“Designing out crime”, street furniture and soft landscaping


Urban designers have the tricky task of balancing security with civic life. Creative product design can help. In the right hands, innovative products make public spaces safer by weighting them against antisocial behaviour and more serious crime. And they can do so without creating bristling, draconian, fortress towns.

Security versus liberty

In the process of reconciling urban planning theory with urban planning practice, “events” have a knack of interfering – a point made in our post looking at this summer’s riots in the UK.

Similarly, Vancouver’s Director of City Planning, Brett Toderian, recently explained how the events of 9/11 led at the time to a familiar urban planning dilemma, writ large:

Good urbanism is about avoiding silo (or single issue) thinking, and several of us lamented the rise of security in Lower Manhattan as a “super-silo”. This has led to bunker design that turns its back to the public realm in the name of safety. Although all could understand the impulse toward such thinking in the shadow of such a devastating attack on 9/11, most of us called for design creativity in addressing security within a more holistic design program, with clever solutions that achieve many goals without sacrificing “public-ness”.

Manhattan’s response was eventually more nuanced than Toderian feared it would be, with bold and public-spirited projects like the High Line park and Times Square’s pedestrianised plazas going from strength to strength.

Still, New York’s balancing act is typical of the age-old dynamic tension between a population’s demand for security and its desire for liberty.

Secured by Design

Prescribing security measures in construction projects can, at first glance, seem to be a blunt instrument, which puts the interests of property owners and insurers over those of the public. Standardisation feels at odds with the development of human-scale environments, but it is on the agenda.

In January 2011, Andrew Stunnell, the Communities Minister and champion of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act (SSBA), was interviewed by Wilkinson Construction Consultants. They broached the question of legislating for security in construction projects.

WCCL: The coalition are looking at ways of removing conflicting and complex approval processes, do you see the SSBA as an opportunity to incorporate Secured by Design standards into the building regulations?

AS: It’s an area we are looking at, but again needs to ensure a balanced point of view, and we are speaking to colleagues in the home office and the Association of British Insurers and Association of Chief Police Officers to establish the best way forward. The Secured by Design standards are a good model but any regulation would need to ensure that costs were proportionate and did not introduce unnecessary burdens.

Aside from the question of standardisation and bureaucracy, Secured by Design and “designing out crime” best practice is notable for the discretion that it recommends when deploying security products and features.

The recurring theme is that openness and public visibility can encourage responsible behaviour. There could well be a place for secure and strict control in certain situations, such as insurmountable and forbidding access control and roadblocking at sensitive sites. However, making public environments safe is often more to do with ensuring visibility and accountability to the wider community.

Intentional urban design

Designer and researcher, Dan Lockton, writes extensively about this on his fascinating Design with Intent blog. On the topic of urban design and public behaviour, he refers to the different ways that areas can be protected:

Flusty (1997, p. 48) classifies “five species” of “interdictory spaces—spaces designed to intercept and repel or filter would-be users”, many of which occur frequently in residential contexts as well as public spaces: stealthy space—areas which have been deliberately concealed from general view; slippery space—spaces with no apparent means of approach; crusty space—space that cannot be accessed because of obstructions; prickly space—space which cannot be occupied comfortably due to measures inhibiting walking, sitting or standing; and jittery space—space which is constantly under surveillance (or threatened surveillance).

Again, intentional design and creative use of space and exterior furniture can be more effective than more immediately obvious security measures.

So, low-level fencing and railings that are designed and arranged to ensure good through-visibility are important in keeping sight-lines clear.

Good, well-designed lighting schemes are also a common and key requirement, as are less obvious interventions like painting walls and roofs white, which makes the most of illumination and makes artificial lighting more efficient and less imposing.

Where barriers, boundaries and demarcation need to be set out, attractive contemporary street furniture, heritage post and rail, and soft landscaping – grass verges, flowerbeds, shrubs or well-pruned hedges – provide “symbolic barriers” without obscuring areas.

Innovative product design

Along the same lines of using counterintuitive design to protect and secure the public realm, the Design Against Crime Research Centre takes a particularly creative and experimental approach:

Design Against Crime (DAC) is a research initiative developed at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, the first of whose aims is to “demonstrate why ‘secure design doesn’t have to look criminal’ via practice-led design and social innovation benchmarks aimed at public space and the public realm”.

The programme’s oblique methods result in overlooked scenarios being considered and unexpected solutions coming to light:

When looking at the experience of ‘dining’, DACRC have investigated how the user’s experience of eating or drinking in crowded public spaces links to predatory abuser behaviour, to generate understanding of theft MOs within the ‘system’ of use surrounding ‘dining’ and to catalyse the design of furniture and other objects to help prevent it.

It also moves from theory and analysis of case studies to innovative product design – “anything designed against crime should not only be user-friendly, and ‘abuser-unfriendly’ but ultimately ‘fit for purpose’”. Products have included cycle racks and stands made to stop lifting, leavering, picking, unbolting and cutting, and anti-theft clips and specially designed chairs to hold bags and prevent theft in public places.

Designing on the front foot

Both radical innovation in product design and smart use of more conventional products help to improve safety and security in public spaces.

But, in a way, products are morally neutral. The same perch-bench that is specified for a neurotic reason, such as to prevent homeless people from sleeping in public places, might be selected to encourage circulation in public concourses prone to congestion.

Designing for security does not necessarily mean that architects, landscape architects and planners have to batten down the hatches and compromise their public realm ambitions. As Dan Lockton again points out, it can be an opportunity to make a positive social contribution:

One point to which Katyal repeatedly returns is the concept of architectural solutions as entities which subtly reinforce or embody social norms (desirable ones, from the point of view of law enforcement) rather than necessarily enforce them: “Even the best social codes are quite useless if it is impossible to observe whether people comply with them. Architecture, by facilitating interaction and monitoring by members of a community, permits social norms to have greater impact. In this way, the power of architecture to influence social norms can even eclipse that of law, for law faces obvious difficulties when it attempts to regulate social interaction directly” (Katyal, 2002, p. 1075).


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3 Responses to ““Designing out crime”, street furniture and soft landscaping”

  1. The UK riots: can we really blame architects? « External Works Says:

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  2. Boundaries, fencing and connected landscapes « ESI.info External Works Says:

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