Help Reduce 

Urban Crime and Violence

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21en_vio ... Violence


Can Sound Urban Planning
Help Reduce Urban Crime and Violence?

by Mitchell J. Rycus
Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, USA.

Historically, people built walls to secure their cities against outsiders who might rob the citizens, or worse, slaughter them. As cities grew, maintaining the walls and gates became impractical, and as technology advanced, walls offered little in the way of protection. As growth occurred, the poor areas that were once outside the walls were absorbed by the city, and the residents of those poorer communities were displaced.

But without the gates and the walls something had to be done to keep those believed to be most likely to commit street crime away. It was the concern for crime prevention that led to the formalization of public welfare institutions in the West<1>.

The "City Beautiful" movement<2> at the end of the last century was also based, in part, upon the belief that if people had a more pleasant physical environment, they would be less inclined to commit criminal acts. But parks, broad boulevards, and nicer looking buildings did not effectively reduce crime and violence. Nor did the re-emergence of gated and walled communities reduce crime<3>.

The increase in urban crime and violence that has occurred over the past fifty years is caused primarily by complex social, political and economic circumstances. The impact of racially and ethnically segregated communities that are physically debilitated, along with patterns of economic discrimination and political disenfranchisement are by far the greatest factors that give rise to urban crime. If individuals from an ethnic, or racial, minority feel that they are disenfranchised, and that their only hope for economic success is through crime, there will be high crime rates. If, in addition, these disenfranchised individuals have access to weapons, you will have violent crime. This pattern is seen in many places throughout the world.

Does bad urban planning lead to higher crime and violence? Not on its own, since there are many badly-planned places in the world that have low crime rates. But, if one asks, "can urban planning help reduce urban crime and violence?" then the answer is, yes.

The Role of the Urban Planner

There are three elements needed to commit a criminal act: opportunity, ability, and motive. Furthermore, there are two ways to reduce crime: either prevent it from happening in the first place, or apply various social controls that will impact on potential offenders. Crime prevention methods are primarily directed at preventing someone from becoming a victim by reducing a potential offender's opportunities and abilities to commit crime. Crime control methods are predominantly directed at reducing a potential offender's motivation to commit crime through penal/correctional, social, cultural and economic interventions.

Urban planners are often the boundary spanners between city departments and community residents. In terms of crime prevention and control practices, the at-risk populations for either becoming victims or offenders (or both) are immigrants, the elderly, the young, women of all ages (primarily as victims), and minorities. It is the responsibility of the urban planner to interact with these populations in their communities and neighbourhoods. It is suggested here that urban planners take into account crime reduction activities as part of their routine planning duties, such as in the examples described below.

Physical Planning and Urban Design

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a well-documented<9> set of practices and procedures that address the design of public spaces (parks, pedestrian walkways, transit stops) in such ways as to reduce the opportunity for crime. Urban planners usually oversee the approval of site plans that may include shared public spaces. As a result, urban planners are in a position to recommend urban design criteria incorporated into city landscape and park design guides. Urban planners can also influence the private sector by recommending landscape guides for shared public spaces that reduce criminal opportunities.

The design of safe and secure buildings, particularly public housing structures (where many low income, single parents live) is the architect's responsibility. But for most cities, much of the built environment will be around for a long time, and new public housing construction will usually comprise a small percentage of the existing units. As a result, architectural design for security should be concentrated in re-design and retrofitting current structures. In the meantime, building codes and building standards for new construction (which can be influenced by city planning department recommendations) should be modified to include security issues.

CPTED applications are also well documented<10> in the area of private housing facilities, businesses, banks (including automatic teller machines), industry and other private structures. Urban planners working with the police and private institutions (such as insurance companies and private security companies) can advise and offer design guides for physical security devices that may prevent and reduce (not just displace) crime without necessarily giving rise to a siege mentality.

Economic Development

Employment opportunities, job training and fair employment are frequently mentioned as necessary economic factors needed to control crime. Though these are long-term strategies and various approaches are not always agreed upon by land owners and land developers, politicians and economists<11>, urban planners have been responsible in some countries for planning and implementing local economic development programmes. Often these programmes involve community residents in control (to some extent) of job allocation and construction. This tends to solidify the community towards the project and offer some economic opportunities to residents who might not have had such opportunities in the past. Such development plans can become part of a community's master plan.

Mediation, Coordination and Evaluation

Working groups consisting of police and other members of the criminal justice profession, and other interested and affected individuals or organizations should be working on crime prevention solutions.

Coordinating such groups and managing decision-assisting processes while dealing with social conflict (such as racial integration) is a major undertaking, but urban planners have been involved with such procedures for a long time. Getting community input into the political decision-making process is a necessary function of the urban planner who has learned a variety of methods for social-group processing<12>.

Programme coordination for multi-agency projects also entails evaluation and analysis. Most modern planning agencies have computer aided design facilities and geographic information systems. Both systems are uniquely suited for the analysis and evaluation of complex urban projects and can be used by planners in conjunction with other computer software to statistically evaluate crime reduction and crime prevention programmes.

The areas described above are examples of roles planners can take in the hopes of reducing crime through opportunity reduction, motivational changes, and reducing a potential offender's ability to commit crime. Urban planning is much more than land-use maps and zoning. By getting more of the social, political and economic factors into the planning process, urban planners can have an impact on crime and violence reduction.

Portions of the above article have been previously published in City Planning and Management News (Winter 1995-1996).

1 Garland, David. 1985. Punishment and Welfare. Great Britain: Gower Publishing Company, Ltd.

2 A brief overview of the City Beautiful Movement is given in: Phillips, E. Barbara. 1996. City Lights. New York: Oxford University Press.

3 For a good overview on the ineffectiveness of walls and gates in modern American cities, and the perception of such devices see, Dillon, David. 1994. Fortress America. In, Planning, The American Planning Association, Chicago. IL. Vol., 60, 6 (June): PP 8-12.

9 Geason, S. and Wilson, P. 1989. Designing Out Crime -- Crime prevention through environmental design. Australian Institute of Criminology, Crime Prevention Series. Canberra, Australia.

10 Rand, G. 1984. Crime and Environment: A Review of the Literature and Its Implications for Urban Architecture and Planning. Journal of Architecture and Planning Research. 1: PP 3-19.

11 Curtis, L.A.1991. 10th. Annual Report-Youth Investment and Community Reconstruction. The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation. Washington, D.C.

12 Levy, J. 1988. Contemporary Urban Planning. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. PP 77-85.

Source: Habitat Debate


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