A rapidly urbanizing world requires new solutions for managing every issue which requires attention. With demographics changing, it is time to re-evaluate urban policy and to identify new ways to make cities smarter, safer, happier, and healthier. A policy long overdue for a fresh look is how best to decrease urban crime. Seen as a major barrier to neighborhood revitalization, crime often tops the list of reasons why suburbanites and rural dwellers dislike cities. While numerous factors contribute to crime, improved urban design is often overlooked as a potential way to help deter crime. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is an innovative approach that cities should consider to remain competitive in a global economy and to attract top talent.

In essence, CPTED is simply changing aspects of an environment so that crime is less likely to occur. Part of the reason this makes sense is because, in some way or another, many of us are already doing it on a small scale. Every time you turn a porch light on after nightfall or install a “beware of dog” sign on your gate, you are applying CPTED principles to your own domain. By changing the rules of engagement, you can influence the kind of engagement that is likely to occur. Someone is less likely to break into your home if it is well lit or they fear that a guardian (in this case, the guard dog) will stand in their way. Through sound public policy, we can apply these types of principles to larger areas.

A new approach

The need for new approaches to crime prevention comes from the realization that the old “rule of law” way of doing things simply does not work and is not adaptive to changing conditions. For example, consider that a car on an urban block has been broken into. The police search for the suspect, and potentially apprehend them, allowing the justice system to continue to work. Then another car on the same block suffers a similar fate a few days later. Another in a week. The officers do their jobs, but their job is only a part of the overall solution. The handicap in this cat-and-mouse approach is that it is solely a police action – the entire realm of crime prevention is focused on local law enforcement. This takes away the power to consider why the crime was committed in the first place and how to alleviate the underlying conditions that encouraged it. By working alone, the police make their jobs harder.

This chart from Paul van Soomeren’s “Tackling crime and fear of crime through urban planning and architectural design” illustrates the difference between a standalone approach and an integrated approach designed to reduce crime by modifying the environment.

Chart showing the differences between a standalone and integrated approach to crime prevention.

Chart showing the differences between a standalone and integrated approach to crime prevention.

Soomeren notes the three basic principles for creating urban safety strategies are:

  • Integrated approach
  • Quality management
  • Early intervention and planning

This ensures that all players who have a hand in public safety – not just the police offers – are brought to the table to improve policy and ultimately make places safer. It allows you to analyze, plan, implement and then adjust as needed while not altering the law itself, which can be a slow reaction to a problem even for a city council ordinance. While lawmakers study and debate, people are unable to take action to improve their lives without an institutional framework designed to react rapidly to constantly changing needs.

The argument for CPTED does not imply that all crime is created solely out of one’s environment. On the contrary, at the heart of these policies is the recognition that people are making a conscious choice at some point to commit a crime. The responsibility of those actions rests entirely with the person who committed the offense. An offender can not simply make the argument that “the environment made it easy to commit crime, so that’s why I’m not guilty”. CPTED does not grant clemency for criminals or claim the crime was the fault of society. Instead, it acknowledges that many people will first evaluate the scenery around them when determining if they are likely to commit a crime and not get caught. The goal of CPTED is to reduce the opportunities available for potential criminals to create victims.

Crime perception and reality

Taking measures to prevent crime at the level of urban design can help create an effect where practices that lead to less crime become commonplace. There is often a disconnect between how safe people think their area is and how safe it actually is. You can find an example of this from time to time on the evening news, with someone being interviewed in reaction to a crime being committed in their seemingly safe, suburban community. The interview is likely to contain some sort of variant of the phrases “I didn’t think things like this could happen here” or “this used to be such a nice community”. While suburban and rural dwellers appear to feel that their communities are safer than they actually are, urban dwellers can likely feel the opposite.

In a study titled “The Relationship between Crime Prevention through Environmental Design and Fear of Crime“, SRM Sakip applied four principles of CPTED in observing what the perceptions of crime were when compared to the realities.

  • Territory – The implied sense of ownership of the legitimate use of a place.
  • Surveillance – The physical design of the environment to allow for the natural surveillance by guardians.
  • Maintenance – To promote a positive image and show there is a vested interest in maintaining the area, allowing it to operate effectively and sending a signal to potential criminals that a home is well cared for and off-limits to vandals.
  • Access control – Creates a heightened sense of risk for potential criminals and reduces access to potential crime targets.

Sakip notes that little study has been on the fear of crime as it relates to CPTED. He credits “a perception that fear of crime is related to emotional reactions, feeling of fear and distrust towards anything that may cause injury brought about by assault” as the result of the physical environment, the social environment, and indirect victimization.

By examining two different types of communities, both gated and non-gated, there was a determination made:

 The findings of this study proved that there is a relationship between CPTED practices and the perception and fear of crime; with high CPTED practices resulting in a reduce fear of crime.

This graph shows the CPTED practices between the two communities (INGR being non-gated residential, IGR being gated residential communities):

Differences between CPTED practices at individual gated residential areas and non-gated residential areas with their dimensions

Differences between CPTED practices at individual gated residential areas and non-gated residential areas with their dimensions

In a similar study titled “Suburban neighbourhood design: Associations with fear of crime versus perceived crime risk“, there were similar conclusions, however in this case the author noted specifics which can increase the public’s perception of safety.

“Our findings indicate that the attributes of a more walkable neighbourhood, particularly the presence of retail land, may help mitigate against fear of crime, but are associated with greater perceived crime risk. One interpretation is that the role of ‘strangers’ influences the emotional and cognitive aspects of ‘fear of crime’ differently. Perceived crime risk may simply be a function of living in a diverse walkable neighbourhood, but if walkable environments are able to diminish fear of crime, they may enhance both walking and other health outcomes that can be aggravated by fear. Importantly, the findings suggest that researchers from diverse disciplines (such as planning, criminology and public health) need to be mindful that the association between the built environment and subjective measures of ‘crime’ can be very different, depending on the measures applied.”

Eyes on the street

An interesting point that is made here is that walkable environments can do wonders for deterring crime. This is the same argument famed urbanist Jane Jacobs made in her manifesto “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“. She claimed the “barbarianism” of city streets was damaging even if it was only a perception, as that negative perception kept people off of the street in fear that they would become victimized. In some ways, it is a self fulfilling prophecy: a person stays off the street because the street is not safe, however by staying off the streets you decrease the street presence and as such, create an environment where crime is more likely to be committed. She goes on to talk about how the “eyes on the street”keep people safe, telling a story about a man in LA’s north end neighborhood who noted the few attempts on personal liberty that occurred in the recent years were quickly thwarted by passersby. She also notes a healthy night life can keep people on the streets in the evenings, thus creating more people to prevent crime from taking place.

However there are a few shortfalls to this line of thought. The strangers who frequent the late night bars and clubs may not prove to be effective guardians against crime and, in fact, may make the problem worse.

There are also problems if the crime can not be prevented. In communities where there is a very high distrust of police, a willingness to file police reports, speak to police about crime, or involve law enforcement in any way may not be a realistic option. In Paul Butler addresses this subject at length in his book “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice.” Butler notes we are trained to look the other way since childhood. We are encouraged to “not be a tattletale,” are told to not lose the trust of the rest of the cohort and to let things go. Children, like adults, can have different motives in their decisions to report to the authority figures on improper behavior, leading the authority figures to treat the information they have to share with great care. You never know who is telling the truth until there is an investigation. He also notes there is a chance a police witness could be interpreted by the community to be a snitch (police informant), and as someone actively working with them at all times. This sort of behavior can create tremendous distrust in the community and can put people in a position where they have to choose between doing the right thing or being the victim of a harsh label. While Butler, a former prosecutor, advocates talking to the police and being a witness, he is well aware of the risks associated with such behavior, particularly among urban black communities.

Despite these faults, the eyes on the street are still a valuable tool in preventing crime in urban areas.

CPTED Strategies

Many municipalities are now implementing strategies that allow for better design. Places like Tacoma, Washington and Lafayette, Indiana have implemented some basic strategies at the municipal policy level. However they essentially utilize the same principles listed above (territory, maintenance, surveillance, access control). How do we put these ideas into practice?

Well, Redland, Australia has some excellent examples. The following images from their municipal planning scheme policy show a variety of ways that CPTED can be turned into solid action items that improve safety.


These measures are, in many ways, common sense approaches that often go overlooked. You don’t need to be a member of MENSA to understand that a well lit area will help deter crime. But proper attention on urban design does not simply happen. It happens through proper planning and consideration for potential future events, and this is where policy acts not only as a reinforcement of common sense, but as a tool to keep things safer. That’s better for everyone, regardless if your concern is the well being of society or your own bottom line.

The difference between good and poor urban design is easy to see, especially when compared side-by-side.

Urban Design for Making streets safer.

Urban Design for Making streets safer.

The street on the left has traffic driving one way next to narrow sidewalks. Typical of many one way streets, there are few pedestrian emanates available. As a result, the street becomes dangerous due to its poor design.

The following images show what would happen if there were traffic calming measures, such as curbside parking, combined with smaller lanes, wider sidewalks, and slower traffic due to the use of one lane each way. This plan is not all that different than what my capstone group in graduate school proposed for the southern side of Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood. The idea is  slower traffic and more pedestrian friendly infrastructure will help create more people on the street, creating more neighborhood vibrancy and  more potential to reduce crime.

The third image takes it a step further by eliminating traffic altogether, encouraging foot traffic through a purely pedestrian friendly area combined with potential street vendors to act as additional guardians. Of course completely closing off a street will not be appropriate for all areas at all times, and it is far from a boilerplate solution. However, consideration should be given if you think it can work in a specific environment.

When designing a place for natural safety, you must consider the variables surrounding the offender and what the potential barriers are to committing a crime. You need to have an offender, with a motive, a threshold for how far they will go, and the opportunity to commit the crime. There are the barriers that exist out of the nature of any offense, and you must act in order to prevent them.

For example, for any crime to be committed there needs to be a criminal. By creating an environment that offers no protection to criminals, criminals will be less likely to cause trouble in those areas.

But what about displacement? After all, if I take away the opportunity for crime to be easily committed in neighborhood “A” won’t the criminals simply move to neighborhood “B?” It’s always a concern that efforts do not rid an area of crime as much as moving the crime somewhere else. However, numerous studies have shown that the vast majority of crimes are committed within a very close distance to where the offender lives. A great example is the research that Mike Oleary from Towson University did on building the mathematical formulas for modeling the criminal distance decay. The following chart shows crimes tracked in Baltimore county to see if they were being committed near or far from offender’s homes. Contrary to the arguments I’ve heard from voters about how public transportation money will bring in people to their communities for the sake of committing crime, crime does not seem to travel.

Modeling Criminal  Distance Decay. Graph by Mike O’Leary Towson University.

Modeling Criminal
Distance Decay. Graph by Mike O’Leary Towson University.

The mean distance from home is not much in most cases, and many of the long distance crimes could potentially be prevented through better urban design practices. Eliminate the crime from a criminal’s neighborhood, and watch the crime rate overall drop drastically.

CPTED is complicated, and always evolving.

While we can use formulas to figure out the likelihood of causing crime, we cannot always be so precise in implementing the proper measures to prevent it. With great barriers existing in many communities, including the existing physical design, the perceptions of safety, and the expense of implementing safer design, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question regarding the role of government: is it justifiable to put more public funds into creating safe public places instead of simply enforcing the law through the criminal justice system? The compromise lies in the building of good urban design. Proper design will need to be maintained, but it is a more human, accurate, and fiscally responsible solution to encourage the presence of living guardians and not electronic guardians (such as closed circuit television cameras). By embracing good design principles, we put our public resources to better use, allowing the court systems to breathe and allowing local law enforcement to better prioritize violent crime.

By first creating the illusion of safe neighborhoods, we can help defeat the stigma that causes seemingly sketchy neighborhoods to become actual havens for crime. From there you can evolve to the changing needs of the neighborhood and what is required for it to be a safe place for all residents. You cannot have absolutes in CPTED, you must be able to communicate with stakeholders and residents in order to not make assumptions, but rather determine the correct ways to tackle crime. By letting one hand wash the other, you can create a better world for everybody. And with more and more people becoming part of our urban spaces, it is time to consider designing them for safety in as many regards as we can.

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John Cruz
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John Cruz

Editor-In-Chief at The Urbanist Dispatch
John Cruz, MUP, is an urbanist, photographer, and city planner. He has lived in Detroit, Montréal, and now resides in St. Louis.
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