Designers and advocates reckon with the uneasy history of safety in environmental design.
By Karl Krause
In 1285, King Edward of England issued the Statute of Winchester—a sweeping reform of law enforcement to curb rising crime across the country. To address highway robbery, the statute required a change to the environment: All landowners had to remove “bushes where one could hide with evil intent” within 200 feet of country roads—an early attempt to codify environmental design to improve safety that became the standard practice in English law enforcement for centuries.
The use of environmental design to address safety continues today with Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, more commonly known as CPTED (pronounced “sep-ted”). Along with calls for police reform and defunding, amplified in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, design activists such as the New Orleans-based Colloqate Design have demanded abolition of CPTED tactics that “criminalize Blackness under the guise of safety” and fail to address the underlying causes of crime. So how has CPTED, meant to replace traditional policing with community policing, come to be seen as oppressive?
CPTED was born 50 years ago, introduced by the criminologist C. Ray Jeffery in 1971, and further defined by the architect Oscar Newman in Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design (1973). Newman’s book responded to increased crime rates, particularly in public housing communities, “so they can again become livable and controlled, controlled not by police but by a community of people sharing a common terrain.” Drawing on Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” principles for safe cities, Newman’s concept was simple: Poor physical design created an environment that enabled criminal activity, and accordingly, good physical design could prevent it. Defensible Space became a design manual of sorts, with the intent of proposing widely applicable spatial design principles to enable and encourage self-policing and safety. These principles, in large part, give us the basic tenets by which CPTED is practiced today: natural surveillance (seeing what is taking place in that space), territorial reinforcement (who manages that space), natural access control (how people come and go), and maintenance (appearance of care and order).
Most landscape architects are familiar with these principles—they are regularly included in academic curricula and in professional licensing exams, and considered a specialized knowledge area by the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards. Through training, licensing, and implementation, CPTED has become the de facto methodology for landscape architects working in urban communities with actual or perceived high crime rates. The current demographics of the profession (70 percent of degrees are awarded to U.S.-resident landscape architects who identify as white) create a scenario where predominantly white designers employ a design methodology in communities of color.
Part of the problem with CPTED is the wide variability in its application. The basic principles of CPTED are largely conceptual. To make their implementation easier, municipalities and police departments have further simplified these principles into CPTED guidelines. These guidelines are often inconsistent and designed to facilitate policing, often at the expense of community health. For example, the CPTED design guidelines for the City of Apache Junction, Arizona, include a “3 foot/10 foot” rule to promote visibility, recommending that shrubs be pruned down to three feet and trees limbed up to 10 feet to prevent “criminals from hiding behind your bushes to surprise you.” Twenty miles away in Chandler, the police department’s CPTED handbook recommends a 2 foot/6 foot rule for shrubs and trees. The emphasis on surveillance that drives these guidelines can lead to impractical planting requirements that result in barren landscapes, making them less inviting, keeping people indoors, and limiting mutual observation and social interaction—ultimately hindering community self-policing.
Many of these guidelines are based on a concept known in law enforcement as “target hardening”—safeguarding property with security measures (i.e., fences and cameras) to prohibit crime by “targets”—people who may commit crimes. In environmental design, target hardening leads to landscapes full of devices meant to deter unwanted behavior: thorny vegetation, fences, excessive lighting, often deployed by law enforcement or property managers under the guise of community safety. Target hardening design guidelines can lead to prisonlike environments and put landscape architects in the position of advocating for community health, at times in opposition to the interests of law enforcement.
Even when these guidelines are followed, the built environment is constantly modified to facilitate target hardening by law enforcement. In one example, administrators at Elbert-Palmer Elementary, located in a primarily Black neighborhood of Wilmington, Delaware, enlisted the help of the Delaware Center for Horticulture to assist with street tree planting. Sam Seo, the community forester assigned to the project, arrived to find a series of conspicuously empty tree pits next to the playground. The school administrators had only one rule: no zelkovas. “It all came down to the particular structure of the zelkova tree,” Seo says. “We commonly plant them because they’re so uniform in shape, with a dense junction of branches six to 12 feet above the ground. Apparently local police were unable to apprehend suspects in front of the school because they would stash weapons and drugs in the crevices of the tree. So the police had the old trees cut down.”
Evidence from numerous research studies shows that trees positively affect community health and even public safety. Trees reduce anxiety and aggressive behavior, encourage physical activity, and promote social interaction. In many cities, disparities in shade contribute to dangerous urban heat islands that can be directly correlated to redlining, the historic practice of denying loans to communities of color. Across the country, redlined areas are, on average, five degrees warmer than other communities. This is especially true in Los Angeles. At SWA Group, Han Fu and Qiaoqi Dai led a study of the city’s shade inequity, revealing that shade distribution is correlated to wealth, and started to uncover the root causes of this imbalance. “Because of the sprawling nature of L.A., with low-rise buildings and wide streets, the Los Angeles Police Department is able to use air support units to surveil and apprehend suspects,” says Anya Domlesky, ASLA, the director of research at SWA. “Air support units for LAPD can request the removal of trees on public property where they perceive visibility is an issue. It’s a powerful organization—mature trees can be easily sacrificed, which is a problem for shade.”
As one of the largest managers of public land in the city, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) oversees properties that are subject to tree removals for surveillance. Aaron Thomas, an arborist with North East Trees, has been working with HACLA for more than 20 years to increase tree canopy. “When I started working at HACLA sites,” he says, “some of the sites had almost no trees. I would hear from residents that a large number of trees were removed for police surveillance, either by helicopter or patrol cars on the ground.” Over the past 20 years, Thomas has planted more than 3,000 trees on HACLA properties, each with unique security challenges. HACLA properties have a network of surveillance cameras operated by LAPD, and trees must be located not only so they don’t obstruct cameras, but also so the trees don’t obstruct the network’s transmission lines. “It’s like a spider web,” Thomas says. “It makes it really difficult to plant a tree anywhere. Either you’re going to prioritize making a community more resilient, or you’re going to prioritize surveilling them. There’s definitely been a cultural shift from the housing authority to prioritize trees.”
To address overemphasis on surveillance, criminologists sought to implement a second and now third generation of CPTED principles in 1997 and 2019, meant to balance the original focus on physical design with a broader, neighborhood-scale vision that addresses the root causes of crime.
“We’re often too reductionist in our approach to practicing CPTED. Because of this, we often fail to effectively diagnose the problem and fail to address the root causes of crime,” says Mateja Mihinjac, the executive director of the International CPTED Association (ICA). “We also need to look at social variables in the environment and go beyond just crime, and think how to support desirable behaviors in a community and not only focus on restricting undesirable ones.” Together with the criminologist and urban planner Greg Saville, Mihinjac developed third- generation CPTED with a systems-based approach to safety and a focus on pro-social behaviors that integrates multiple considerations, including the physical, economic, and social infrastructure that can plague communities grappling with high crime. But implementation of revised CPTED guidelines is a challenge and requires education. Many designers and planners continue to practice and advocate for foundational CPTED principles.
Third-generation CPTED education is provided by the ICA as well as private organizations. Each year, roughly 1,500 law enforcement and design professionals earn a CPTED credential through training by the National Institute of Crime Prevention, which bases its curriculum on the foundational concepts of CPTED. Art Hushen, the institute’s president, advocates for better awareness and standardization of the core CPTED principles. “I understand the movement for second- and third-generation CPTED, but there are many people that do not fully understand the fundamentals of CPTED,” he says. “CPTED is a tool; it does not racially profile or discriminate against any person or any group. Just like any tool, if the person does not understand how to use it, that is where the problem lies.”
If CPTED has come to be viewed as an oppressive force by some, is CPTED itself to blame? The debate is not unlike a refrain from the gun control debate: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. One side puts responsibility on the actor, the other on the tool. “The individual components are not problematic, but when they are combined and used in Black communities, CPTED becomes a weaponized extension of aggressive law enforcement,” says Ifeoma Ebo, an urban designer and architect. From 2017 to 2020, as the director of strategic design initiatives for the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), Ebo led community- engaged design initiatives in 15 public housing communities across New York City, each grappling with systemic racism, high unemployment, and concentrated poverty—underlying issues that lead to high crime.
Historically, crime in these marginalized communities had been addressed through foundational CPTED principles using tactics that sought to limit opportunities to commit crime. Often this came at the expense of community health and neglected the underlying socioeconomic root causes of crime. In New York City, these tactics included “aggressive overpolicing in public spaces, floodlights in playgrounds and public streets, and an abundant use of cameras and fencing in and around public housing,” Ebo says. “If you were to walk around the city and see these tactics in your community but not in others, it has an impact on your psyche. Imagine a child experiencing that throughout their childhood.”
The MAP community engagement design process (in partnership with citywide Community Justice Centers facilitated by the Center for Court Innovation) began with resident training to build capacity within the community to identify and address safety issues. Through multiple meetings intended to build trust between city government and community leadership, the process focused on the lived experience of public housing residents and resulted in a series of co-created neighborhood maps that illustrated the challenges and opportunities for community safety. One map illustrated undesirable behavior (from littering to violent crime); another located desirable activity (play and social gatherings) and the ages of residents participating in those activities. Together, these maps demonstrated to residents and city staff how physical design, activity, and its absence influenced behavior in public space. With that information, residents began to look at how to shift positive social activity into problem areas by creating a network of social spaces to improve community safety.
Resident teams in each community developed strategies for how to address safety in spaces that had the greatest opportunity for transformation. The strategies looked beyond traditional security interventions (i.e., lighting, fencing) to focus on activation and the potential to create new experiences and social bonds within the community. The MAP team worked with residents to design, visualize, budget, and construct interventions that were highly specific not only to the safety issues and locations identified by the community, but also to the programs and positive behaviors they sought to create. “The strategies needed to be unique to the culture of their particular neighborhood,” Ebo recalls. “Issues of community safety can be multifaceted, cultural, economic—community safety can show up differently in each neighborhood.”
At Stapleton Houses, a six-building public housing complex on Staten Island, residents identified a tennis court as the area most in need of transformation. Not a sport of choice at Stapleton, the tennis courts had become an enclosure frequented by addicts and an area to be avoided. Supported by the Staten Island Justice Center, the residents proposed transforming the tennis courts into a resource hub—a place to cultivate talent and resources specifically to address issues of substance abuse in their community. Together with the MAP team, community members designed and constructed custom kiosks that are rolled out onto the tennis court for periodic fairs and market events. Along with tents, artificial turf, and chairs, the new market infrastructure supports information fairs where invited government and community agencies can share information and resources to address substance abuse in the community. At other times, the kiosks and tents are used by community entrepreneurs in a pop-up market, and by resident leaders to enlist community members to join and participate in community events, forming new social bonds between neighbors. The tennis court transformation was a testament to the power of social infrastructure to define a platform for supportive programming with and for the community.
At the 27-building Brownsville Houses in Brooklyn, the resident team took a different tack. Community mapping revealed that a nearby park was a particularly unsafe area at night, and residents began imagining transformative lighting strategies to change perceptions of the park. In partnership with Arup, residents created engaging strategies that combined lighting and play by projecting games such as hopscotch onto the pavement, which attracted people to come outside. With the MAP team, the community also hosted a lit stage for a silent night dance party. To bypass after-hours noise restrictions, children were equipped with matching LED headphones and danced in the silence of the night. “You can imagine there were 500 kids out there,” Ebo says, “dancing their hearts out, celebrating and amplifying Black joy. It was amazing. New positive memories were formed around the park.” This strategy, created and implemented by the residents of Brownsville Houses, tested a new model for the parks department in how to engage residents in creatively addressing the safety and activation of parks.
The projects left each community with a better understanding of the underlying issues that affected neighborhood safety, and left community leaders better equipped to engage with public agencies. Compared to the prescriptive, treatment-oriented principles of foundational CPTED, dance parties and markets look quite foreign, but they have proven to be effective.
One challenge with crime prevention is evaluating something that is prevented—it’s difficult to measure something that doesn’t happen. With more than 300 public housing developments across the city, the mayor’s office was able to draw on crime data across all New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) properties to evaluate the efficacy of the MAP projects. In partnership with the John Jay Research and Evaluation Center, the city compared crime levels in other public housing developments over nine years and was able to demonstrate that NYCHA properties involved in the MAP program showed significant reductions across multiple categories of crime. “It’s been quite a successful approach to addressing community safety that infuses dignity, justice, community empowerment,” Ebo says. “And it’s really community led, empowers people, and is sustainable.”
MAP’s community-engaged design work culminated in the Safe Places, Active Spaces! playbook available for free on the city’s website, which guides community leaders transforming public spaces within their own neighborhood. In contrast to CPTED guidelines, Safe Places is not a guide for law enforcement or designers, but for the community itself—centering community agency in addressing community safety.
CORRECTION: The print version of this story incorrectly identified the Staten Island Justice Center as the Stapleton Community Justice Center. It has been corrected here.
Karl Krause is a landscape architect and a recipient of the 2018–2019 Landscape Architecture Foundation fellowship for innovation and leadership.