Urban Design: Safety Without Walls

Safety is a public good that needs to be actively pursued through policing and managing urban environments. But what constitutes success? Turning around urban decline is essential, but not at the cost of perpetuating inequality and marginality.

The Venezualian capital Caracas, and Fortaleza, Brazil's fifth largest city, bring to mind urban landscapes ravaged by gun battles between opposing Favela gangs, as well as the drug trade, and other crimes such as kidnapping, carjacking, and theft.

Patrolling Complexo do Alemão, the largest favela in Rio. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Patrolling Complexo do Alemão, the largest favela in Rio. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

São Paulo, Mexico City, and Medellín, on the other hand, have been remarkably able to turn the tide against crime and grime, and enhanced the quality of life of all citizens, notwithstanding ongoing challenges.

Cities need to contend with complex issues of poverty and inequality, where crime is often systemic to the growing divide between the rich and the poor. Organized crime syndicates can bring a city to its knees, as the experience in turning around runaway crime statistics in Mexico City and São Paulo clearly show today.

When intervening in the physical environment to enforce public safety, there is a fine line to toe: A drive for the securitization of policing, and surveillance of public space, can quickly override other agendas of redressing social inequality, and developing poorer neighborhoods. When this happens, the citizen can become the subject of security rather than the beneficiary.

Some Brazilian cities have been successful in turning the tide against growing homicide rates, but there is a trend in São Paulo towards gated communities, and further marginalization of poor neighborhoods -- evidence of what previous President Lula called "social apartheid." Across the city, large, gated developments by private developer Alphaville Urbanismo, house close to 20,000 residents complete with schools, businesses, and shopping malls, and are surrounded by walls and armed guard posts, with helicopters circling overhead.

Policing needs to be accompanied by social development, not more walls. In Rio de Janeiro, a joint programme run by the Institute of Municipal Planning Pereira Passos (IPP) and UN Habitat -- to the value of $1,8 billion between 2009 and 2013 -- prioritizes social development in pacified, crime-ridden areas. Despite some communities' recent concerns raised about "key decisions about the future of the communities made behind closed doors," the programme aims to advance local development such as improved education, health, infrastructure, housing, and other services.

Cape Town has overtaken Johannesburg in becoming the most dangerous city in South Africa, another country marked by stark social and economic inequalities. In Cape Town, crime is concentrated in 10 out of 60 policing districts, and mostly located in Khayelitsha, a sprawling slum on the southeast periphery of the city.

Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading project in Khayelitsha (Source: Julian Ruxworthy, Flickr)

Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading project in Khayelitsha (Source: Julian Ruxworthy, Flickr)

A joint collaboration between the German Development Bank and the City Authority, called Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), uses 24-hour, multi-use "active boxes" -- structures "doubling as safe houses and community patrol bases" -- as central rally points. Cooperative patrol teams rotate to monitor crime-prone areas. Social action and urban design is combined to create comprehensive plans for slum upgrading initiatives. An associated social development fund receives community proposals for cultural, recreational, legal, economic, and training initiatives.

Designing the urban environment in more socially productive ways is another alternative to more walls. The global movement of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), which has gained official traction since 1971, approaches crime prevention through a design focus on the physical environment. A common set of values and principles guide the design and planning of the physical environment in the CPTED methodology. These include improving placement of entrance and exits, increasing visibility through surveillance, and promoting ownership through fencing, signage, and separation of semi-private and public space.

The application of CPTED-guided plans varies between cities, and more work is needed to develop a clear and unambiguous framework for implementation. The American Planning Association, the regulatory body of urban planners, is actively promoting a multidisciplinary and collaborative design approach to CPTED, rather than resorting to isolated planning. The APA argues that "incorporating the principles and strategies [of CTPED] can reduce incidence and fear of crime as well as provide many secondary benefits."

These are just some alternatives to building more walls, and cutting up the city into safe and unsafe zones. Better urban design, and more comprehensive community involvement, can be a starting place in turning cities around.

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  1. This article first appeared on UBM Future Cities