Criminal Deterrence

by Stephen Hynes

Crime and opportunity are fundamentally linked. Most residential breakins take place in the middle of the day and are through open windows or unlocked doors. Isolation and anonymity are the primary characteristics of criminal opportunity. Opportunities for personal assault, robbery, harassment and bullying share these characteristics: in general, they are all far more likely to occur in places that are isolated and at times that few people are present.

These observations are common sense, but our urban design and architectural responses have in my view been misdirected, generally focusing on the issue of security. Design initiatives have followed the principle of "hardening" conventional street and usage patterns and designs with fencing, security gates, locks, video surveillance, high intensity and automatic lighting and informing building users of the potential risks posed by strangers - watch for them, install and use peep holes,

This response says to people that, indeed, strangers are a threat. They should be repulsed. We treat everyone without a key as a criminal, despite the fact that such people represent a tiny percentage of the population, and even those will generally not hurt anyone in places that are alive with activity and people, or where there is an obvious sense of group identity. So why not develop community building ideas rather than focusing on physical obstructions that reduce activity and perpetuate fear?

This is exactly what we have done in our projects in Vancouver. Mixed use patterns place commercial and residential premises beside each other, avoiding the daytime vacancy of residential space and the abandonment of commercial spaces at night. At 1529 West 6 th Avenue, open atrium walkways create streetlike frontage at every level. There are always people moving around, deliveries being made, noise and activity. The building is completely open from 7:00am to 8:00pm - anyone can come in and walk or take the elevators to any space in the building. There is a centrally located cafe that serves as the heart of the building, importantly located at the main building entrance, beside the elevators and across from the mail boxes and Fed Ex box, all of which are completely visible from inside the cafe. Everyone in the building passes through this area and many stop in every day.

1529 West 6 th has been essentially crime free since it was completed in 1997. One breakin in ten years represents a dramatic statistical anomaly, two levels of magnitude less than expected rates. And this happened over a period in which Vancouver policing policies shifted the relocation of vagrants away from the core and directly into the West 6 th area. Interestingly, the building also appears to be immune to graffiti in an area in which it is an intractable problem, with many neighboring buildings tagged weekly.

One of the great advantages of higher densities is that it provides the population required to animate space. This is one side of a potential complimentarity. It is to us to create the other side, building space that people want to animate. Not just large public commons, but smaller areas and buildings, finding usage patterns that work for a variety of groups, creating communities and dispelling the fear and anonymity that draw most criminal activity.

It is ironic that concentrating on positive, community enhancing design is a far more effective way of controlling antisocial and criminal activity than the preventive measures that we see everywhere. Humans, it seems, really do not belong on either side of a cage.