Can crime ever be designed out of the urban landscape? If so, where doe the line blue between creating safe spaces and fortress-like environments? These are questions still dividing the architectural community, as Ross Davies reports in the latest edition of Overseas

Back in 1974, the Canadian architect and city planner Oscar Newman visited the Aylesbury Estate in south-east London as part of a documentary for BBC2’s Horizon series.

Over the course of the 45-minute episode (available on YouTube), Newman patrols the estate – opened two years earlier – identifying the innumerable perils that had already made it rife with break-ins and acts of vandalism. Almost half a century later, it makes for a shocking piece of television. Newman – a dour, professorial figure – roundly eviscerates the estate as a hotbed for crime and a forcing house of delinquency. In every darkened walkway and stairwell lurks danger. In the final reel, Newman speculates whether or not the Aylesbury’s children will themselves grow up to be criminals.

It stops short of invoking the apocalypse, but not by much. Subsequently, the documentary has accrued its fair share of controversy, with one noted architecture publication describing it as “trial by TV”. However, Newman’s influence on architecture’s relativity to urban crime remains incalculable today. His 1972 book, Defensible Space: People and Design in the Violent City – a study of the causal relationship between environment, crime and social problems on large housing estates, is arguably the blueprint for the UK’s Secured by Design (SBD) initiative. Introduced in 1989 by the Home Office – before becoming a private entity in 2000 – SBD is a voluntary scheme built around the idea of “designing out crime”. Funded in the main by security companies, it encourages cooperation between architects, planners and law enforcement to create developments around a set of design criteria.

If this set of principles is adhered to, a building then becomes SBD-accredited. Stockport-based BTP Architects is one such practice that has worked with police architectural liaison officers in order to meet SBD approval.

“Checklists can include everything from fence heights and lighting to designing out hiding places on estates,” explains BTP director Manny Atkinson.

“Also, on larger schemes, as part of the planning process, the local authority may ask for a crime impact statement. In that case, the police compile a report, which highlights crime issues in the local area and makes recommendations that we then adapt to help design out incidental crime.”

However, Anna Minton, author of Ground Control and reader in architecture at the University of East London, has her reservations over SBD’s influence. She believes its recommendations, while sensible in some areas, have normalised militarised environments, from housing estates to schools and hospitals.

“Because SBD requirements for schools and public buildings are based on an audit of local crime risk, higher crime areas – which correlate with higher deprivation scores – are now characterised by public buildings with a militarised feel to them,” she says.

“I think security has been hardened up to a problematic degree. Much of this can be traced to Newman’s theories, which have had the most disproportionate influence over all policies towards public space and buildings.”

Citizens, whether they find themselves in private or public space, want to feel safe. This is a self-evident truth. Yet, 9/11 and subsequent incidents of terrorism – fuelled further by reports of escalating knife crime in the UK’s major cities – have tapped into society’s worst fears. According to the British Security Industry Association, the total turnover for all security products and services in the UK currently stands at £22.71 billion.

That’s an awful lot of CCTV cameras, razor wire, and roller shutters. So, how are architects expected to achieve a suitable balance between creating spaces that are safe but don’t look like prison towers?

“It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike,” says Atkinson. “You can’t just build a high wall around the site. On every scheme we do, we try to look outward. That means ensuring spaces are well lit and don’t contain any hiding spaces.

“So, instead of building a two-metrehigh timber fence, how about a lower fence with a trellis on top or a hedge? It’s that kind of thing that makes places safe, but doesn’t give way to hostile architecture.”

The mention of hostile architecture is a pertinent reminder of architecture’s power to both include and exclude people. This was brought into sharp relief in 2014 when reports emerged of a private apartment block in south London installing “antihomeless” spikes to deter rough sleeping. Public outrage rightfully ensued.

“While there might be an argument for tougher security if you are designing a place for vulnerable residents – say, a care home – I’d say that hostile architecture can never be a good thing,” says Atkinson.

“Hostile architecture is in no way positive for the urban environment,” agrees Minton. “Instead, we should be looking to nurture safety is organic as a result of natural surveillance – as is the case in the public spaces in so much of continental Europe, where the public squares and piazzas favour a culture of public space rather than the privatisation of public space.”

A distinction needs to be made between public and policing, and private security, says Minton, given that the goal of the former is the protection of the public, while the latter is more concerned with securing the property itself.

“It’s a whole different set of priorities, often tied up with insurance,” she argues. “It’s very much a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ve got mass privatised property that needs to be insured – therefore, it needs to have private security. It has nothing to do with crime.”

According to Caroline Davey, Director of the Design Against Crime Solution Centre at the University of Salford, security is best achieved through considering the risk of crime as early as possible in the development project – as opposed to tacking on security features as a reactionary measure further down the line.

“Integrating these issues into the design process carries several benefits,” she says. “Designers are better able to understand crime and security issues within the context of all needs and requirements, and so use their creative skills to generate solutions that are better integrated within the overall design solution.

“Early-stage integration is also much more preferable to retrofitting unsympathetic security devices after the design is complete.”

Davey also understands the general assumption that additional security and unattractive design are mutually inclusive. However, she cites examples of this trend being bucked in recent years.


One such building to have caught her eye is Nottingham’s Experian Data Centre (above), which opened its doors in 2006. Despite being billed at the time as a “data centre fortress”, the inclusion of reed bedding and swamp at the front of the complex (security fencing is found at the rear), “addresses security in a way that is subtle and not visually threatening”.

“And if more overt security measures are required, well-considered design can improve even these,” adds Davey. “For example, transparent roller shutters can be used to create a more inviting shopfront and don’t attract as much graffiti as unsightly metal grilles.”

SBD clearly divides opinion, too, as highlighted by the opposing conclusions arrived at by Davey and Minton in their respective research.

Davey points to “scientific evidence that SBD accreditation reduces crime, antisocial behaviour and fear of crime”. Yet, a 2013 case study carried out by Minton on Pimlico’s Peabody Avenue – commonly regarded as the birthplace of UK social housing – showed that while incidents of crime were down, anti-social behaviour was up, despite SBD guidelines having been incorporated into 50 new homes on the estate.

“Our study suggested that high security was offered as a technical response to a complex social problem, which requires a different kind of solution,” says Minton.

Is it possible to build an urban environment in such a way that crime can be completely eliminated? Given the number of variables at play when it comes to criminal activity – acts of vandalism are clearly not the same as muggings, assault or worse – architects can only do so much.

“Obviously you can’t design out all of crime, because if someone heads to a town or city with the express intent of causing mischief – or worse – they will do,” says Atkinson. “So, I think it’s important to differentiate between incidental crime and people just wanting to cause trouble.

“I also feel a lot of this is to do with the fact that young people don’t appear to have anywhere to go. If we are looking to design out crime in cities, we can’t just do it site by site.”

Ultimately, the roots of crime are socioeconomic. The incorporation of spiked fences and razor wire will not design out crime as much as simply shift it to another location. More community-centric, outward-looking design and planning is the way to go.environments where

Pin It