Creating safer places through urban design

Urban designer Michael Cheng outlines his vision to build a safer Yorkshire

Michael Cheng: The issue of public safety, particularly the safety of women, has also become a matter of national importance

In a post Covid-19 pandemic world, the population behaviour is changing. As more people work from home, people are walking more. People desire to be close to areas of green space and walking networks.

The issue of public safety, particularly the safety of women, has also become a matter of national importance.

Creating safer places through the design of the built environment is not a brand new concept. The science of crime prevention through design originated in the USA in the 1960s and has been adopted across the globe ever since. The thought is that, where there is a presence of people, offenders are less likely to commit a crime by removing opportunities that may be provided inadvertently by the built environment. It also aims to reduce fear of crime and, in doing so, helps to improve people’s quality of life.

There is an urgent demand for new housing in the UK

Crime impact

In the UK, the urgent demand for housing post-WWII resulted in a housing boom during the 1960s-1980s and, for many estates across the country, this resulted in a number of poorly planned developments that had no regard to crime prevention.

In an attempt to separate cars from pedestrians, many housing layouts were designed so that houses fronted onto pedestrian networks, with cars relegated to rear parking courts. Whilst this is understandable in theory, in practice, this led to confusion as residents no longer understood which was the private side of their home and what was public.

Cars parked behind high rear garden fences became vulnerable to crime as there were no houses overlooking, and pedestrian networks were not used as residents were not entering their houses through their front doors. Alleyways, with no appropriate lighting, were often built in between houses, with no overlooking and therefore no natural surveillance.

Urgent need for change

In the UK, a number of crime preventive policies and design guidance (Secured by Design, Crime and Disorder Act 1998) were developed in the late 1980s to combat the significant rise in crime and since then, working alongside architectural police liaison officers, local authorities across the country have adopted these through planning policy.

Housing layouts have since improved as a result and residential crime rates have decreased as a result.

However, there is an urgent demand for new housing in the UK (estimated at 345,000 per year) and whilst it is paramount that this housing shortage is addressed, developers, architects, urban designers, planners and local authorities must remain conscious that we do not repeat past mistakes.

This means making sure that new housing developments are designed with safety and crime prevention in mind. For example, we should design in ‘perimeter blocks’ where possible, in which houses front onto public spaces and rear gardens are situated at the back. In doing so, rear gardens remain private and are inaccessible to the public, and houses to the front allows natural surveillance of public spaces such as streets or green spaces.

It means ensuring any existing or newly created public footpaths are overlooked by housing so that surveillance is provided, and users feel safe to use them. Similarly, any publicly accessible space should also be overlooked by housing.

In a world where we want to reduce the usage of the motor vehicle and encourage more sustainable modes of travelling, such as walking, the built environment must continue to play its part to ensure that people feel safe to do so.

This article was written by Michael Cheng, associate urban designer at Pegasus Group. Find out more about the work they do from their offices in Leeds here.