Have you ever walked a block or two out of your way, just because that route felt safer?
Most people intuitively sense that urban design impacts public safety – we avoid blind corners, dark alleys, and empty plazas when possible. Communities can be designed to deter criminal activity; it just takes some forethought. Philadelphia has a unique opportunity to ensure that future development in the city promotes crime prevention. As elected officials, business and civic leaders grapple with issues of public safety and the city’s outdated zoning code, marrying the two public discussions is essential.
Academics, government agencies, and developers have studied and utilized two closely related approaches to urban design: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design
and Defensible Space
. Behind each concept is the theory that a city’s layout matters when it comes to public safety. The goal is to create places where people can observe and be observed – letting wrongdoers know that their misdeeds will not go unnoticed and encouraging a sense of ownership in legitimate users of the public sphere.
Many of the design principles recommended to improve neighborhood security have been employed in Philadelphia. Our traditional rowhouse neighborhoods, complete with stoops and porches, create outdoor living rooms that help residents keep an eye on the street. More recently, redevelopment of local public housing sites throughout the city has been credited with turning entire neighborhoods around. Such communities as the Richard Allen Homes and Schuylkill Falls have been transformed under the HOPE VI
program, which provided federal funds to revitalize distressed public housing. HOPE VI stipulated that the redeveloped facilities should follow the
dictates of defensible space. This meant no more large, anonymous high rises. Instead, communities were designed to give each resident a sense of personal space that they own and control. This sense of ownership encourages residents both to maintain the property and to keep a watchful eye on the community. Safety and security features are also emphasized in the design.
At a recent conference of the Building Industry Association, Farah Jimenez, Executive Director of Mt. Airy USA, described how poor land use decisions foster open-air drug markets. A corner store and auto repair shop book ending a quiet residential street invite loitering and create opportunities for drug dealers to post sentinels in front of the commercial establishments while drug deals are made in the center of the block. Better land use and design choices can make incursions of illegal activity into our communities less likely. An overhaul of the city’s outdated zoning code, approved by voters last May, will present citizens and lawmakers with the opportunity to go beyond considerations of appropriate density and use to the impact of the built environment on safety. As the city seeks to quell the rising violence and revamp the city’s zoning code, the two efforts must be coordinated.
To be sure, traditional methods of crime prevention -- more police officers, after school programs, and jobs – must continue. But taking steps to make the city itself inhospitable to crime can enhance these efforts, and the Zoning Reform Commission can assist the law enforcement community. As an example, planners can survey police about which physical features are common to the most persistently dangerous areas of Philadelphia.
While it is not yet clear what the community’s vision for the future of the city is, everyone can agree that that a safer Philadelphia is essential. To achieve this for the next generation of Philadelphians, we must start planning today.
photos: Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza (13th and Fitzwater Streets) before and after Hope VI
DOs and DON'Ts for Creating Safe Spaces
- DO make sure that areas are well lit.
- DON'T create isolated spaces, such as enclosed stairwells in parking garages.
- DO include stoops and porches to create gradual transitions between public and private spaces.
- DO encourage territoriality.
- DON'T simply fence off areas to prevent access.
- DO ensure that buildings fit within the urban fabric.
- DO place windows so that residents can survey public areas.
-- Marisa Waxman, AICP, Senior Associate