Fighting Crime With Design

Gary Chapman and I are walking down Garfield in Detroit's Medical Center. He's showing me the site of Mid-City, a proposed development which will offer housing within walking distance of the new VA hospital.

At the Woodward end of the street, the Garfield Building is already being renovated. But that's little comfort as we stroll east two blocks toward the serene, emerald hospital on John R.

On the southwest corner of the street, there's a one-level, bricked-up warehouse which sits like a hermetically sealed cigar box. Next to it, there's an empty lot furnished with a trio of Dumpsters, a stained sofa and a tattered easy chair.

Down farther, twin apartment buildings face off on opposite sides of the street. A spray of wild roses graces the doorstep of one of the buildings. Some of the apartments appear to be abandoned, their windows broken out or boarded up. A few appear to be inhabited -- curtains hang limp in the midday sun. On the steps of the other building, four men sit listlessly, the only evidence of life on the street.

"I feel really uncomfortable," I say to Chapman. There's something about the emptiness, the sense of abandonment, that makes me feel like a crime victim in the making. "If I weren't with you, I wouldn't come walking down this street."

"But it's not really dangerous here," he assures me. "People have moved out; there's no one left here. Most of the crime directly related to this primary census tract is property crime -- breaking into cars and the like -- Monday through Friday from 8 to 4 when the greatest number of people are in the Medical Center."

Chapman should know. He's a Detroit police officer. Like a palm reader, he tells me it's not actual crime, but the fear of crime that's making me skittish about the Garfield landscape.

"There's a very striking issue here of lack of surveillance, of not being able to see or be seen. No effort has been made to clean this area up. There's dirt parking lots, chairs strewn around. It says that nobody cares."

In a nutshell, he explains, I'm afraid because I'm sensing that there's no one on Garfield willing to defend the space.

Safety by design

Defensible space. We all know what it is: When teens keep their rooms in disarray to deter parental snooping, they're defining their territories. When neighbors take over an abandoned plot to grow a garden, they are defining a place and showing that they are willing to protect it.

The same concept can apply to the design of buildings, neighborhoods and communities. A growing number of architects, city planners and law enforcement officials argue that if cities learn to create defensible spaces, crime can be prevented, or at least the fear of crime can significantly be reduced.

The idea isn't new. In 1961 Jane Jacobs published The Life and Death of Great American Cities, in which she linked how a city district looked with how it felt to its users.

A decade later Oscar Newman, in his book Defensible Space, made the case that architectural design can influence criminal behavior. He argued that to create safe communities, designers needed to utilize "real and symbolic barriers, strongly defined areas of influence and improved opportunities for surveillance" to help residents bring the spaces under their control.

Can architectural design actually reduce the incidence of crime?

Definitely, says Chapman. Ten years ago he was one of the first Detroit police officers to be trained in crime prevention through environmental design, or CPTED. He's now a trainer on the topic, and through the department's crime prevention section conducts free site plan reviews for people who want to design their way around crime.

The basic principles of CPTED are simple. First, a space must be designed for a compatible use. If you build a gravel pit near a neighborhood, for example, the conflicting business will lessen the cohesion of the neighborhood. Residents are not likely to look out for the pit, and vice versa. A bookstore, on the other hand, would create more synergy with the area. The compatible use would enhance interaction and expand, rather than shrink, the territory of the neighborhood.

Second, a space must be designed to encourage "natural surveillance." Sidewalks, lots of windows, outdoor activity and long, unobstructed views are all elements which transform the ordinary users of a space into community observers. Those elements also encourage the development of a common culture, making those who don't belong more visible. A community that is alive with a strong sense of place is a hostile environment for criminals.

Finally, the space should be clearly defined. Things like entrance signs, consistent architecture and clean, well-kept homes help carve out a territory which warns criminals that the people within the defined area care about each other.

Chapman says the application of these elements can significantly reduce crime. He tells the story of a fast-food chain that wanted to locate its first store in Detroit three years ago. After performing a CPTED review of the site plans for the store, the police department suggested major changes.

"To their credit, they took most of our recommendations," says Chapman, including putting their first store right on the curb. "The entire place is glass. The counter's just several feet inside the glass. You drive by, you look in there, you're right out on front street: Everyone can see you. If you are the bad guy, wouldn't you rather go down the street to other fast-food places where nobody can see you while you stand there with your pistol and rob the place?"

Chapman says that, to his knowledge, the store has had no incidents of crime, even though surrounding fast-food stores are constantly being robbed.

Perception is reality

The beauty of CPTED is while it doesn't directly reduce crime, it creates a perception of safety.

"It can be a very hard causal link to prove that CPTED actually stops crime," says Robert W. Kahle. Kahle, formerly of Wayne State University, has conducted research on the fear of crime and now consults with businesses such as shopping malls regarding crime prevention through design.

"However, the fact the CPTED may not actually reduce crime does not limit its value as a design tool," says Kahle. That's because there's a powerful correlation between perception and behavior. If people feel safe in a space, they will frequent it, even if the space is actually more dangerous than they suspect. Conversely, people will avoid a place they think is dangerous, even if statistically the place is safe.

The way the feeling of safety influences behavior is especially evident among women, who engage in self-protective behavior more frequently than men do. Women avoid areas they perceive as dangerous, limit their activities and change their routes, says Kahle. That's in spite of the fact that, according to the Justice Department, the victimization rate is higher for men than for women for every violent crime except rape.

When women are asked, "What makes a space feel safe to you?" they articulate CPTED principles almost instinctively.

"I hate parking garages," says Rosa Lucas, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Detroit. "I park in well-lit spaces, close to where I'm going and where there's no bushes or hiding places."

"I used to get to work at 5 a.m.," says Fay McCroy, who has worked downtown for 25 years. "There would be no one around, and the place would be dark. I hated it."

Clearly, if Detroit wants to overcome the perception that it is unsafe, city planners will have to design a city that protects itself, rather than a city that continues to need to be protected. The prognosis is hopeful: The city's Planning and Development Department has proposed that the police department participate in site plan reviews for new projects.

Up until now, "money has been invested in pockets so that there's no spillover into the community," says Sharon E. Sutton, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan. Sutton contends that designs such as gated communities and barricaded office buildings have prevented the kind of integration with the larger community that is necessary to make those places feel safe. "Then crime increases and you need a bigger barricade," she says.

Indeed, Detroit is rife with developments which are turned in upon themselves, examples of the concept of defensible space gone amok. The Renaissance Center, to many CPTED experts, is a prime example.

"It turns its back on the city, so that instead of activity spilling over, it has no positive effect on what's around it," says Sutton. She likens such developments to "reverse prisons."

Chapman agrees. "Crime is fairly low in the Renaissance Center area, but the building is built so that you have to have your own police force to protect it."

He notes how the rest rooms are down blind alleys, making it necessary to spend money posting guards near all the lavatories in the building to make people feel safe. The circular design prevents a continuous flow of traffic, leaving some areas very isolated.

"The lesson? They've built an environment that gives the natural user a feeling of unsafety and gives comfort to the unnatural user -- criminals," says Chapman. "People don't like to go there, and the businesses inside don't thrive."

Citizen architects

Perhaps it's never too late to learn from mistakes. General Motors, the new owner of the building, has already announced plans to open up the design of the 21-year-old fortress.

For example, GM plans to remove the foreboding berms which obscure the Ren Cen's front entrance and discourage spillover activity. On the river side of the building, the company is planning a winter garden: a several-story atrium that will be home to restaurants and shops, and will open to a waterfront promenade for walking or biking. The atrium and promenade will be public spaces: a mixed use which is compatible with a downtown office building on the river.

One wonders how different downtown might have been had the Ren Cen been designed to encourage, rather than discourage, interaction with the city around it. That, says Sutton, is what can happen when architects fail to see themselves as more than just building designers.

"Architects should be citizen architects rather than project architects, and resist the urge to only meet the needs of their private clients," says Sutton. "They have to take the risk to make integrated spaces. The more individual developments can have surprising spillover effects, the better."

She points to her students' recent project as an example. "They were asked by an industrial development to design a barricade around the area. Half of them designed the barricade, as the client requested."

But the other half, she says, realized a wall could never be built big enough to make the development safe. Instead they asked: "Why not get leaders in the community involved and use this development as a catalyst?"

"That's a more long-term, integrative approach," says Sutton. "It's really about maintaining democracy and participating in the public spaces of the city."

Perhaps that's exactly what will happen in the Medical Center. As Chapman and I walk down Garfield back to his cruiser, he sets out a vision for the area.

The Garfield Building probably will have mixed uses -- professional offices, some retail and loft space up top. The new neighborhood will most likely be closed to traffic from Woodward, so the residents won't fear that speeding cars or outsiders will intrude on the peacefulness of the neighborhood. The John R entrance to the development will be clearly marked. Lots of sidewalks will encourage pedestrian traffic. Good lighting, porches and windows on the fronts of the homes will encourage interaction, observation and what Chapman calls the "Nosy Neighbor Syndrome." As more businesses open on Woodward, residents should find themselves within walking distance of entertainment, arts and culture, retail and, of course, work.

"With CPTED, we are trying to deal with quality of life issues, not strictly crime issues," says Chapman, "Because it's the quality of life issues which have a direct bearing on crime."

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