x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Urban planners find a way to head off crime

New rules governing the design of buildings open to the public are a sophisticated way to deter crime and increase safety.

Keeping public spaces safe from criminals is a constant challenge. The UAE enjoys low rates of crime but rapid growth of the country’s big cities could threaten that.

Now the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council is moving in a sophisticated new direction to keep ahead of the problem. As The National reported yesterday, all new hotels, malls, and other open-to-the-public developments will have to comply with requirements that give safety from crime and terrorism a high priority. Existing facilities – also including schools, places of worship, transport stations, and more – will over time have to be modified as needed to meet the new standards.

It’s all in line with a spreading urban-planning concept known as “crime prevention through environmental design”, or CPTED.

The phrase was coined by a US criminologist in 1971, but the idea took some time to find support among urban planners. The basic concept is that a “built environment” can encourage crime, or discourage it. Dark backstreets, for example, are an invitation to muggers and burglars, whereas bright spaces with good sightlines naturally discourage crime. Outdoors, fences should not limit vision, shrubbery should be limited in height, lighting should be sufficient, and so on. Psychologists tell us that people behave better when they know or think they are being watched.

Many such measures are simple common sense, and also make public places more pleasing. Closely allied to CPTED is the “broken-window” theory of crime prevention: lack of maintenance can make an area seem derelict, and that greatly increases the likelihood of bad behaviour. Another key concept is that residents should take a communal interest in neighbourhood crime deterrence.

Simple crime is not the only problem that prudent planning of public spaces can help solve.

Terrorist acts and accidents such as fires, can also be nipped in the bud, or their effects can be minimised, through careful urban design.

CPTED is no panacea. Some of the academics who have studied the concept are less enthusiastic than others, though most do see value in it. Also, retrofitting existing spaces to conform to these principles can be costly.

Careful planning to deter crime is obviously worthwhile in new developments. Imposing these requirements on existing facilities may prove more difficult, but the principle is clear and deserves support.