Tessellar Blog

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Children and Safety from Crime

Last September in Malaysia, a ten year old girl by the name of Nurin, who had been missing a month before, was found dead. She had been abducted. Police found evidence of sexual abuse and torture. They lived in what I believe to be one of the better “low-cost” housing schemes in Kuala Lumpur. She had gone out alone just after dark – she popped out to go to the night-market just downstairs from her flat. This was a tragedy that affected the whole country, and an event that I was afraid would result in an over-reaction.

At about the same time a group of experts in Britain wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph bemoaning the “loss of childhood”. Among other factors, one cause of this was said to be over-protective parents anxious about dangers from traffic and crime. I personally disagree with the nation’s leading newspaper, Straits Times splashing the picture of the dead girl on its front page. Yet the dangers are real, even if it is said to be sensationalized.

I agree with the experts in Britain; I would prefer my children to have the freedom to explore the areas outside the home. But my wife disagrees. I grew up fine in Kuala Lumpur - but in the 60’s and 70’s it was a much smaller city. So for now at least, my wife has the upper hand.

Are cities inevitably unsuitable for raising a family? The supporters of the “New Urbanism” and “Smart Growth”, movements in that champion compact city development as opposed to sprawling suburb development have had a tough time on this issue. Lewis Mumford, an early critic of the suburb based on mass car ownership, decried suburbs as being “only good for raising children”. Their opponents sarcastically reply that the people who are so dismissive of suburbs tend to be childless or gay. The arguments from both sides appear to be true. Indeed, the debate has become an ideological affair.

Safety from traffic is only one aspect of aspect of the issue of safety for children in urban areas, and I’ve dealt with this in an earlier post on Delft. This appears to be a successful model that can be emulated. The other is of course - safety from crime – and the concept of “Defensible Space” is a good place to start.


Pruitt Igoe, from wikimedia


This idea evolved some 40 years ago when American architect. Oscar Newman was witness to what happened at the newly constructed, 3,000-unit, public high-rise housing development at Pruitt Igoe. This was an infamous public housing scheme that was said to be an example of everything that was wrong with modern architecture.


Carr Village Square, from Wikimedia


However, across the street from Pruitt-Igoe was an older, smaller, row-house complex occupied by an identical population, Carr Square Village. It remained fully occupied and trouble-free throughout the construction, occupancy, and decline of Pruitt-Igoe. With the social variables constant in the two developments, what, Newman asked himself, was the significance of the physical differences that had enabled one to survive while the other fell apart?


Pruitt Igoe - architectural illustrations versus actual photos

At the Pruitt Igoe project, Newman found the residents to be decent people, no different from the residents at the low-rise development next door. But whereas the Carr Square Village development had access staircases and small landings shared between a few neighbours on each floor, the Pruitt Igoe flats had long corridors shared by large numbers of units. There were units on the ground floor at Carr: ground floor residents looked out onto the street. At Pruitt Igoe, the ground floors were mainly open “recreational” spaces - placed away from the street - that quickly became “no man’s” land.

Newman believed that that design should propagate “natural surveillance” generating opportunities for people to see and be seen continuously. Knowing that they are, or could be, watched makes residents feel less anxious, leads them to use an area more and deters criminals by making them fear being identified and caught. In Pruitt Igoe the corridors were “blind” corridors – without windows overlooking the passageway, there was no possibility of surveillance.

But people must not only watch: they must also be willing to intervene or report crime when it occurs. Newman proposed reducing anonymity and increasing territorial feelings by dividing larger spaces into zones of influence. This can be accomplished on a small scale by clustering a few apartments around a common entrance or a common elevator. This was the situation in the low-rise development at Carr Square Village.
On a larger scale individual yards or areas can be demarcated by having paths and recreational areas focus around a small set of apartment units or by having each building entry serve only a limited number of apartments.

Newman considered man as a territorial being, as a being that needs territory like he needs water, in order to be able to live a satisfactory life. He believed that man is not basically criminal – preferring social cohesiveness to anarchy, social harmony to tension. Providing surveillance over defensible spaces allows man to be in his natural state, surveying and defending his domain.

Newman and his followers tested these ideas by studying housing developments in cities across the country, from New York to San Francisco, and concluded that rates of crime, vandalism and turnover were lower in places that conformed to the principles of defensible space. In a variety of large and small cities, housing projects and urban neighbourhoods have been redesigned in accord with defensible space principles. While the results have not been consistent, reductions in crime and fear and increases in a sense of community have been found in several places. The concept of Defensible Space enabled residents to take back control of their neighbourhoods and reduce crime.

As for the Pruitt Igoe project - it was demolished by controlled explosion. Minoru Yamasaki would later design the World Trade Center. This was one very unlucky architect.


Pritt Igoe demolished

References: Charles Mercer, “Living in Cities”, 1974
Oscar Newman, “Defensible space”, 1972


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1 comment:

Kyle & Svet Keeton said...

Pruitt Igoe, I had no idea that he designed the world trade center. He had a good idea in the public high-rise housing development. People are like sheep. They will not help others and will not report crime. I have seen people step over someone having a heart attack because they do not want to be involved. I have pulled a man out of the street to keep him from being run over and he had laid there 10 minutes. No one wanted to be involved but they could drive around him. People wont report a death out side their door because they are scared.

Interesting. I would have thought that the design would have been neat. Also worth fighting for to keep out the scum.

very good article, and sorry I just rambled but you hit a sore spot with me and humanity. People need to help and watch each other,

Kyle