Preventing crime one shrub at a time

A dimly-lit alleyway, a littered street corner, a graffiti covered wall – all warning signs of an area we wouldn’t like to spend much time in. But what about those with intentions of anti-social and criminal behaviour? Can our environment act as a free pass for deviance?

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), the answer to solve ‘the broken window effect’, has played a pivotal role in the undoing of many communities, public and private land.

In 1982, James Q Wilson and George Kelling wrote an article talking about ‘broken windows’. They believed that once a building has one broken window left unattended, the rest will be broken and the neighbourhood will quickly go down hill, in a vicious snowball effect. This led to ten years of cracking down on petty crime in New York, and statistically speaking, it worked. By stopping graffiti artists, loiterers and so on, major crimes also dropped significantly.

Since then, environmental design has become a hugely important part in modern society. This is based purely on the fact that seemingly unowned spaces will fall prey to deviant behaviour, much quicker than an area which is seen to be cared for. So what constitutes a good or bad design?

Well, look at the growing number of Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local stores, the shop front is usually one large glass panel. One might think that it could lead to a very large broken window, but sociologically speaking crime is much less likely to happen here. The window allows passers by to see into the brightly lit stores, with checkouts being placed at the forefront so any actions outside our social norms (such as robbery and petty theft) would be quickly noticed.

Similarly, designated walkways will have the same affect. In the immortal words of Monty Python, “When you have found the shrubbery, you must place it here, beside this shrubbery, only slightly higher so you get a two layer effect with a little path running down the middle.”

We are conditioned as children to keep off the grass, and when faced with a footpath towards an entrance, we are unlikely to deviate from the designated area. As such, anyone that does deviate will likely be viewed with suspicion. This is known as defensible space, whereby using real or psychological barriers encourage others to avoid going off course.

Kees Keizer conducted a study in 2008 to obtain qualitative data on whether members of the public would violate social norms or even laws in the face of bad environmental design. The figures were astounding. The latter part of the study involved leaving an open envelope with a €5 note visible hanging out of a public postbox. As Keizer wrote, the study results were quite dramatic.

Of the participants in the baseline order condition (no graffiti, no littering), 13% stole the envelope compared with 27% of the subjects in the graffiti disorder condition. The difference is significant. The results proved to be robust. Compared with the baseline order condition (in which 13% stole the envelope), 25% of subjects stole the envelope in the litter disorder condition.

It seems that when faced with others who have clearly acted immorally, even if the acts of those before you are a lesser form of deviance, we are more likely to behave inappropriately because we believe we won’t be caught.

Although overall crime rates have dropped over the past year in Lincolnshire according to UK crime stats website, burglary in the county has gone up. So what steps can we take to deter would-be thieves from attempting a crime on our property?

Eden District Council in Cumbria gives a run down on its site of what we can do to make our environment safer. Movement sensor lighting is a prime example of deterring trespassers, especially if your home isn’t particularly visible from the road. Neatly kept gardens and fence panels show someone is paying attention to the property, making it unlikely a break in would go unnoticed.

Deterrents such as barbed wire may seem like a good idea, but it suggests there is something behind it worth hiding. A better option would be a 5-6ft, well painted iron fence with pointed fleur de lis. Aesthetically pleasing to look at, but not to feel when trying to climb over!

Along with optimising your own home or business, picking up a stray crisp packet in your street, reporting graffiti and other seemingly minor issues will all go towards lowering the crime rate in your area.

Major building developments are now built with CPTED in mind, from the layout of new housing estates to town planning for safer pedestrian access. Time and time again, we find deviancy thrives when no one is watching.