Design-led solutions for curbing crime

Purposeful design elements in an urban or residential area that encourage community interaction and engagement can lead to a symbolic ‘sense of place’. The community takes pride and care in their environment and so wish to see it protected. Through community participation and solidarity, members of the community are on the alert to actions that could negatively affect the area, such as antisocial and criminal behaviour. Thus, environmental design can lead to a social policing of criminal behaviour.

In 2022, Hames Sharley’s Head of Research, Emil Jonescu, was one of three authors on a paper that investigated extant theories on crime prevention through environmental design. Design-led solutions for curbing crime: the case study of a major entertainment precinct in Perth, Western Australia by Emil Jonescu, Oluwole Olatunji, and Jason Foo carried out an extensive observational appraisal of Northbridge, Perth, to assess and evaluate the urban space for protection, comfort, and enjoyment.

Due to the innumerable variables that influence crime, the authors are aware that their study may not be generalisable to different socioeconomic, cultural, or ethnic contexts. Nevertheless, the study aims to simulate conversation and provide one example of our built environment design can lead to a decrease in criminal activity in a particular urban area. It does this by exploring design solutions to crimes and criminality within Perth CBD where mono-functionality is a key attribute. A structure or building’s function is informed by its “associated programme, the activities, occupancy, and functions that occur within, and reflective of the community, the placemaking it generates and sustains, and the people that use them” (2022, p 4). The authors hope that their research will encourage urban designers and planning theorists to find motivation from Perth’s functionality design to generate new solutions that could help cities globally in reinventing themselves.

The CBD is the hub of working life in Perth, however, when the work hours end the population shifts outwards from the CBD centre into the surrounding suburbs. The lack of natural surveillance due to the dearth of people in the CBD at night generates opportunistic conditions for criminal activity. By adapting buildings in the CBD to function beyond only the work environment, more people can be enticed to stay in the CBD for entertainment, dining, socialisation, etc. and act, through physical occupation, as a natural enforcer against antisocial behaviour.

This is one example of Oscar Newman’s defensible space theory. Jonescu, Olatunji, and Foo (2022) describe defensible space as empowering citizens of a community to take pride and care in their community and safeguard it as they would their own personal property. Thus, criminals feel less able to successfully carry out crimes. Defensible space can be activated in both urban and residential areas, and design approaches are based on four core concepts: territoriality, surveillance, image, and milieu.

Jonescu, Olatunji, and Foo conducted an iterative urban design process to generate a schematic proposition for a designated site within Perth’s Northbridge entertainment precinct. The researchers did not set out to deliver a conclusive prototype, but rather, to produce an idea that rethinks urban functionality design that considers the societal needs of a post-pandemic world and aligns with the City of Perth’s current sustainable place activation and inclusivity policies. Critical factors to their proposal included implementing Cozens and Grieve’s (2009) theory of crime prevention through environmental design or CPTED, affordance theory, and spatial provision for flexibility regarding social distancing and density.

Image of Northbridge streetscape.

Why did the researchers choose Northbridge as the place for their case study and site investigation? What is Northbridge like? Historically, Northbridge has always been part of the commercial district of Perth CBD since its founding in 1829. It is an entertainment precinct within the central commercial area and is known for its cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, public houses, and other social venues that facilitate social interaction and entertainment. An increase in diversification of activities and demographics from the establishment of TAFE, government offices, and the cultural precinct has drawn more people and attention to the area. As residential occupancy increases so does general upgrades to the area. These developments have contributed to the City’s designed comfort, security, and sense of safety. However, a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2021 showed that crime density within Perth’s CBD was higher than in the outer suburbs, leading to a shift in perceptions of just how safe people felt in the city at night (particularly Friday and Saturday nights), especially in Northbridge which has significantly higher crime statistics relative to its population. Thus, Northbridge was an ideal location for the study to investigate how design elements could reduce the disproportionate crime rates (of crimes against the individual).

The Northbridge case study was performed in five steps: firstly, by appraising crime statistics across Australia with specific reference to Perth and the Northbridge entertainment area; secondly, by outlining the significance of contemporary health mandates of social distancing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic; thirdly, by exploring affordance theory as a critical principle in transforming and activating precincts beyond their intended linear function; fourthly, by conducting a site investigation of Northbridge, Perth, and evaluating the area by using Gehl’s ‘Twelve Quality Criteria’ as a diagnostic observation tool; and lastly, by presenting a geospatial measuring tool supplied by the City of Perth website and supported by ArcGIS.

The researchers found the streets of Northbridge were primarily activated through various forms of entertainment-based functions during the weekends. Most observed groups of people were perceived to be under the influence of alcohol or other substances. It was observed that there was a lack of protected seating and shade structures that provide comfort and shelter for pedestrians and visitors to the area, which could especially impact families with small children, the elderly, and those with special needs. The research explored design strategies to improve the spatial quality of two distinct urban segments within Northbridge: James Street between Parker Street and William Street, and Lake Street between Roe Street and Francis Street. After analysis against Gehl’s criteria, the researchers proposed design strategies to “improve safety and provide space, diversity, inclusivity, accessibility, activation and node-linkage” (2022, p 19).

The design recommendations to encourage people to stay and congregate in the study area in Northbridge sought to provide amenities for rest, public seating, green areas, student housing, cycle and pedestrian paths, and open site lines. By engaging in positive social interactions, the area, it was suggested, could build up a sense of community and pride in the ‘ownership’ of the built spaces. And with an increased presence in Northbridge, so increases passive surveillance. Thus, demonstrating how architectural design elements can contribute to curbing criminal behaviour by creating a sense of place in previously inactivated areas in Northbridge.

Hames Sharley takes pride in being at the forefront of research and finding opportunities to improve our community through architecture and design. This research project is but one of many partnerships between Hames Sharley and research institutions and other industry firms with the goal of furthering knowledge and conversations about critical issues for the greater benefit of society.

To read the full research paper see: Emil E. Jonescu, Oluwole A. Olatunji & Jason Foo (2022) Design-led solution for curbing crime: the case study of a major entertainment precinct in Perth, Western Australia, Journal of Urban Design, DOI: 10.1080/13574809.2022.2081139

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