Crime in Public Places & What to Do About It?

Every terrible act of crime perpetrated in a public place raises many complex questions none of which have simple answers. The recent murder of a Melbourne woman walking through a public park is no exception. Questions are being asked on all fronts right now and surely it is the responsibility of us all to try and bring about change.

One group of people who are well positioned to make a contribution are those involved in the design of public places. It makes sense right? Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a field that offers some good insights for making our public places safer from the outset. We must ensure that our policy makers are first of all aware of this field of knowledge and are also actively seeking out designs that put public safety at the forefront of the design and decision making processes.

Here’s a quick overview of a few ways that Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design teaches us that we can create safer public places for everyone:

1. Natural Surveillance

Natural lines of sight between legitimate users of public places increases the perceived risk of apprehension for those who are likely to engage in criminal behaviour. That is, good urban design can discourage crime before it happens. Mixing uses (e.g recreational and residential) providing clear lines of sight across open space, encouraging activity through different transport modes and offering comprehensive lighting are all ways we can promote surveillance of an area.

2. Controlling Access Points
By controlling how people come in, go out and access different places you are making it harder for them to find ways to secretly commit crimes or access sensitive areas such as windows and doors. Thorny plants for example that prevent climbing can be used to create natural screens and used to discourage people from hiding in gardens. Fencing perimeters of parks means that the use of large public spaces can be controlled and limited to times of the day that statistics show us that crime is less likely to occur. Fencing also allows us to funnel people into areas of higher use (e.g well lit footpaths) which in turn promotes surveillance as mentioned and makes it harder for people to quite literally lurk in the shadows in private.

3. Territoriality
This idea revolves around the notion that people are likely to act to protect their territory if unwanted intruders should breach their property boundaries. By making the lines between private, semi-private and public space clear we are establishing a framework for people to form a sense of ownership over a place that in turn means they identify intruders, challenge people’s motives and where needed call the police.

CPTED - Guidelines For Queensland

In 2007 the Queensland government released a set of CPTED guidelines which are based on the above principles and form an excellent resource for designers and for policy makers alike, you can download them here. A few principles from that publication are quoted below:

>Neighbourhoods must be designed and developed to promote surveillance of the public realm and community ownership of the neighbourhood’s security.

>Neighbourhoods must be designed to facilitate walking, cycling and the use of public transport.

>Neighbourhoods must be designed developed and managed in ways that promote their social, economic and environmental sustainability

>The built environment must be designed and managed to reduce or limit risk from assault by providing well-lit, active and overlooked places and pedestrian and cyclist systems and routes to important places.

>The design and management of places must avoid creating or maintaining hidden spaces close to pedestrian/cyclist travel routes in the public realm

Resources on CPTED are widely available and it is being actively taught in our university programs. Virtually all designers and planners with any knowledge of urban and built environments are familiar with this body of knowledge but few of them are given a mandate to actively seek it out as a priority. Not to suggest it never happens, it does, but in a world of competing considerations timelines and budgets CPTED is too often just another idea that “would be good to have in the mix.” Until this attitude changes and public safety through design is given the weight it deserves we are missing real opportunities to help make public places safer for everyone.

View all articles