Crime and the new urbanism

by Chris Bertram on October 21, 2003

Iain Murray links to a police-sponsored report claiming that housing estates built on “new urbanist” principles are more vulnerable to crime than private estates built in cul-de-sac format incorporating the notion of “defensible space.” Interesting stuff, especially since many of the ideas that inform the new urbanism are very influential with both local authority planners and amenity societies. I’m a little sceptical when too much is claimed for design. Just like carpenters thinking that a hammer and a nail is the answer to all problems, architects like to put everything down to design (I’m sure I’ve stolen that line from Colin Ward). And I’d like to know more about the other factors distinguishing the two environments studied in the report. But this certainly warrants further attention.

UPDATE: I’ll try to say more in a few days. But a more careful look at the police document suggests that this isn’t a matter of comparing the experience of similar communities but rather a “projection” of data some of which is derived from experience of estates from an earlier period which (according to the police) incorporate “similar” design features.

On the design front, I understand that the police SBD philosophy frowns on features like recessed porches and collonades (good for hiding) leaving us with the a general flattening of building surfaces. Attractive? I don’t think so.

Do conservatives and libertarians really want their urban spaces designed according to a police approved philosophy? Really? Do the urban environments people like, such as Bath, Venice, Florence, …. (fill in your preferred name) conform to Secured By Design principles? As I said, more when I’ve got a moment…



dsquared 10.21.03 at 8:35 am

Surely the interesting question is whether houses in one style of building sell for more than the other. If there’s no premium, then that tells us that people care about other things as well as crime …


Chris Bertram 10.21.03 at 8:53 am

Doesn’t your comment presuppose that people are well -informed both about the vulnerability of different designs to crime and about what the experience of living in different designs will be like. My guess is that they are often wrong about both!


dsquared 10.21.03 at 9:12 am

Oh I dunno … I’d have thought that the desirability of places to live is one of the things that people seem to know a lot about. Londonders anyway seem to be able to make incredibly fine distinctions.


Chris Bertram 10.21.03 at 9:25 am

Sure, everyone has an opinion, well-supported by reasons and rationalizations – just not a very good predictor of what life will be like. Think of all those nicely designed council estates whose residents thought they were moving into somewhere really wonderful, but who found, after a few years that living on the edge of town, on a road to nowhere, was pretty awful. Private sector development can be just the same. On the north Bristol periphery is a development called Bradley Stoke (now colloquially known as Sadly Broke) where aspiring (rather than real) yuppies moved in the late 1980s – I don’t think they got what they were expecting either.


dsquared 10.21.03 at 10:02 am

But … if we move away from the primary market, where it’s a lot more difficult to know what things are like, to the secondary market for already built houses, I think it’s much more difficult to come up with examples of egregious mispricing. I suspect that new Urban designs still come off pretty badly, or someone other than the government would be building them.


derald 10.21.03 at 10:03 am

The new panopticon.


Nababov 10.21.03 at 12:03 pm

“The new panopticon,” indeed.

After having a quick browse through the linked “Operation Scorpion” report (‘specially the photos bit), it seems the Bill’s idea of the ideal urban designer is Baron “give the cannons some room” Hausmann.


Matt 10.21.03 at 2:13 pm

New Urbanist concepts in the suburbs face difficult & contradictory constraints: people want low-density, low-cost development– this generally leads to car-centered (cul-de-sac) designs. But New Urbanist ‘highest use’ concepts require high-density and, generally, significantly higher costs. When you try to compromise (e.g., high-density and low-cost), you get into trouble.


Rick Heller (Centerfield) 10.21.03 at 2:25 pm

Crime has always undermined urbanism. The explosion of crime in American cities in the 1960’s was one of the factors, together with highway construction, that pushed suburbanization. It makes sense that a return to urbanism can only take place in a low-crime environment. Otherwise, people privatize their security, retreating into cul-de-sacs and gated communities.


Nabakov 10.21.03 at 2:56 pm

“Crime has always undermined urbanism”

Time has always undermined urban crime. East End rookeries become yuppie coops and so to wsith TriBeCa, Telegraph Avenue, Collingwood, Bondi, etc, etc, over the decades

“The explosion of crime in American cities in the 1960’s”

…was perhaps partly caused by a mix of factors beyond crappy urban design, like the:
– the exuburent sixties sex. drugs and politics explosion which turned harmless and hapless middle-class agitators and potheads into new crime stats; and
– the massive post-war south to north migration of Affro-Americans, only to find themselvs shut out of anything above minimium wage, if that, with consequent black market and bustable results.

“It makes sense that a return to urbanism can only take place in a low-crime environment.”

Huh?!?. I live in an extremely urban area with a very low crime fate (excluding my occasional D&D busts).

This is chicken, egg and eggcam terrority.


aelph 10.21.03 at 8:29 pm

Ok, wow, are the conservatives you linked missing the point. They seem to be trying to spin this as some sort of statement that government urban planning in general is evil because of these failures of New Urbanism. This is of course not what it says at all, but that instead, one form of urban planning, SBD, is better than another, New Urbanism, for crime reduction.

I assume from the report that if an evil top-down burdensome government did nasty totalitarian urban planning following SBD principles, the same reduction in crime would be achieved.

Oh, and I’d be right.

As for The Market(TM) picking the best option, tell that to the people moving into New Urbanism style townhouse communitites in the affluent midwestern suburb I live in, which was even designed and built by a private developer. They don’t seem to be having crime problems. Perhaps that’s because of that whole “affluence” thing. Sure enough, the Defensible Space site I linked to above will tell you that while physical space is a factor, poverty still has the highest correlation with crime rate.


Antoni Jaume 10.21.03 at 11:21 pm

Colonnades. I know almost no reader here knows Catalan, but collonades does not seems fit to me, unless that is what you think of this police report.



Natalie Solent 10.22.03 at 12:23 am

Chris, you ask, “Do conservatives and libertarians really want their urban spaces designed according to a police approved philosophy? Really?”

The answer to that is that I don’t want all the urban spaces designed to any imposed philosophy, police or otherwise. The approval of Bedfordhire police is very nice, but only in the way that a good write-up in “Which” for the washing machine you just bought is nice.

I may not have sufficiently distinguished two strands in my post. Strand 1: Secure By Design ideas are good at reducing crime. I’ll use that label for convenience, but I must stress that I had never met the phrase “Secure By Design” before this morning. I had met and been convinced by similar ideas years ago. Strand 2: People choosing for themselves will choose on average better than government experts will choose for them.

Now Aleph and other commenters have pointed to various examples where the market has given a bad result. Of course I don’t deny this can happen. People sometimes make mistakes when choosing their houses just as they make mistakes when choosing their careers, their husbands/wives, their education or what brand of car to buy. But the history of British housing (not to mention current market prices) bears out the contention that private developers who had to please their customers did better at housing and street design than government planners who could just impose their desires.

Next Chris asks, “Do the urban environments people like, such as Bath, Venice, Florence, …. (fill in your preferred name) conform to Secured By Design principles?” The answer is no, and I don’t want them to. As I said, my utopia has room for different tastes. I observe that most British people will go for something like SBD because they worry about crime* and want to own and use cars but I don’t demand that everybody go for it. My whole attitude to the fact that it had government approval for a while could be summed up as “fine while it lasts, but don’t count on it.”

In the end I feel about SBD-like ideas rather as I do about phonics in the teaching of reading. I personally like both. Both are codifications of traditional wisdom with a few new ideas thrown in. Both work well for most people. In both fields, reading and housing, traditional practices were overwhelmed some decades ago by rival ideas that, crucially, were able to dominate the scene because they were State approved. Both have now staged a partial but popular comeback in new trendy packaging, the rival ideas having worked disastrously in practice. Both gained government approval in the last few years but have now sort-of lost it again.

But neither Phonics nor SBD work for everybody, and there is no reason to suppose they have achieved the last word in perfection.

*Note that people with no formal knowledge of which designs minimise crime might nonetheless instinctively feel safer in areas where there was good surveillance of the street, clear territorial boundaries and less cause for unknown persons to be passing through. Evolution, I contend, has given us an eye for such matters.


Michael Blowhard 10.22.03 at 4:13 am

I confess that I’m a little baffled — I don’t really know what’s being discussed here. Is it something along the lines of “SBD good, NU bad?”

But I’m going to heedlessly throw out a few reflections and facts in hopes a few might be of some use.

First, please excuse a brief moment of exasperation: I mean, have any of you people actually visited a New Urbanist development? FWIW, I’ve spent a little time in about six of them — they’re modest, tiny little things. There is no Big Brother who’s trying to impose New Urbanism on the nation at large. NU developers are caught up in maddening local fights to tweak a zoning law here and throw out a fire-deparment requirement there so that they can build their little neighborhoods.

OK, exasperation-moment over. I think it’s wrong to associate New Urbanism with government planning, or top-down planning of any sort. I’m sure you could turn up a few Volvo socialists among the NU people, and as the movement shades into something called “Smart Growth” it does get mighty Al Gore-y.

But one of the core ideas of NU has always been to work with the market, and to work with developers — this is part of how they differentiate themselves from modernist planners. The NU isn’t some new Great Society project, it’s a new housing product, that product being “the new neighborhood that’s been created to have lots of the qualities of old neighborhoods.” You might buy a house in a NU development, or you might go a half mile away and buy a house in another development. Really, what’s to get alarmed about?

I’m not aware of any entire city, let alone any entire state, that’s gone New Urbanist. Most of the NU things that have indeed come to market are very modest neighborhoods, often sponsored by entrepreneurial developers — people who think there might be a market for such a housing product. So far, they’ve been right. Most NU developments sell out fast and command a premium. Will the demand continue? How will people respond to living in NU neighborhood after 10 years have passed. We’ll see.

But I can’t see how any of this means anything other than: there’s a demand for a certain kind of housing and neighborhood that the housing market is only now getting around to acknowledging and servicing. What’s the danger in this? Why aren’t we celebrating it?

Very odd: libertarians of a certain kind attack the NU as social engineering (even though it isn’t being imposed by governments), and some lefties attack it for being elitist (as though their own preferred architects and architecture have ever done much for the poor).

NU is certainly open to criticism, and maybe one criticism is that NU neighborhoods are too vulnerable to crime, who knows. But it’d be lovely if it could first be accepted as the new (and so far financially successful) housing product that it is, rather than the one-size-fits-all government scheme that it most explicitly isn’t.

Incidentally, market-fans might take note of the fact that standard everyday mass housing developers are beginning to lift ideas from the NU — they may well screw them up, but when Mass Market Big Money takes note and starts to steal, it’s usually a sign that they think they’re missing an opportunity and want to catch that wave.

It might also be worth taking note of the fact that the challenge for NU developers isn’t (and hasn’t been) to impose their will on unwilling populaces, it’s been to get local governments to loosen their already restrictive regulations so that this innovative housing product can have a chance on the market. If it fails on the market, so be it. But what’s wrong with making a little room for it on the shelf?

There’s a bit of naivete, it seems to me, on the part of some libertarians, who don’t seem to realize that the way towns and cities are set up now — wide streets, strip malls, cul de sacs, segregated-functions (industry over here, offices of there, housing here) — is dictated by rules and regulations already. When you look out across a spawling American suburb, you aren’t looking at an expression of the free market; you’re looking at the consequences of arrangements arrived at by local politicians and developers scheming together. Thanks to this, people shopping for a house and a neighborhood are being offered limited options. The NU is an attempt to open this rigged market up, not shut it down, and to make it more responsive to customers, not less. If the NU eventually comes to dominate the market, so be it. I suspect it won’t — that instead it’ll play the role of Saab to the everyday housing market’s Ford. Even so, won’t the housing market generally be a better place for it?

Also, it may be worth remembering that the NU specifically encourages a variety of architects to design houses in NU neighborhoods. This is the exact opposite of such Utopian dreams as Le Corbusier’s cities. Even if you (freely, by the way) choose to live in a NU neighborhood, you aren’t choosing to spend all your time inside one megalomaniac’s head. The house next to yours was probably designed by a different architect than yours was. A NU neighborhood does indeed have a rulebook, but as long as you play by it you can design and build anything you want. I’m a little surprised that more people who are taken by such things as fractals, chaos theory and emergent behavior aren’t more fascinated by the NU, which seems to me their analog in the world of the built environment.

Repeat: there are zoning laws and regulations in place in cities and towns already. (These cities and towns aren’t currently freemarket paradises.) The NU’s claim is that A) they’re often bad zoning laws and regulations, that they have been created and stumbled into largely to suit developers and politicians, and that they too often lead to dud, dead living conditions. The NU further claims that B) a different (and often simpler, by the way) set of laws and regulations will likely result in a neighborhood that’ll suit people (consumers, individuals, whatever your preference) better.

They may well be overconfident of their own powers where B is concerned, but who can doubt their description of A?

Anyway, there isn’t a lot to fear. I’m aware of a couple of small midwestern towns that are going NU in a thorough way, and a handful of small urban neighborhoods that are trying to revitalize themselves using NU principles. Fun: I hope it works out well, and even if it doesn’t much will be learned.

Otherwise, what the NU largely comes down to is brand-new suburban enclaves. And what’s wrong with a little more variety in the brand-new-suburban-enclave market? You might move into this high-tech condo farm here, or that NU enclave there. No one’s forcing you in either case — but isn’t it lovely to have the choice?

It’d also be lovely to see the NU accepted as the new housing product it is, and for discussions of it as a proposal for an Official National Policy to finally come to an end. It isn’t that, and isn’t likely to be that any time soon. Then finally we can get on with the discussion of what in it works and what doesn’t work, and what we might learn or not learn, etc etc.


Michael Blowhard 10.22.03 at 6:41 am

Characteristic quote from NU honcho Andres Duany:

[We] don’t have clients; we have customers. I don’t meet the people at the sales office to explain to them an architectural idea. It is the building they see and visit that confronts them, unmediated by contact with an architect. If it does not communicate with them, they walk out and go live somewhere else. We cannot provide clients who trust us with their livelihoods with a product that will not sell. It bankrupts them.


Chris Bertram 10.22.03 at 9:53 am

What Michael B said PLUS a bit of British context:

What we are dealing here is, essentially, a pre-market process. Developers in tandem with architects are submitting plans to local authorities and seeking permission to build. As MB says, NU-inspired architects can face formidable obstacles from existing regulations (especially given the influence of highway engineers on the British system). What the police are doing with this report is to feed another set of criteria into this pre-market process. They (an arm of the STATE) are advising the planners (another arm of the STATE) to refuse proposals or require amendment where those proposals don’t conform to police desiderata. Also, that isn’t instead of guidelines issued by the Deputy PM, but _in addition to_ .

We could, of course, have an argument about the merits of the planning system as currently constituted, but this is not about market versus plan but about one state agency seeking even tighter regulatory control. So it is surprising to see conservatives and libertarians cheering them on (and suggests to me that they’re mistaken about what is happening here).

Incidentally, I have written to the author of the report and he confirmed that the stats in the report were a projection from incidents reported on housing estates which — in the opinion of the police — share relevantly similar features with NU projects. So we aren’t talking here about a careful empirical comparison of similar communities but a bit of bureaucratic-agena-driven spin. As to the underlying statistical base, this is not available as it consists of crime reports covered by the Data Protection Act.


Ian 10.22.03 at 4:16 pm

To put the US New Urbanism in a UK context, the ‘high density’ they talk about would still be much lower than most UK spec developments. The Village Homes development in Davis, California is for example about 7 dwellings per acre. (Designing Sustainable Communities – Judy Corbett and Michael Corbett Island Press 2000 ISBN 1559636866)

Density per se is pretty useless in isolation. Imagine if you will those 7 dwellings lined up along the road compared with 7 dwellings plonked into the centre of a 1/7 acre plot. The first gives a street the second gives us the standard US suburban housing scheme.


Sam 10.23.03 at 12:54 am

Perhaps some of the antipathy that some libertarians have with new urbanism is that some of the new urbanismists are also tied into anti-car, transit-oriented-development, and smart growth movements, all three of which apparently are heavily into getting government control over development.


David Sucher 10.23.03 at 3:28 am

Sam may well be correct. But isn’t such a stance as misguided as being against the Iraq war simply because one doesn’t like George Bush’s policy on the oil depletion allowance?


Natalie Solent 10.23.03 at 1:12 pm

It’s always a dilemma in these multi-blog debates where to put one’s comments. Here, or at Iain Murray’s blog or on my own blog? Since these comments, specifically responding to Micheal Blowhard’s exasperation, were rather long I have put them chez moi.


serial catowner 10.24.03 at 2:55 pm

a) New urbanism and SBD actually go hand-in-hand.

b) Northern Italian cities are ne-plus-ultra in SBD and the heavy hand of civic corporatism. A lesson for those who love them today.

c) Smart Growth is basically an accounting system that tracks real costs. The auto, accustomed to shitting in the street, doesn’t always like this. Tough. It’s gonna happen.

d) I can remember when condominiums were novel and untested in the eyes of many. Maybe we’re so stuck-in-the-mud that any idea alarms someone.

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