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Planners and Police Officers Working Together to Create Livable and Safe Communities


June 14, 2016 by Steve Butler
Category: Design

Planners and Police Officers Working Together to Create Livable and Safe Communities

Most communities strive to be pleasant and inviting places to “live, work, and play.” Keeping that in mind, planners and urban designers seek to create spaces that are active and pedestrian-friendly. Meanwhile, police chiefs and officers want to encourage places that are safe for people to visit and use, in order to reduce crime. Interestingly, many of the strategies and techniques to achieve these different groups’ goals overlap. Yet planning and police staffs have traditionally not talked to one another, with each group instead trying to find its own solutions. Fortunately, this trend is changing, with planners and police officers working together more and more to achieve each other’s complementary goals to achieve an inviting and safe community.

What helps bring these two groups of professionals together is the concept of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, or CPTED (pronounced sep’-ted). In short, CPTED deals with the design or re-design of an environment to reduce the opportunity for crime, through natural, mechanical, and/or procedural means.

Key CPTED Principles

While some specialists list up to ten separate elements, I believe there are four key CPTED principles:

  1. Natural Surveillance
  2. Territorial Reinforcement
  3. Natural Access Control
  4. Image and Physical Maintenance

Natural Surveillance

Sometimes referred to as “eyes on the street,” natural surveillance focuses on the placement of physical features, activities, and people in such a way as to maximize visibility. Most criminals don’t want to commit crimes where there are lots of potential witnesses.

From a planning and public safety perspective, land uses and activities that promote pedestrian activity also increase natural surveillance. Restaurants and retail establishments are two types of businesses that attract a lot of activity throughout the day. For eating and drinking establishments, having outdoor seating provides an inviting environment (at least when the weather cooperates) and further promotes natural surveillance of the surrounding area.

Windows that look out onto streets, sidewalks, and other public areas are a major physical factor in achieving the natural surveillance principle, because windows are inviting and allow people from inside a building to look out and observe what is happening outside. These windows should be large enough for people both inside and outside to have an unobstructed view, and, of course, is it important that they aren’t blocked with advertising or interior shelving, which defeats the purpose.

Restaurant with large windows and an outdoor seating area that enhance natural surveillance of the surrounding area. Image by Steve Butler.

By contrast, a long, windowless blank wall results in a lack of “eyes on the street” from the adjacent building. Image by Steve Butler.

Territorial Reinforcement

This principle encourages the use of physical features that express or convey a sense of “ownership,” such as fences, landscaping, porches, signage, pavement treatment, and art. Clearly delineated private space creates an environment where people have a clear idea of what is a public vs. private area. One result is that the legitimate “owners”/users of a private space are more easily able to identify strangers/intruders and more likely to challenge their presence or report them to the police.

When using fencing or landscaping within a given site, it is important that those features still allow for natural surveillance and do not create hiding places for criminals. Examples would include fences with spaced slats, bushes no taller than three feet, and trees that are limbed up to a minimum of five feet (these last two steps will require some degree of continued maintenance).

Classic example of a single family residence with a picket fence that clearly marks the location of the private area.

A more urban example, this fencing clearly separates the private and public spaces, but still allows for visibility on both sides. Image by Steve Butler.

Natural Access Control

This principle features the physical guidance of people and vehicles coming and going from a space by the thoughtful placement of entrances, exits, fencing, landscaping, gates, and lighting. The goal is to decrease opportunities for criminal activity by discouraging or denying access to potential targets. Most criminal intruders will try to find a way into an area where they will not be easily observed, if it is easy to enter into it. So, limiting access (along with natural surveillance) will either keep them out altogether or mark them as an intruder.

Entry way into an apartment complex with a locked gate, which directs people to one primary entrance and limits access to residents with keys and visitors who can use the call box to get buzzed in. Image by Steve Butler.

By contast, this open layout allows intruders many more potential access points and escape routes. Image by Kaizen.

Physical Maintenance and Image

Sometimes referred to as the “broken window” principle, this concept states that a well-maintained, clean building or site creates a sense of guardianship and helps deter criminal activity, and vice-versa.

A vacant storefront with an artistic treatment and a well-maintained gate. Image by Joyce Matt.

By contrast, an unmaintained, vacant building about to undergo redevelopment, which has invited graffiti and vandalism.

All of the four CPTED principles described above include an emphasis on the importance of adequate lighting of public spaces and walkways at night. Too little light will tend to create an opportunity for criminal activity while, contrary to popular belief, too much light may have the same result (due to people getting temporarily blinded by looking up at an overly bright lighting source). So, it is critical to examine the amount of illumination provided to a specific area and to achieve a “just right” lighting level.

Incorporating CPTED Principles at the Local Level

If you are interested in pursuing the use of CPTED principles in your community, you should first check with your police and planning staff to see if anyone already has knowledge about the concept. Second, you should take steps to ensure that crime prevention policies are included in your Comprehensive Plan. Examples of CPTED policies may be found in Auburn’s Comprehensive Plan (Land Use policy #15)) and the Bellingham Draft Comprehensive Plan’s Community Design Chapter (Policy CD-25). Finally, I would recommend that you consider adopting CPTED principles into your municipal code, either as a new title or incorporated into an existing one. The SeaTac municipal code incorporates CPTED regulations into a separate title, as well as within several other sections of the municipal code (including its Multi-Family Housing Design Standards). Sunnyside includes its CPTED principles into its Subdivision Design standards, with a particular focus on the design of safe parks and open space.

Potential Roadblocks to adopting CPTED Principles or a CPTED Ordinance, and Tips to Avoid Them

  1. Lack of knowledge and expertise about CPTED by local government staff.
    • Tip: If that is your situation, encourage your staff to read up on this topic and look for training opportunities.
  2. In built-up areas, the perspective that it is too late and that modifications of existing buildings/sites would be too expensive.
    • Tip: While it is easier to incorporate CPTED principles into during the design/construction phase of a new building or site, there are still many actions that can be successfully taken to improve existing conditions, with the benefits often outweighing the costs.
  3. On occasion, planners and police may have conflicting views on how a certain standard or principle should be applied. One example of where this might occur is with perimeter landscaping, where a planner might want it to provide a visual buffer but a police officer might view it as a potential hiding spot for criminals.
    • Tip: The solution for the example might be to collaborate and try to find a workable solution that addresses both sides’ concerns. In this case, one compromise would be to have short bushes, interspersed with limbed up trees, to provide visual screening while still allowing for natural surveillance of the site.

Safety is a fundamental element in most peoples’ lives. Planning and police staff working together to successfully implement CPTED principles will strengthen local governments’ efforts to achieve important public safety objectives for their community members.

Additional Resources

If you have had experience with CPTED in your community, please leave a comment below or contact me directly at sbutler@mrsc.org.

About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.

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