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Crime prevention: are our streets safe?

For many people, especially women, a fear of crime puts restrictions on their lives and movements. What can we do to make our neighbourhoods feel safer?

Author: Ann E Gray FRICS FAIA RIBA

01 April 2021

Womans silhouette at night

As the world slowly emerges from lockdown, many of us are desperate to go out again. But this return to the public realm can trigger a sense of vulnerability and many may not feel safe.

While surveyors and planners can design intelligently, designing public spaces to be safe has been standard practice in our profession for many years. Meaningful progress in crime prevention will come through political and social channels that address inequality but there is still a place for us as property professionals to plan urban spaces that discourage bad behaviour, make people feel safe and encourage full enjoyment of our cities.

The recent tragic killing of Sarah Everard in London has raised questions about how her death could have been prevented but we can’t blame her death on her environment – only on her killer. It is well-documented that 75% of rapes and 90% of murders of women in the US are carried out by offenders that the victim knew. She did not know her assailant and, given that she was on a well-lit, well-travelled street, we must be careful not to overstate the influence of the urban environment on violent crime instigated by random attackers.

Men and women are equally likely to be victims of violent assault, according to data from Pew Research in the US (in England and Wales, men are more likely to be assaulted). Design solutions that make these crimes more difficult to carry out will benefit everyone. Safety is not a gender-specific issue.

Not only is safety not a gender-specific issue, violent crime in cities is much lower than we perceive it to be. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in the past 25 years violent crime in the US fell overall by more than 50% - a dramatic decrease mirrored in nearly all developed countries. Despite this decrease, we are much more aware of the violent crime that occurs, which makes us feel unsafe in our cities. It’s a nuanced issue that surveyors alone can’t solve.

Not only is violent crime not up, it isn’t simply an urban ill. BJS measured violent crime as occurring 36% of the time in urban areas, 37% suburban areas, and 27% rural areas. Focusing only on violent crime in the cities while ignoring crime in suburbs and rural areas feeds into the narrative of cities being unsafe for women and prevents us from addressing safety issues that also affect those living outside urban areas.

Showing that we are statistically safe and making us feel safe are, however, two very different propositions. Surveyors and planners can attempt to address this concern by giving criminals fewer opportunities. Criminals don’t want to be foiled and they don’t want to be caught. Someone planning a crime will look for three things: a place to attack from, an absence of witnesses, and a way to escape. Cities designed with this in mind can help make people feel safer.

As RICS Senior Vice President, Ann acts as a key ambassador responsible for driving thought leadership across the profession, helping to deliver RICS’ goal of creating positive social impact in the built environment. Alongside her RICS role, Ann is a real estate broker and licensed architect in Los Angeles, California.

Clearly no one wants to live in a walled city with bright lights and a constant feeling of surveillance. So how can we build more nuanced interventions into our existing cityscapes? In the US, the National Institute of Justice published a report, Solving Crime Problems in Residential Neighborhoods, that surveyed the sources of crime and provided recommendations for that have proven valuable in reducing it.

Their findings revealed two environmental shortcomings: first, ambiguous ownership; and second, lack of foot-traffic. If you web-search images for “dystopian future cityscape” most of the results look like the run-down car parks we are all familiar with. Poorly-maintained, remnant sites such as vacant lots, abandoned structures, and alleys indicate lack of ownership and management. By clearly identifying what constitutes public and private space with fences, signage, and differing materials, the ambiguity is gone. Well-maintained planting, painted-out graffiti, and working exterior lighting are indicators that someone comes to take care of it and takes pride.

By contrast, there are some obviously attractive spots for opportunistic criminals such as pedestrian tunnels, cheque-cashing and liquor stores. These types of uses should be discouraged through the planning process and, if possible, replaced where they already exist. Empty retail spaces should be filled immediately with community services or not-for-profit enterprises. Foot-traffic is a proven disincentive to criminals. These ideas are not ground-breaking: in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban theorist Jane Jacobs introduced the concept of “eyes on the street”, a concept that has remained a bedrock of urban design.

Public spaces that are well used and well maintained make people feel comfortable occupying them. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, actively supports recreational activities and parks. Part of its policy has been to ensure that parks are kept clean, fenced, and locked after dark deterring criminal activity and successfully handing them back to families.

Harnessing advances in data collection can also make places safer. The US Department of Transportation has a programme called “Safe Routes to School” to get children out of cars and walking or biking to school. The idea was health related but could certainly be carried over to make adults feel safer. Designating and mapping “safe” routes which are enhanced with signage, lighting and patrols will direct people to the most secure routes.

In another example, the India-based app Safetipin is designed to make cities more accessible to women and to help “users make safe and informed decisions about their mobility”. The app allows users to drop pins on a map and mark a location as safe or unsafe as a form of safety audit. Safetipin has been used in Bogota and has helped policymakers understand why particular places are safe or unsafe and how to improve them.

Ultimately, a more walkable, beautiful city is a humane city, and we all have a role to play in keeping ours safe.

* 2019 is chosen for this analysis since the crime statistics from 2020 are anomalies.

Criminals look for three things: a place to attack from, an absence of witnesses, and a way to escape

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