should also be the exemplar and not the exempted. Government centers and institutions should tear down its walls and increase perimeter visibility. Even at night, these areas should be the safest places. Main thoroughfares should be required to tear down their walls as well to increase cleanliness, lighting and visibility. A good measure of safety is when you are not scared if your son or daughter walks along these streets while commuting home at night.
There are many residential areas that convert sidewalks into large trash areas that are exposed to the public. Some of these areas are visible in the most urbanized cities of Metro Manila. The visibility of exposed trash is one of the factors that create a condition of lack of discipline and is a symbol of poverty.
Crime-mapping and community involvement
One of the most crucial factors that can help prevent crime is community involvement. And this involvement can be best expressed in the form of crime mapping. Imagine an application like Waze, informing the citizens about crime areas. Through community-sharing and police information, citizens will know which streets to avoid and the police will know what areas to constantly monitor.
Criminals are afraid of well-lighted places, many potential witnesses, and strong community involvement and enforcement. Simple factors such as neighborhood interaction, citizen watch, and good lighting would go a long way in deterring crime. My hope is that local government will slowly adopt the principles of security by design that Jane Jacobs and others have been promoting since the 1970s.
With visionary leadership, strong political will, good design and governance, crime-plagued New York City, especially Brooklyn, has reversed its crime culture of the 1970s, where gun violence was prominent. I believe, with the same principles, the streets of Philippine cities will become safer.