Crime Prevention through Housing Design: Policy and Practice
Author: Rachel Armitage
Publisher: Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 248p.
Reviewer: Vania Ceccato | May 2014
Crime Prevention through Housing Design: Policy and Practice is about the impact of residential design on crime. The book reveals policy and practice in planning crime prevention both nationally (England and Wales) and internationally. It is a summary of the core subject of Rachel Armitage’s work on crime and housing design.
The book has an unusual structure with two main parts and a concluding chapter. The first part deals with ‘the basis of design and crime’: theory and practice in crime prevention through environmental design both in the UK and (at a glance) internationally (in total, 4 chapters). The second part is composed of an empirically rich and detailed discussion of ‘what works’ in reducing crime through environmental design based on evidence from the UK (with 6 chapters). Armitage’s book is timely in that new national planning policy has been promulgated in the UK, the so-called Localism Act (2011), which focuses on the neighborhood to the detriment of the regional scale in the planning process.
This book is, with no doubt, the best recent attempt to bridge a dispersed body of knowledge (on crime, residential environments and governance) stemming from urban criminology and urban planning; and it does so in an accessible way. This makes the work appealing to practitioners, students and academics working within the fields of urban planning, architecture, criminology and policing.
From a criminology perspective, Crime Prevention through Housing Design: Policy and Practice has a narrow scope, but this characteristic is certainly its strength. It starts exploring general theoretical links between crime and design followed by a chapter on the challenges of putting these ideas into practice by local police forces and local authorities from England and Wales. Armitage goes beyond the UK experience and reports on the experience of planning for crime prevention in Australia, the Netherlands, Scotland and the region of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Today, when much focus in criminology has been given to offender-centered crime prevention, one may be more welcoming to new insights, such as those provided in this book, with its focus on the relevance of the physical environment on crime. Why should one do that? Most places have little or no crime; instead most crime is highly concentrated in and around a relatively small number of places. When those places are identified and their environments are re-designed, crime may be prevented and total crime in the area reduced. There is no need to consider a deterministic relationship between the environment and crime, but denying such relationship certainly means one runs the risk of neglecting the proven effect the environment has on individuals.
What I thought was really novel in this book is the review provided by the author in chapters 5 to 8 of the impact of specific features of design on crime and the fear of crime, considering such details as road layout, the opportunities for surveillance, and car park design. This second part is really a treat for people like me who have one foot in criminology and the other in urban planning!
Armitage’s is a progressive piece of research that dares to take up the difficult subject of the synergies and tensions in the process of ensuring safety in a city and, at the same time, meeting sustainability goals. What to do, for example, when energy saving measures go against principles of street illumination and safety? This discussion is definitely obligatory reading for urban planners-to-be in schools in the UK and elsewhere.
As with many good books, criticisms can only be directed at what is not there. The reader may wonder why Armitage has not made any attempt to further develop the international perspective of crime prevention through housing design in the second part of the book. Most of the findings make sense to cities in Europe and perhaps in North America, but what does housing design mean in cities of the Global South? What is a private and semi-private space in slum areas where the public and private spheres are merged in everyday life practices? These issues are briefly mentioned in the Abu Dhabi case, but unfortunately too superficially. If crime prevention through housing design is here to stay, I would argue that it has to have a better fit with the realities of the mega cities in the world, where a large share of the urban population live. This is definitely the most important challenge to this approach that relies quite heavily on the physical environment. In these contexts, better links to the social dimension of sustainability has to be further developed in relation to housing design and crime. Moreover, even if this topic had not been part of the intended scope of the book, I would have expected that Armitage would try to identify these needs and discuss them in the final section of the book where she is dealing with the future and the emerging challenges in crime prevention through housing design.
The author’s writing style is clear and accessible, but sometimes long sentences made the understanding of the content difficult, especially for non-native speakers of English. One may appreciate the summarizing tables presented in chapters 5 to 8, which provide the reader a quick guide to what works and what does not in crime prevention through housing design.
A criticism that can often be directed at the literature of crime prevention by design also applies to this book – there is a seeming lack of interest in the dynamics of the space-time dimension of crime. This is relevant because breaking and entering a house during the day may be entirely different than doing the same thing after dark. Changes in the situational conditions of crime over time are not mentioned in Armitage’s analysis or are assumed to be constant over time, which is surely not the case, see e.g., Couple and Blake (2006) and Rey et al. (2012) for recent literature in this area.
Armitage is certainly correct in suggesting that some environmental features of houses and neighborhoods are more important than others in affecting crime, but one may wonder what happens if these same features are found in different contexts? Are they equally important for crime and the safety of the area? I am sure Armitage does not take neighborhood contexts for granted (see e.g., the quote from the well-known Jane Jacobs on page 14). But given the way the book is laid out, the city context becomes less clear as a factor relevant to crime levels in neighborhoods. The main problem with this aspect of Armitage’s approach is that neighborhoods are seemingly considered to be hermetic systems. Obviously this is problematic to the extent that individuals are mobile — living in one place, working in another, and spending leisure time somewhere else. If crime happens along with these routine activities, how does the design of residential environment affect crime causation? Another way of putting this is as follows: a residential area may be especially exposed to crime because of its location and city/region contexts (e.g., close to the city centre or cut in half by a major road).
One may wonder as well how the principles of crime prevention by design work in rural contexts (do they work, and if so how?). Unfortunately neither ‘urban’ nor ‘rural’ is defined in the case studies here. This is especially concerning as now the new national planning policy in the UK gives strong focus to the neighborhood, and seeming to neglect the city and regional contexts.
Another aspect I missed in the book is that virtually nothing (except on page 205) is said about the need for educational programs for those persons who in the future will be in charge of planning and building cities, e.g., architects, planners, engineers and those involved with the city governance. On my wish list, I would want a chapter on the future challenges of crime prevention though housing design that would make concrete suggestions on how courses could be designed to attend to the needs of planning for cities that aim to be both safe and sustainable.
Crime Prevention through Housing Design: Policy and Practice clearly contributes to advancing our understanding of the nature of the relationship between the urban environment and crime. The author recognizes that the field of crime prevention by housing design has been often misunderstood, and been treated as being theoretically shallow, as the less sexy part of criminology (in the author’s own words), but Armitage rises to these challenges with great skill in this accomplished and relevant book. Crime Prevention through Housing Design: Policy and Practice is definitely a must-read for anyone who has a theoretical and practical interest in the importance of the urban environment on crime causation.
Coupe, Timothy, and Laurence Blake. "Daylight and Darkness Targeting Strategies and the Risks of Being Seen at Residential Burglaries*." Criminology 44, no. 2 (2006): 431-64.
Rey, SergioJ, ElizabethA Mack, and Julia Koschinsky. "Exploratory Space–Time Analysis of Burglary Patterns." [In English]. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 28, no. 3 (2012/09/01 2012): 509-31.