Steve Woolrich: Communities should embrace crime prevention through environmental design

It seems that there is no shortage of challenges facing communities these days, including the pandemic and opioid crisis, homelessness, and a rise in certain types of crime. In 1999 I was introduced to a methodology called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). The late Timothy Crowe, a leading expert, was the facilitator, and taught a comprehensive five-day course. The rest is history, and I’m still practising today.

In his book titled Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, Crowe credits Dr. C. Ray Jeffery who coined the concept, and expands upon the assumption that “the proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in the fear of crime and the incidence of crime, and to an improvement in the quality of life.”

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The International CPTED Association (ICA) suggests that the core strategies that make up the approach “aim to reduce victimization, deter offender decisions that precede criminal acts, and build a sense of community among inhabitants so they can gain territorial control of areas, reduce crime, and minimize fear.”

As a long-standing member of the ICA, and past board member who has been supporting the evolution of this methodology for more than 20 years, it’s perplexing to even fathom how some cities are not embracing its use. As any qualified practitioner knows, once the principles are understood, you “never look at the environment the same way again,” as Crowe use to say.

While some municipalities such as Saskatoon have gone above and beyond by embedding all these principles into their land use bylaws, policies and official community plans, others seem to underestimate the impact this can have on public safety.

In many cases the practice has been bastardized and reduced to simple checklists that various organizations throughout Canada use. Even more concerning is why some cities and agencies use the basic principles, often referred to as traditional or first-generation concepts, but don’t use any second-generation principles.

It’s like using half of the ingredients you require to make bread, it’s never going to rise up – like many struggling neighbourhoods throughout North America.

Threshold capacity is one such principle that can have dramatic outcomes in neighbourhoods experiencing crime and social disorder. This principle draws from social ecology and pertains to land use, scale, density, diversity, and available resources. Too little of one element or too much of another affects threshold capacity, and creates tipping points.

We can see plenty of examples throughout our region where supported housing facilities, safe injection sites, and even encampments have tipped the scales within neighbourhoods. Yes, we’re in a pandemic and emergency protocols are necessary but this principle and others have not been adopted by many cities prior COVID-19. Yet, we continue to build at an astounding rate with developers rarely having to adhere to these principles in their designs. It defeats the whole purpose of designing out crime.

Further concerns have been noted by many experts, including myself, and suggest that there is growing evidence that there are those taking CPTED courses that go on to practise or teach the methodology with little or no practical experience.

We are seeing various professions asking their staff to conduct this work off the side of their desks. In my 20 years of practice and continued studies I’ve yet to find any two environments that are exactly the same.

It requires a tailored approach. The late Jane Jacobs nailed it when she said “we must get out of theory-land, and into the streets for closer look.”

There is no question that everyone has a lot on their plate right now, and it’s a stressful time. However, if we don’t address these issues now, then when? More target hardening, security guards and fences continue to create the fortification of our cities. These are costly measures that disconnect us and promote fear beyond the impact of a pandemic.

Many leaders suggest we can do better. Let’s start building connections, not moats that divide us further.

Steve Woolrich is a crime-prevention practitioner and the principal of Rethink Urban’s collaborative focusing on community safety and well-being.

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