Crime deterrence through urban design

Our physical environment is an important influence on personal and communal safety and security, yet no more than a handful of Israeli planners and architects have absorbed this notion.

Lod City Center 311 (photo credit: WikiCommons)
Lod City Center 311
(photo credit: WikiCommons)
Urban crime is on the rise. Two recent Lod murders within 48 hours underlined the severity of the problem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself arrived at the scene.
Miracle solutions were proposed and approved almost immediately: NIS 130 million, a major part of it for police.
But the crime problem will not be resolved through increased police forces alone. The function of police is to apprehend criminals, but they can in no major way create or foster security by eliminating the conditions in which most crime breeds.
Also obvious to all is that a panicky response to the problem – clearly evident in the government’s actions in the case of Lod – is unsuitable and sure to prove wasteful. Needed is a far deeper understanding of the roots of the problem, including its social, economic and moral aspects, such as inequality. One important factor, not well enough understood, is simply the physical environment.
Architecture can encourage encounter or help prevent it. Certain kinds of buildings and spatial layouts favor criminal activity. Knowing how to identify problem areas in existing environments, understanding why they have become dangerous, then prescribing corrective measures is essential. Knowing how to create safe new environments, at least avoiding the many pitfalls leading to the creation of dangerous spaces, is the other side of the coin. While architecture admittedly operates more in the area of influence than control, it can be an important step toward preventing crime.
IN THE early days of the state, thousands of apartment blocks were poorly aligned, for example, perpendicular to streets, their side elevations windowless, their “entrances” undefined, the spaces between them a no-man’s land. Poorly lit, narrow pedestrian paths unconnected to any building entrances completed the picture.
The Katamonim neighborhood in Jerusalem, known for its high crime rates, is a case in point.
Incredibly, even after some 30 years of operation, Project Renewal, administered by the Ministry of Housing and Construction, failed to internalize these simple facts, in many cases actually reinforcing the stigma of the anonymous buildings it was dealing with, investing enormous amounts of time, money and energy in mainly cosmetic solutions.
The hundreds of new luxury residential towers blanketing our major cities all have major setbacks, and are creating activity-less and dangerous streets. And while their inhabitants live in splendid isolation above their neighbors – protected by fences, security guards and doormen – the rest of us are sure to pay the price.
The last thing we need is more isolated, withdrawn and closed enclaves. Imagine the kind of society that would result if all building complexes had barriers.
Deterring crime without having to wall off projects can be achieved by a variety of means. Clearly articulating the transition points between public, semipublic and private areas is essential. In place of anonymity, project a strong identity. Architects can position dwelling units, openings and entries, and set paths of movement and areas of activity – signs of life – so as to provide inhabitants with continuous natural surveillance of bordering streets and project grounds. The street comes under surveillance from the building entries and lobbies.
Rather than relegating the responsibility to others, it’s assumed by the inhabitants in the natural flow of their everyday activities. In this way, security is achieved by residents, not at the expense of the surrounding area, but by insuring that their surroundings are equally secure, their concerns in harmony with that of the larger community.
The sad fact is that much of the above has been far better said long ago by others. In his landmark work Defensible Space, published in 1972, Oscar Newman detailed ways for architects, housing developers and city planners to deal with many of the problems. Yet no more than a handful of Israeli architects have read the book or absorbed its information.
With our rapidly expanding population and limited land reserves, urban renewal and the creation of new medium- to high-density, large-scale housing developments, most difficult challenges have become an urgent necessity. The time has come for the existing professional literature on environmental sociology and psychology – practically unknown or systematically ignored here for so many years – to be given the serious attention and respect it deserves.
The writer is an architect and town planner.