Urban Design Library

Defensible Space, Crime Prevention through Urban Design

Urban Design Library #28
Oscar Newman

When first published, Newman’s book made a big splash. It was received positively as a fresh approach to combat urban crime, as well as negatively as a new form of architectural determinism. Although read much less today, it still causes controversy. A few months ago I read in Anne Minton’s Big Capital, Who is London for? that Newman’s book was a sort of neo-conservative conspiracy and at the origins of demolition of social housing in both the US and the UK. Minton also blamed it for ‘high-security housing estates where gates, grilles and forbidding high fences have become the norm’. Re-reading it now, I wonder whether Minton has in fact read the whole book.

Defensible Space has to be placed in its context: American cities, and New York in particular, had an unprecedented crime rate and the middle classes were fleeing to the suburbs, leaving behind those sectors of the population that couldn’t move, mostly social housing tenants, or the affluent who could afford well-guarded apartments. Newman acknowledged that the problems were socioeconomic and that communities in large urban areas were breaking down. His suggestions, based on years of research at New York University, may seem naïve and somewhat out-dated, but they do not include demolition and they are aimed principally at helping those trapped in inner-city social housing estates.

Newman’s first chapter defines the problem as one of a loss of shared values in communities living in anonymous places, resulting in their inability to ‘come together in joint action’. A rise in crime led to increased police action, but this was not a solution. Instead, Newman suggests that we have to help people to act together and that design can play a role in making this happen. ‘A defensible space is a living residential environment which can be employed by inhabitants for the enhancement of their lives, while providing security for their families neighbors and friends’. He then describes where defensible space can be applied, from the layout of a whole estate, the relationship between buildings and between these and the surrounding area, to entrances of the buildings and inner circulation both vertical and horizontal. He argues that the problems have been created to a large extent by misplaced economies and by the loss of traditional approaches to urban design. Returning to first principles will go a long way to solving the problems although Newman acknowledges that crime will not be eliminated by design alone and may even migrate to other areas.

Chapter two analyses the problem in more detail and concentrates on the buildings themselves. The tall slab buildings with one main entrance, long interior corridors and two or more escape stairwells, are found to be the most difficult to survey; buildings with several entries serving a small number of flats facilitate natural surveillance.

Next, the book considers four relevant aspects of defensible space. The first is territoriality or the creation of areas over which the inhabitants have ‘the ability to assume territorial attitudes and prerogatives’. The second, natural surveillance, requires the design to allow inhabitants to survey the public areas (in- and outdoors) around their homes. The third relates to the image of the development, in particular the stigma associated with social housing estates which Newman suggests is emphasised by their design that separates them from their surroundings. The final one follows from it and is about the juxtaposition of safe and unsafe areas: a well used and overlooked public open space, as opposed to a large one that cannot be overlooked. Most of the above would have been approved by Jane Jacobs and it seems peculiar that while she is considered a saint, Newman is viewed as a demon by many.

Chapter six covers a number of examples of (then) recent housing developments that conform with Newman’s ideas of defensible space. He analyses in detail their internal and external layouts and points out the elements that improve safety or detract from it. Many of his comments would not be out of place in a design review report for a British project, for instance the praise for dwellings having doors directly on the street, or for play areas overlooked by surrounding flats. The next chapter offers ways of making existing schemes safer through modifications to their design. Residents were consulted to find out what they feared and how they would like to increase security in their home environment. Solutions were partly cosmetic and partly included a more fundamental redesign of the projects’ grounds and interiors. Interestingly, the suggestions include the use of electronic devices, a technological innovation in its infancy at the time.

The last chapter, Summary and Recommendations, acknowledges that more research is needed and intended, and includes the following proviso: ‘We are concerned that some might read into our work the implication that architectural design can have a direct causal effect on social interactions. Architecture operates more in the area of “influence” than control’.

The schemes analysed are typical of the US public housing in mid-century. The recommendations are not to be translated blindly to a country with similar but different problems, traditions and culture. Times have changed and crime isn’t the same problem it was in the 1970s; inner cities are no longer being abandoned and the middle classes are moving back into them whilst suburbs show signs of decline. Moreover, technology has fundamentally changed both surveillance (CCTV is now ubiquitous and has replaced other forms of surveillance) and criminality as social media helps both the perpetrators and the surveyors. At the same time communities are no more coherent than they were then; they may be even less so.

What can be retained from Defensible Space is the sensitive approach to inhabitants (something Anne Minton seems to have overlooked), the careful research both in terms of design and in the analysis of police records, the consultation with a variety of stakeholders and the modesty of the solutions offered. They are mostly an extension of Jacobs’ ‘eyes on the street’. What we consider good urban design today incorporates many of Newman’s ideas: legibility, permeability, public-private differentiation; these may not have been his words, but they follow on from his suggestions.

On the down side, it is true that Newman’s ideas have been misappropriated to justify gated communities, fences and barriers, the elimination of some landscaping that could hide those with bad intentions and even the demolition of buildings that could have been retained. He himself complained that people such as Alice Coleman had used his ideas inconsistently.

On a more pedestrian level, the presentation of the book also reflects its age: the black and white photographs are pretty dull and in some cases unhelpful, the drawings not always clear, and the tables and graphs heavy-going. That shouldn’t detract from a fundamentally well-intentioned text which was far-sighted for its time. There isn’t very much in it but what there is, is worth digesting.



URBAN DESIGN 149 Winter 2019 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 149 Winter 2019

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Read On

Jane Jacobs, 1961 | Death and Life of Great American Cities |  Random House
Alice Coleman1985 | Utopia on Trial | Hilary Shipman Ltd
Anne Minton, 2017 | Big Capital, Who is London for? | Penguin  

Defensible Space, Crime Prevention through Urban Design Publication Urban Design Group
The Macmillan Company
Reviewed By
Sebastian Loew