The Urban Environment and Security

By Rob Anderson (Pr Eng)

We find ourselves faced with rising crime, and pressure to implement increasingly advanced technical solutions, to reduce the risk of becoming a crime statistic. Understanding crime and the route to successful prevention is a goal for all of us. Most of us have come to believe that you can buy a solution that will prevent crime.

The truth is that you can’t buy a security solution. Any purchase will be just one of the pieces in the security puzzle. People cause crime and ultimately it will have to be people that prevent crime. If technology, then, is just one of the components in the plan, what else can we do?

Have you ever wondered why the criminal chose a particular target? There has to have been a good reason.

There are many factors that influence that decision. The least obvious, though well researched, of these is the local environment, urban design and “Work Place” that we give the criminal to work in. Much of this theory was first presented by architect Oscar Newman, in his book: Defensible Spaces.


It is well worth understanding the basics of this theory. The author has had firsthand experience of witnessing actual crime trends agreeing with the theories of CPTED and although an engineer by profession he uses the concepts in the development of security plans with great success. The technology and manpower elements are used to strengthen and compliment the environmental components of the security solution.

We have all found ourselves in a situation where we have found ourselves afraid or uncomfortable, and moved away from the area that caused this feeling. There is a good chance that the reason for the feeling is due to something about the immediate environment. There is also a good chance that the same place would be comfortable to a criminal. So we need to be able to build and maintain CRIMINAL UNFRIENDLY ENVIRONMENTS.

Some the key factors are:

Natural Surveillance:

Natural surveillance increases the threat of interruption by taking steps to increase the feeling that people can be seen. Natural surveillance occurs by designing the placement of physical features, activities and people in such a way as to maximize visibility and promote positive social interaction among legitimate users of private and public space. Potential offenders feel increased scrutiny and limitations on their escape routes.

  • Place windows overlooking roads, paths and parking lots.
  • Leave window curtains open unless you need privacy.
  • Use passing traffic and people as a surveillance asset.
  • Create landscape designs that provide surveillance, especially in proximity to points of normal entry and potential criminal points of entry.
  • Use the lowest, most transparent fence appropriate for the situation.
  • When choosing and placing lighting, avoid poorly placed lights that create blind-spots for potential observers. Ensure potential problem areas are well-lit: pathways, stairs, entrances/exits, parking areas, ATMs, children’s play areas, recreation areas, pools, storage areas, etc.
  • Avoid too-bright security lighting that creates blinding glare and/or deep shadows, hindering the view for potential observers. Eyes adapt to bright lighting quickly but have trouble adjusting to low level lighting quickly. Using lower intensity lights often requires more fixtures. Your eyes will be set up for the bright areas and not see the dark areas.
  • Place lighting along pathways and other pedestrian-use areas at proper heights for lighting the faces of the people in the space (and to identify the faces of potential attackers).

Natural surveillance measures can be complemented by technical solutions. For example, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras can be added in areas where natural surveillance is not available.

Natural Access Control:

Natural access control reduces the opportunity for crime by taking steps to clearly differentiate between public space and private space. By selectively placing entrances and exits, fencing, lighting and landscape to limit access or control flow. Examples are:

  • Use of a single, clearly identifiable, point of entry
  • Use structures to divert persons to reception areas
  • Incorporate maze entrances in public restrooms. This avoids the isolation that is produced by an anteroom or double door entry system
  • Use low, thorny bushes beneath ground level windows.
  • Eliminate design features that provide access to roofs or upper levels
  • In front gardens, use mesh or picket-type fencing along residential property lines to control access and encourage surveillance.
  • Have a locked gate between front and back gardens.
  • Use shoulder-level, open-type fencing along adjoining residential property lines. They should be maintained with low level landscaping to promote social interaction between neighbours.

Territorial Reinforcement:

Territorial reinforcement promotes the feeling of ownership.  An environment designed to clearly

define private space does two things.

  • First, it creates a sense of ownership. Owners have a vested interest and are more likely to challenge intruders or report them to the police.
  • Second, the sense of owned space creates an environment where “strangers” or “intruders” stand out and are more easily identified. By using buildings, fences, pavement, signs, lighting and landscape to express ownership and define public, semi-public and private space, natural territorial reinforcement occurs. In addition the allocation of space to designated users has the same effect.

So what else can be done to send out the message that this place belongs to somebody?

  • Well maintained premises and landscaping such communicates an alert and active presence occupying the space.
  • Display security system signage at access points.
  • Placing amenities such as seating for refreshments in common areas in a commercial or institutional setting helps to attract larger numbers of desired users.
  • Scheduling activities in common areas increases proper use, attracts more people and increases the perception that these areas are controlled.

Territorial reinforcement measures make the normal user feel safe and make the potential offender aware of a substantial risk of arrest or scrutiny.


Good maintenance presents the image of ownership of property. Deterioration indicates less control by the intended users of a site and indicates a greater tolerance of disorder.

The “Broken Windows” Theory explains the theory of maintenance in deterring crime. The Broken Windows theory requires a zero tolerance approach to property maintenance, observing that the presence of a broken window will entice criminals to break more windows in the vicinity. The sooner broken windows are fixed, the less likely it is that such vandalism will occur in the future.

Activity Support and Multi-use Spaces

Activity Support and Multi-use Spaces increases the use of a built environment for safe activities. This results in the spaces being occupied for longer periods, increasing the risk of detection of criminal and undesirable activities. Natural surveillance by the intended users is casual and there is no specific plan for people to watch out for criminal activity.

The Way Forward

CPTED strategies are most successful when they inconvenience the end user the least and when the CPTED design process relies upon the combined efforts of environmental designers, property owners, community leaders, and law enforcement personnel.

CPTED is a deterrent strategy and not the final and only solution. Research demonstrates that offenders cannot be literally prevented from committing crimes by using CPTED. CPTED relies upon changes to the physical environment that will cause an offender to make certain behavioural decisions. Those changes are crafted so as to encourage behaviour, and thus they deter rather than conclusively “prevent” behaviour. Thus, just like technology and manpower, CPTED is another weapon in the security planner’s arsenal.

The introduction of “Second Generation CPTED” should make constructive attempts to enhance social cohesion and build a strong sense of community to impact the motives that cause crime in the first place.

Beyond the attraction of being cost effective in lowering the incidence of crime, CPTED should reduce the overall costs of preventing crime. Altering an existing environment to meet CPTED can sometimes be costly, but when incorporated in the original design phase, cost of designing to CPTED principles are often lower than with traditional approaches.

What are the obstacles to the adoption of CPTED?

  • Firstly: a lack of knowledge of CPTED by designers, owners, and individual community members. For this reason, education is required with case studies of the successes.
  • The second major obstacle is resistance to change. Many people specifically resist the type of cooperative planning that is required to use CPTED. The average South African has grown up living with the exact opposite to the CPTED principles.
  • The third obstacle is that many existing built areas were not designed with CPTED in mind, and modification would be expensive, politically difficult, or require significant changes in some areas of the existing built environment.

The above concepts are well covered in good books and on the Internet. They offer a good opportunity to provide a solution that improves security and lifestyle in the urban environment.

The Author

The author, Rob Anderson, is a registered Professional Engineer. His consulting practice, Rob Anderson and Associates (RAA), specializes in security and electrical engineering, with an emphasis on developing total solutions. This requires extensive knowledge of the environmental, technical, manpower and management of security solutions. RAA prides itself on the degree of expertise that it enjoys in these fields and works constantly to ensure that it remains at the leading edge of developments in them. The practice consults both locally and overseas, working closely with clients to develop relevant security solutions.

He can be contacted by telephone on 031-2674150, or e-mail: