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Better park design can prevent crime

Time spent at the drafting table can make parks and green spaces safer.

By Joel McCormick
National Recreation and Park Association

Imagine being afraid to jog in your local park. Or perhaps you're one day shocked to find graffiti painted on the playground where you like to take your children. Imagine avoiding a nearby green space because of fear.

This isn't a myth for many communities; it's a reality.

Park life is invaluable. Not only do park and recreation professionals recognize the benefit of fresh air and green space, but recent research has shown that the kind of experience park-goers receive is a psychological imperative for relaxation and happiness. The concern and stigma of crime is threatening our park and recreation areas, especially in urban environments.

The places that were built to rejuvenate us and to provide places for our children to play and grow often serve as "hang-outs" for criminals, including drug dealers and prostitutes. In fact, researchers reported in a 1992 study that "fear of criminal victimization threatens the quality of life of many Americans [and] almost half of the U.S. population has reported feeling unsafe in areas within a mile of their homes."

Consequently, it has become a part of routine park management to make parks and green spaces both regenerative, attractive, natural-looking areas while maintaining safety and peace of mind for the public.

Fortunately, a model for dealing with this universal problem has been effectively put into action. Crime prevention through environmental design is a phrase described by C. Ray Jeffreys in his 1971 book of the same title. Jeffreys defines CPTED as the "proper design and effective use of the built environment that can lead to a reduction in the fear and the incidence of crime, and an improvement in the quality of life."

CPTED principles provide park users a comforting, safe feeling while discouraging potential criminals, therefore reducing crime proactively and unobtrusively.

CPTED is not a checklist, nor is it an easy fix for all situations. Good CPTED for one area may be completely inappropriate in another area.

For example raising the crown of a tree in one area may open up the field of vision in a trail, but in another area it could kill the tree. A fix for the latter area would involve diverting the trail instead of trimming the tree. Therefore, CPTED is site and situation specific.

There are four main principles to CPTED:

1. Natural Surveillance: This is keeping the environment maintained so that people can be easily seen by other users, staff, and anyone who may pass by the park, trail or playground.

2. Natural Access Control: You want natural access ingress and egress controlled by some means, such as a fence or a flower bed. In other cases, a hedge or a path could work. The important thing is that something should signal "walk here" and "do not walk" there. Therefore, a person in a walking area should not look out of place.

3. Territoriality: Territorial reinforcement is used to distinguish public and private spaces. This can be done by a number of means, including signage, flower beds and mowing. The idea is to show that someone owns and cares about this space. A space that is not used for legitimate park entertainment can quickly be used for some illegitimate, illegal or unwanted activity.

4. Maintenance: Parks should only build what they can maintain. Without maintenance, a public area is inviting criminal behavior. Joe Murray, an arborist consultant and biology professor at Blue Ridge Community College in Staunton, Va., is a member of the Safer By Design Coalition, an organization that grew within the state because of interest in CPTED. He says that CPTED is well established in Europe and that the coalition is living proof that there is growing interest in the United States.

Murray explains that CPTED works best when it's not intrusive. "A safety

design strategy works when it is convenient for the citizen," he says. "Citizens establish territoriality over crime by being present in an area and making their presence known. Crime takes over an area is when it gains territoriality through graffiti or other means."

Murray praises an example of park design that works well. The Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle is often packed with people, yet there is a sense of safety. Murray explains that the trail was built with input by citizens and is well-used for that reason. This is in stark contrast to a trail built recently by another U.S. city without citizen input.

Murray says he recently walked this empty path. "I was scared for my life," he says.

Henrico County, Va., planner Kim Vann, who works with the Henrico County Police Department, agrees that taking ownership of an area makes a huge difference. "Whether it's a passive or active park, you have to make sure you draw people in," she explains. "The more people who use facilities the way they were intended, the safer those areas are going to be."

A great example of CPTED at work is located in the city of Lynchburg, Va. The Ed Page entrance to the James River Heritage Trail, a multi-use (hiking/biking) asphalt trail, is home to the Awareness Garden, designed and maintained as part of a cancer awareness program with a rest-room facility, concession stand and a parking area.

The garden is maintained by the Awareness Garden Foundation and

volunteers. The trail itself is used by hundreds of people on a daily basis and the area has been virtually crime-free since it was developed. All of the traffic on the trail helps to keep an eye on the garden. Conversely, the volunteers and visitors to the garden are close enough to the restroom area and the parking lot to maintain a feeling of safety.

Stone work and split-rail fencing provide territoriality and access control. The sidewalk's varying material adds to the territoriality, letting one know that they have left the James River Heritage Trail and entered the Awareness Garden. From the Awareness Garden, visitors have a clear view of the restroom and concession area and vice versa. The fence separates the trail from the garden without obstructing the natural observation.

Preventing crime by designing a better space is a win-win situation for everyone. In an age with advanced security technology, it should not be "ironic that one of the most logical, least expensive and most effective security initiatives is the oldest and the most often ignored: the built environment," as Jonathan Lusher put it in a 1998 article from the Journal of Property Management.

Most of the published research documentation of successful CPTED use has been in Sarasota, Fla., and Canada. However, in 1997 the National Crime Prevention Council issued a publication that lists Sarasota, Fla.; Tempe, Ariz.; Toronto, Ont. (Canada); Knoxville, Tenn.; Houston, Texas; Cincinnati, Ohio; Gainesville, Fla.; and Richmond, Va., as all major sites improved by CPTED principles. CPTED principles have been put to use by police and urban development professionals throughout North America for years and now it is making itself known throughout the world.

Crime prevention is as simple as embracing new ways of thinking. The park and recreation field has been charged with coming together on park and green space safety issues the same way that we have on playground safety and aquatic facility management.

Vann may have put it best when she says, "It takes more than police to police parks." Setting higher standards for our urban spaces will provide our public the psychological advantage of relieving stress, to rejuvenating the mind in order to be happy, healthy people.


Designing Safer Communities: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, National Crime Prevention Council

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (2nd Ed.), Timothy Crowe

Virginia CPTED guidelines:

Trees & Crime: The Role of Landscapes in Crime Prevention:

Henrico County Police Department's CPTED:

Related topics:

More resources:

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