The judicial process in North America and around the world cost trillions of dollars a year to legislate, arrest, judge, and incarcerate. And not just for violent crimes — removing vandalism and the cost of repairing and replacing broken or stolen property is also taken into account, criminal activity continues to grow as a financial strain.
The deterrence and punishment of criminal activity carries a high financial cost, but it carries a high social cost as well. Criminal activity disproportionately affects people who live on a low income, as well as visible minorities.
Due to the ever increasing costs of traditional policing, more and more policing organizations and crime prevention groups are attempting to use environmental design in their crime prevention policies, and are learning from psychologists how to do it.
What is Crime Prevention through Environmental Design?
Crime prevention through environmental design, often abbreviated CPTED, is a multidisciplinary approach to deterring crime through the environment and the way that physical space is designed — ranging from small changes (like increased lighting in and around homes) to changing the way whole buildings, or even neighborhoods are designed. CPTED is employed all over the world in government with urban planning initiatives, corporations in building design, and communities and individuals in homes and neighborhoods.
Crime prevention through environmental design works by relying on people’s reaction to territoriality and defensible space. CPTED may start with something small and discreet, what psychologists call a marker (which is an object, action or behavior used to establish who owns or belongs in a space), all the way to large, imposing walls and highly defensible areas which are meant to make it as difficult as possible for someone to infiltrate the space.
Territoriality can be very important in forming community, and strong, close knit communities face less problems with crime. Territoriality can also extend to public spaces within the community, and these types of areas being clearly marked makes them less likely to be targeted with petty crime, like vandalism.
Territory can be used to communicate many different messages and promote many different behaviors, from suggesting that an area has high surveillance, such as through the neighborhood design to promote traffic flow which would dissuade would-be criminals due to the public sensation, to more concrete barriers such as fences and gates, and, may even include explicit messages such as “do not enter” signs.
Lighting is often used to dissuade crime and violence, as it shines a proverbial and physical light on any individuals who may be considering committing a crime, reducing their anonymity and increasing the likelihood that someone may see them committing their actions.
Trimming bushes and trees has a similar effect, contrary to what people may think. Having large, thick foliage surrounding your home may increase your feelings of privacy, but also increase a prospective burglars feelings of privacy when breaking into your home. As Julie Kim wrote in her Forbes article How Your Landscaping Can Keep Burglars Away:
Increase visibility by trimming all bushes and hedges to 3 feet or shorter. Anything taller and you create a hiding place for criminals. Lower shrubs also increase visibility for your neighbors and pedestrian onlookers, who can report fishy activity… An ideal target for a criminal is a house surrounded by large hedges and shrubs, because they block visibility from the street and neighbors’ homes.
Even simple landscaping like covering the areas underneath your window with gravel to cause noisy footsteps may dissuade a burglar from choosing your home.
We can’t see the full picture of crime without examining connections to poverty, health, education, and other demographics. Examining the relationship between chronic poor health and systemic issues like poverty, unemployment, and violence in an area will give a better understanding of the crime in that area. these factors lead to an increase in instability in neighborhoods, while also contributing to civic disengagement.
Researcher Art McCabe studied another type of environmental design that targeted community engagement and social relationships in the community. McCabe examined community gardens as a tool to promote community engagement, which in turn reduced many of the systemic issues present as a result of high-crime areas. Community gardens have the added benefit of providing nutrition, skills and networking opportunities to disenfranchised communities who may otherwise have poor access to nutritious and sustainable foods.
It is important to also take into account the larger socioeconomic impact of increased neighborhood and community engagement, where a small increase in economic activity, health and reduction in crime in one neighborhood can often influence surrounding neighborhoods and impact the larger community, which can even extend to the city as a whole. It is crucial to examine and incorporate the systemic and institutional problems that are often tied to crime, the same systemic and institutional problems that may also be reduced if crime is reduced.
The Community Cost of Crime (and Crime Prevention)
Many jurisdictions who employ CPTED techniques assume that any environmental design with the intention of reducing crime will be universally successful, but that is not necessarily the case. Certain environmental design strategies that are employed with the intention of reducing crime may in fact have the opposite effect, or may only slightly reduce crime but at the cost of community engagement or overall happiness in a space.
Higher fences and stronger walls, for example are quite costly, and provide privacy for both the people attempting to be protected by the walls, and the criminals who have surpassed the walls and now are protected from sight. This type of environmental design is very successful in increasing the fear of crime and reducing community engagement and healthy community interaction, but rarely has as drastic of an effect on crime as those who implement it hope it will, such was the case with tall trees and thick foliage.
Though, with the popularity of “tough on crime” policies, and with the ever rising fear of crime, more and more people are choosing feeling safe over being safe, and building these highly visible defensible space options when deciding how to defend their personal property from criminal activity.
Politicians often use “cleaning up crime” as the basis for policy decisions, and being “tough on crime” is often a valued characteristic for public office. However, crime is not that simple of an anti social behavior, and not that easily quantifiable. Concepts like the “dark figure of crime” allude to problems with the tough on crime narrative, where crimes taking place and reporting crimes are very different things.
If policy makers want to look like they’ve made a huge difference very quickly. they can reduce the overall reports of crime by simply reducing the amount of crimes being reported. To make some crimes and the demographics involved in those crimes seem like they are more of problem than others, police and politicians can place more of an emphasis on harsher prison sentences and more forceful arrests on people committing those crimes. On the flip side, police are often more lenient with members of dominant social groups when they’re caught committing crimes — often letting offenders off with a warning or a shorter sentence.
Because of the dark figure of crime, crime statistics can be misleading. Instead, examining public opinion on feelings of safety, connection to the community and overall quality of life, paired with reported incidents of crime may give a more accurate evaluation of CPTED.
Conventional Policing Policy
Conventional crime prevention and incarceration policy costs taxpayer’s large amounts of money every year to pay for policing, security, arrests and incarcerations. The amount of inmates and the lengths of sentences continue to rise, which resulted in an increased cost per inmate to over $177,000 per year in Canada. The increased level of arrests also puts a strain on the judicial system as a whole, either requiring the hire of more lawyers, judges and legal bureaucrats, or increasing the wait time and workload of the judicial system.
Conventional policing and the current judicial process may be quite expensive, but it is difficult to compare the up front costs of crime prevention through environmental design because CPTED can vary from a simple, one time change in policy to large scale capital investments in architectural adaptations over a number of years. Even the evaluation of a space and a CPTED technique requires time and money, and adds to the cost of preventing crime through environmental design.
Even though some CPTED initiatives may have a large upfront cost when dealing with existing infrastructure, the long term reduction in overall violent crime, vandalism and incarceration very often results in long term cost savings, making CPTED cost effective crime prevention technique. When city planners, architects and other designers of space are aware of the ways that preventing crime through environmental design is possible, they can implement initiatives at the start of a project or development, saving money on future renovations.
Criminal activity causes multifaceted strains on individuals, governments and societies.
Current crime prevention policy mandates that police must be trained to find and arrest those who commit crimes, must be paid to roam the streets waiting for crimes to be committed, must be paid to actually arrest those who have committed the crime, which may happen at great personal physical risk to the law enforcement. Judges, lawyers, and bureaucrats must then decide on punishments for each individual criminal, before that criminal is sent to a crowded, expensive incarceration facility to cost more and more money until they are released, where they are often re-offending and repeating the cycle.
Implementing crime prevention through environmental design policies will not only reduce the strain on both large urban police forces and small underfunded police forces, but will also have lasting interconnected effects on poverty, health and well being, and community engagement which leads to an overall higher quality of life.