The relationship between the design of the built environment and crime debate


Property Management

ISSN: 0263-7472

Article publication date: 1 May 2000



Cozens, P. and Plimmer, F. (2000), "The relationship between the design of the built environment and crime debate", Property Management, Vol. 18 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

The relationship between the design of the built environment and crime debate

The National Technical Committee, in association with ACPO Crime Prevention Initiatives Ltd. and the Metropolitan Police Service, hosted a debate on the relationship between the design of the built environment and crime at New Scotland Yard, London on 16 February. Specifically, the debate focused almost exclusively on the residential built environment and considered recent and current research into the nature of house burglaries (and some car crime) in relation to both the design of new and existing residential areas and individual properties. Particular attention was afforded to the "secured by design" initiative throughout the debate.

The invited speakers were Dr Rachel Armitage (Huddersfield University), Sergeant Jon Brown (Gwent Police/Leicester University), Professor Bill Hillier (University College London) and Dr Tim Pascoe (Building Research Establishment), and the debate was chaired by Professor Ken Pease of the Home Office Crime Reduction Unit.

The debate was opened with a welcome to the delegates from Inspector Glyn Jones, who chairs the National Technical Committee and is the General Manager of of ACPO Crime Prevention Initiatives Ltd, and the programme began with presentations from each of the speakers.

First to speak was Dr Tim Pascoe, Head of Security Research at the Building Research Establishment. He described crime as a major problem worthy of research and research funding. He posed the question: "Can the occurrence of burglary be predicted using characteristics within the built environment?"

He briefly outlined two schools of thought: firstly, the behavioural school which refers to the burglars' decisions which are in turn influenced by issues of risk, reward and ease of access - all of which are influenced by the built environment. The second school of thought refers to the location of burglaries in time and space - at the macro, meso and micro levels of the environment.

Burglaries, Pascoe stated, are not random events as extensive research has historically demonstrated. There are patterns, and more recent research has been undertaken (Cranfield University and BRE joint research project) into those built environment components which affect target selection; how they interact; and which are the most important? It seems that the most influential risk factors are: the reputation of the locality; house décor; the view of the house from the street; defensible space; and the make-up of households within the street (number of singles/couples for example).

These are, he aruged, complex problems with many interacting variables and as such there is no "one" solution. Proposed solutions need to be professional, varied and inter-related.

Professor Bill Hillier's presentation focused on the use of thoroughfares, from main highways through urban space to footpaths. His research concluded that popular transport (high footfall) routes had fewer burglaries, as compared with quieter locations. He stated that it was difficult to distinguish the effects of the built environment from social effects and proposed that layout variables can be isolated by the removal of social effects statistically. This resulted in flats representing the least vulnerable design while detached properties were, somewhat surprisingly, the most insecure because of access from unconstituted or poorly constituted space.

His research focused on how the burglar identifies a weakness from public space into private property and therefore he sought to investigate such patterns. He opined that layout factors which are vulnerable in one place may be less so in another, because an additional component may be more influential. He said that if there is a potential for vehicular or pedestrian movement, there is less probability for burglaries. Similarly, he considered that more "line" neighbours would deter criminals, by increasing the "intervisibility" of houses. He also proposed that "secured by design" (SBD) needs to be extended in the light of this research.

Sergeant Jon Brown reported on research he had undertaken within the Gwent area of Wales, concerning residential burglaries and car crime, as part of an evaluation of SBD. He noted the historical foundations (e.g. fortified castles) and the more recent theoretical support for SBD. He claimed that crime is largely accepted as a risk to be calculated, avoided and managed.

He commented on the increasing use of SBD for social housing in Wales and the relatively sparse evidence that existed to demonstrate whether or not it was effective. His research compared SBD homes and non SBD homes and found the former possessed 40 per cent less crime, although these results were described as "suggestive". The importance of capable guardians was stressed and he opined that environmental manipulation would not solve all crimes, calling for academic/practitioner debates, and for their various experiences to be shared. He also voiced concerns about the production of one set of Home Office statistics for both England and Wales, particularly in the light of the devolved responsibility for social policy in Wales to the Welsh Assembly.

Dr Rachel Armitage of Huddersfield University discussed findings from research which focused on an evaluation of SBD housing schemes in West Yorkshire. Similarly, SBD estates were compared to non-SBD estates in terms of recorded crime levels.

The results were generally positive and statistically significant. Crime was found to be lower for the SBD estates. However, she suggested that there was room for improvement, particularly regarding the placement of footpaths and how they impact on SBD properties and in the management of properties themselves. Her research also found fear of crime to be lower in SBD properties than in those that were not designed to SBD specifications. Additionally, there was a brief discussion an environmental risk index. Interestingly, she discovered that only 5 per cent of residents on SBD estates were actually aware of the fact that they were residing in such an estate.

Debate following the speaker's presentations covered various aspects of SBD and crime within residential areas.

Footpaths, which may be perceived as potential means of access for criminals, are being imposed by local planning authorities on otherwise SBD schemes. It was recognised that footpaths can serve a vital role for residents; that if they are not provided, they will be created by usage; and that it is the more secure and more visible location for a footpath which should be promoted. In Professor Hillier's words, "Space has to be used to be safe".

It was also suggested that the ABI take into account footpath proximity to housing, when assessing crime risk.

Other concerns included the apparent ignorance of the house-buying public to the benefits of having a property located in an environment which is "secured by design". The demand for such an improved specification must come from the public, and thereafter the developer and the investor, if the construction industry is to provide the necessary facilities.

In Wales, "secured by design" is mandatory for all Tai Cymru (Welsh Housing Association) properties. Occupiers of private houses within the same estate as Tai Cymru accommodation have questioned the different level of security provision within their respective properties. Furthermore, a concern for the apparent lack of participation of private housing developers for SBD was also voiced.

The debate focused almost exclusively on residential properties and the results of research into what keeps such properties safest from crime. More research is needed to extend this kind of research to other property types, such as commercial and industrial properties, leisure, schools and hospitals. A wider forum, of the type suggested in the title perhaps, might have discussed crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) more broadly, to incorporate these themes.

In summing up the presentations and the subsequent debate, Professor Pease concluded that there is enough evidence to say that "secured by design" does make a difference to burglary statistics.

This is, however, the beginning of the work and there are a range of targets that must be designated to ensure the continuous development in the process of understanding the physical context for such crimes.

He called for a development in the understanding of the interface between social factors and physical factors, regardless of "secured by design" and a recognition that spatial variables can operate within different locations in different directions.

As a final reminder from the audience, Mrs Diana Lamplugh called for the research to remember people - their security is, after all, the ultimate objective.

Paul Cozens and Frances PlimmerCentre for Research in the Built Environment,University of Glamorgan, UK

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