Crime in cities is an ever-growing concern now. It is one of the primary causes of social unrest. One crucial outcome of the increased rate of crime is the fear of crime and a feeling of insecurity. This fear, like the crime itself, is a matter of equal concern if not more. If not paid enough attention, this may threaten the social and democratic fabric of a country. All efforts made to control and prevent crime from taking place is crime prevention. 

Prevention is and should be a fundamental part of maintaining law and order. There are several ways in which governments and other institutions attempt crime prevention. One of the central objectives of crime prevention is to reduce the opportunity to commit a crime. This kind of prevention is called situational crime prevention. 

Situational crime prevention is one of the many types of prevention approaches. SCP is the only one that may include design (at any scale) as a tool for offence deterrence. Despite many observational studies and researches that advocate architecture as a tool for crime prevention, it remains one of the most underused methods to deter crime. Here, architecture indicates a range of disciplines from building design to urban planning. Architecture, be it of a city, street or building affects us on a subconscious level, without us being aware of it most of the time. How we behave in space is primarily informed by the built environment we live in.

Architects, planners and designers have been using design for behaviour modification for a long time now. To neglect its effects on crime would be a grave mistake.

How is urban planning an essential tool in crime prevention? - Sheet1
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In the design and further developments of a city, urban planning deals with a variety of exercises that involve many agencies. All the major systems that the city operates on like transportation, density, built versus open areas, public spaces and others are all outlined by urban planners. 

Research in the past has suggested that if our cities are designed to accommodate the need for crime prevention with thoughtful interventions, we can reduce the incidences and fear of crime. A city poorly planned, may become a breeding ground for criminal activities.

Urban Planning As Crime Prevention Tool

Architects and planners have for years tried to use recommendations given by Jane Jacobs in her writings. Multiple theories and mechanisms for crime prevention through urban design and planning have been proposed by urbanists for a long time now. Jane Jacobs wrote extensively on urban planning in the 1950s. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs talks about how “eyes on the street” can help in reducing crime. She essentially investigated why the crime rate differs from city to city. She reasoned that people who use the street every day are the ones who look after the neighbourhood. Oscar Newman’s book, Defensible Space; Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, also promotes employing design and planning to reduce crime.

Natural surveillance refers to the use of design and planning to create spaces that are easily viewed by residents, neighbours, and bystanders. This mechanism comes from the “eyes on the street” mechanism of Jane Jacobs. It is significant because offenders do not like any witnesses. More people on the street would mean more observers. 

For Jacobs, these observers were those who walked on the street, what she called the foot-people and not the ones that drove off in a car, the car-people. Therefore, a planner must put enough stress on making a city more walkable. A problem that most of our cities are facing today is that we are designing for cars and not for people. Coastal roads and sea-links in Mumbai are a few examples of similar misplaced priority.

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Planners and designers must aid natural surveillance, for example, by placing residential buildings facing each other, bringing more people and activities on the street, planning of public spaces, and street furniture in ways to improve visibility. One way of assuring natural surveillance is to plan a locality with diverse uses, as Jacobs suggested. Distinct functions that a locality serves, at different times of the day, maintains consistency in footfall throughout the day and promotes natural surveillance. 

A fine example of this planning technique is urban places like Manek Chowk in Ahmedabad. It is majorly a walkable street that houses shops of valuable jewellery. Manek Chowk has a series of functions, beginning from 5 am early morning and continuing up to post mid-night. These functions and timings are intentional and not by chance, to prevent theft and burglary in the jewellery shops by having a consistent flow of population that incidentally guard the place.

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Another notable mechanism suggested by theorists is Territoriality. It essentially means ownership of an area.

It demands clear demarcation and definition of what is public and what is private. Both physical and symbolic barriers can reinforce territoriality and planners must use these barriers while designing an urban neighbourhood. Housing projects that do not use any such hurdles are known to be more prone to crime. Oscar Newman, in his ‘defensible space’ theory, promoted this mechanism. He suggested that crime rates are lower in areas where people feel a sense of ownership for their neighbourhood.

The theories and previous research depended heavily on empirical data that did not statistically establish a relationship between crime rate, type and the design of the built environment of the crime scene and its location. The data collection and analysis is getting more manageable and meticulous with the use of GIS.

 Geographic information system (GIS) is a rapidly growing tool that provides the ability to record and analyze spatial and geographic data. It is being used for analysis at all levels of management, administration, and planning.

  • GIS can visualize the spatial patterns of crimes, the relations between an offence and other related factors. It can also differentiate between crime types.
  • GIS can show meaningful information even with small sample size.
  • Visualized information can be very useful in maintaining law and order for the concerned authorities.
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Research suggests that different types of crime tend to occur in neighbourhoods of diverse characters. Also, results of GIS analysis in a study show that high crime rate is not necessarily related to high-density development. Increased rate of crime in slums is related to lower socioeconomic status and not so much with high density. Therefore, a direct relationship between crime and a neighbourhood’s character cannot be established. This helps in breaking the faulty notion of safe and unsafe areas that evokes the fear of crime.

It is dangerous to use planning terms like zoning, mixed land use and density based on empirical studies without focusing on the qualitative developments of a space or neighbourhood as suggested by theorists like Jacobs.

For instance, a mixed land use locality would not serve the purpose if the street layout and section hinders natural surveillance or if the functions served by the district happen all at the same time of the day.

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Urban planning and architecture cannot stop crimes from being committed in a city. Also, one cannot argue that a design-based crime prevention approach must replace statutory and social methods of controlling criminal activities. But to eliminate urban planning and design from the set of tools against crime and fear of crime is to neglect a fairly potent device. Thoughtful and willful interventions in urban planning and design strategies that strengthen the societies and individuals, make way for safer communities.


Priyamvada is an architect, writer, and artist. She is passionate about the discourse around architecture both as a profession and as an art form. This brings her to architectural writing. She is an invested learner of film criticism, architectural theory and is attempting to practice abstraction through her paintings.