Caretakers and community workers are the way to improve safety in deprived communities, not more technology
Not long ago, I was shown around an award-winning housing estate in east London, which was the proud recipient of a Secured by Design (SBD) award. The housing on the gated estate had small windows, reinforced steel doors and grey, aluminium, military-style roofs. The overall effect was oppressive.
High levels of security have come to characterise our public buildings. This is because security has become a prerequisite of planning permission as a result of SBD, which is a design policy that has the blessing of the police. Administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers, SBD is funded by the 480 security companies that sell the goods needed to meet the required standards. The unintended effects that this approach has had on fear and trust in communities are the subject of my forthcoming report, Fortress Britain, from the New Economics Foundation thinktank.
SBD has its roots in the idea of “defensible space”, created by the American architect and town planner Oscar Newman in the early 1970s, as a result of research he carried out in three deprived New York housing projects. His main finding was that “territoriality” created space that could defend itself. By marking out boundaries clearly, residents would feel a sense of ownership over communal spaces and would discourage strangers and opportunistic criminals from entering.
Newman’s considerable influence led to the adoption of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design in the US, the design policy that was imported as SBD into Britain, where it began life as a regional crime reduction initiative in the late 1980s.
Both in the US and in Britain the idea of defensible space was very popular because it provided a simple solution: rather than engaging with complex social relations as the underlying causes of crime, SBD promoted the idea that environmental design was the biggest influence on behaviour.
Today, SBD is based on a combination of defensible space ideas and the purchase of security products, strongly backed by the insurance industry, which provides lower premiums for properties with SBD.
Many of the recommendations, such as the need to provide good locks on windows and doors, are sensible. But the blanket application of SBD standards tends to create a threatening environment, particularly in poorer areas.
For example, in schools and public buildings the first step of SBD is a crime risk assessment, which is about the local area. While high fences, walls or other barriers are a prerequisite for any school, the crime risk assessment will suggest whether additional security measures are necessary. This means that in higher crime areas security is much greater, creating places that have a militarised feel to them. Because higher crime areas tend to be poor, deprived neighbourhoods have become characterised by public buildings, such as council offices, that come with fortress-like levels of security.
Lack of evidence
One of the main reasons for this report was the lack of evidence that installing gates and CCTV created safe, cohesive and trusting communities. Of the few existing studies, an investigation into CCTV by the then Scottish Office found that, while people often believed CCTV would make them feel safer, the opposite turned out to be the case.
My report, which includes a field study carried out on a Peabody Trust housing estate in central London, hopes to add to this slim body of research. Interviews and focus groups were carried out with residents and practitioners working in neighbourhood management, estate services and youth services on Peabody Avenue, an estate where 55 new homes have recently been completed.
What we found independently was that, although increased security, and in particular CCTV, was often very popular with residents, it did not necessarily lead to feelings of increased safety, with residents reporting that the presence of CCTV could instead increase anxiety.
Security measures including gates and internal doors elicited a similar response, with residents illustrating that “defensible space” can increase fear of strangers. “Because of the doors, if you see someone you don’t know, there is an element of ‘Who is this?'” one resident commented. A practitioner added: “The more you secure a block or an estate, the more it gives a message that something is wrong with that estate.”
Incidents of actual crime were barely mentioned. By far the biggest problem was young people hanging around late into the night in the courtyard of the estate, which is surrounded by housing. On a number of occasions the play area had been vandalised. Because the young people in question were either residents or friends of residents, barring access to the estate through the use of gates did not seem sensible. The study suggested that high security was offered as a technical response to a complex social problem, which required a different kind of solution. It was clear that residents felt that “knowing people”, whether it be caretakers, youth workers or each other, was the key to creating trust.
“The physical security measures – such as gating, intercom systems, CCTV – have increased, and the eyes on the ground have been removed. There’s more CCTV, less manpower,” said one practitioner.
• Fortress Britain: high security, insecurity and the challenge of preventing harm, by Anna Minton and Jody Aked. Anna Minton is the 1851 Royal Commission in the Built Environment fellow. She is on Radio 4’s Four Thought at 8.45pm on Wednesday
The Guardian, Tuesday 30 October 2012 17.00 GMT
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