Creating safe neighborhoods through form

Getting the form built right is the basis of five positive principles that create safe neighborhoods.

One of the most common concerns raised by people migrating back to urban areas is crime and safety. Urban design can assist in crime prevention in neighborhoods through the application of five positive principles that increase personal safety. Safety is a result of a complex mix of characteristics that cannot be accomplished by target hardening alone. Crime prevention is accomplished by context sensitive design that focuses on the built environment and criminal behavior.

Use based zoning can contribute to an atmosphere suitable for crime by creating periods of the day when a space is unoccupied or by creating large areas that may be unoccupied at all. A precursor to crime prevention through design would be a mix of uses and activities as well as pedestrian connectivity.

The five principles to apply in neighborhoods are territoriality, access control, natural surveillance, activity support and image. Territoriality is the concept of creating and fostering places that are adopted by the users of the place. This makes it less likely that people will use that location for criminal activity. Signage, landscaping and lighting are all means of defining place. When a place is well-defined, people tend to take ownership and care about a place and know when visitors or strangers are using the place. Access control refers to managing who goes in and out of a place, building or neighborhood. It focuses on formal and informal points of entry to buildings, parking areas and civic spaces.

Natural surveillance is the principle of putting eyes on the street. Public spaces are safer if they are visible to residents and observers of these spaces. Porches and windows are key design elements that allow for this surveillance to take place. Proximity of the surveillance is also important. Our ability to recognize features declines after about 75 feet. Activity support is based on generating or facilitating activities in public spaces so the area is occupied by users of the space and nearby residents. These activities can be planned or random events. Activities that attract people that then deter crime by their presence. A blend of compatible activities can make an area safer by bringing in different types of users. Image refers to the appearance of the public space and how it creates a sense of place or territoriality for users of the space. A place that is not maintained or run down appears to be not cared for and may indicate that users of that place have no sense of ownership and may tolerate illegal activity.

Regular clean-ups, mowing, weeding and removal of graffiti vandalism are basic ways to improve image. Public art and maintained gardens are more formal ways to improve image. Image improvement requires effective management strategies that hold property owners accountable and reinforce a sense of ownership.

Each of these principles applies differently to differing context zones, both in scale and manner. Apartment buildings and courtyard buildings will need to emphasize “ownership” of the semi public spaces. Small parks in residential areas would probably have a greater emphasis on natural surveillance. It is important to keep in mind that these efforts need to be city wide as to not displace crime from one area to another, but to suppress it throughout the community. For more information on this subject of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) and information about all fourteen principles see Safe Growth and CPTED in Saskatoon.

For more information on how a community can use urban design to make safer neighborhoods and assistance in implementing it, contact Michigan State University Extension or contact a Land Use Educator for more information on these issues facing communities. 

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