Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design
Commonwealth Apartments is a 12-acre public housing development in the Brighton section of Boston. Originally it consisted of 600 apartments. Before redesigning its interior hallways, building lobbies, entryways, and parking areas residents and neighbors alike lived in fear. The buildings’ courtyards, a nearby park, and a walkway leading to Brighton High School also roused fear as being crime-ridden. Stolen cars routinely turned up in Commonwealth’s parking lots, and drug use was all but expected in building hallways. Lighting, where it existed, was inadequate; lights would often be shot out. After all, bad guys work better in the dark. Then the property was redeveloped.
The redevelopment substantially reworked the existing structures. The most striking change was probably the shift from common-entryway buildings to townhouses. For the architects charged with redesigning Commonwealth Apartments to create defensible space. That required reducing the population density, increasing the amount of living space indoors and outside, and placing the playgrounds and “tot lots” within view of the townhouses. The redesign reduced the number of units to 392. Lighting and locks were improved. The old basement management office was relocated to a place from which employees could monitor the entire development. The redesign had the desired effect.
Discussing Commonwealth, a professor of planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explained:
“Even the worst of large, concentrated housing projects can be rejuvenated. Boston’s Commonwealth development is now arguably the single greatest success story in the country of turning around a severely distressed development. It took a determined—and $30 million—effort by the housing authority, the project’s tenant organization, and a private developer to make it happen, but the result is not just a tenant population that has the highest employment rate among public housing residents in the city, it is a housing project where suburbanites actually park their cars before taking public transit downtown.”
In other words, criminal activity went elsewhere. Bad guys decided that they needed to find a more welcoming neighborhood and left the Commonwealth Apartments to those people who wanted a decent place to live.
It sounds like magic, doesn’t it? But there’s no magic to it. And comparing what the situation at Boston’s Commonwealth Apartments was with what you have to deal with in your properties, probably makes your crime and security problems look like a two year old temper tantrum. But any crime in or around a rental property hurts our bottom lines by making our properties less-than-desirable places to live. But with some simple modifications, modifications that may not even cost much, if anything, you can make your rental property completely uninviting to bad guys and keep our properties welcoming to good tenants.
Most likely you wouldn’t do all that remodeling, or rebuilding, that the Commonwealth Apartments did to accomplish crime-prevention goals; remember, the government underwrote it so money was apparently no object. But you can do things that will cost far less. (Incidentally, if you are looking at a property to buy, you may want to consider if its basic structure is one that will encourage criminal activity, if it will be a headache from day one, just because of the way it is designed and built.)
It’s all done through environmental design. Crime Prevention Through Environ mental Design (CPTED, pronounced “SEPted”) is a relatively new policing discipline. People had advocated some of these ideas in the past, but nobody paid much attention and they never really put all of it together in one big package. In the early 1970s Oscar Newman’s work on defensible space and his condemnation of urban anonymity, you know, the high-rise public-housing projects, spurred renewed interest in the relationship between the design of the physical environment and crime. During the same period C. Ray Jeffrey coined the term CPTED in his book, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.
During the decades that followed, numerous studies reinforced Newman’s and Jeffrey’s ideas and clearly demonstrated that the way buildings, yards, and common areas are designed could discourage “informal social contacts” and raise the fear of crime. “Informal social contacts” are a good thing because that means neighbors are seeing neighbors. Bad design includes such things as high-rise buildings, poorly lit areas, apartments with large numbers of units sharing one entrance, and heavily trafficked streets. On the other hand, community centers and well-maintained public parks, even in the most densely-populated areas, got people to say “hello” or at least acknowledge the other person’s presence, and encouraged natural surveillance and what the “experts” call “informal social controls.”
We aren’t going to talk much about parks and community centers here, or even how a massive apartment community solved its problems, except as it relates to how landlords can use the same techniques to prevent and control criminal activity in their properties. What we will discuss are some things for you to look for in your properties that will make them less inviting to bad guys, both criminal and tenant, and more inviting to the kind of people you want living there.
The point is that even the most crime-ridden property can be turned around if the owners and managers approach the turnaround with the idea of making the property unattractive to criminals and welcoming to good tenants.
CPTED encompasses four strategies: territoriality, natural surveillance, activity support, and access control.
That means the space around a property is well defined. Fences, art, signs, good maintenance and landscaping provide physical ways to say it’s yours. In a well-defined space, it’s easier to identify intruders. In addition, people tend to protect territory that they feel is their own. That means bad guys want to go somewhere that is less defined.
One thing that criminals hate is people seeing them. That means they will look for properties that allow them to conduct their nefarious activities out of sight of decent people. So if a landscape allows tenants and neighbors to see what’s going on in the property, chances are the criminals will take their business elsewhere. Natural surveillance includes improving street and interior lighting, removing non-see-through fencing and barriers, and pruning trees and shrubs. Ideally no fence should be no more than three to four feet high. Tall fences block views and give criminals a place to hide.
In addition, alcoves and interior blind spots also provide hiding places. Playgrounds are more secure in locations that are out in the open and visible to tenants and neighbors.
Drug dealers who are would-be tenants look at a rental property with the thought of how easy or hard it would be to do business there. A property that is out in the open and easily seen by neighbors, other tenants, and especially the police will send them to some other landlord’s property.
This involves neighborhood activity. If tenants get involved in neighborhood activities and you encourage safer parks and better community centers near your rental properties, it will cut down on the amount of crime and make your properties better places to live and able to fetch higher rents. After all, most people like to live in communities, not bunkers.
This is especially important in a rental property with several units and even more so with a parking lot. One thing criminals look for when they decide where to commit crimes is how easy it will be to escape. A parking lot design that provides only one way in and out makes bad guys go on to the next property. Likewise if there is only way in or out of a yard, criminals are more likely to pass it up. That can go for drug dealing, prostitution, burglars and rapists. A space design in which people have to pass a spot where they will be seen walking or driving into the property is the best bad guy prevention.
You can also accomplish this by keeping doors and gates locked and interior common spaces fenced off from public access. One thing that works best in a parking lot is assigning parking spaces and requiring parking permits. Just be sure not to paint the apartment number in the parking space. One would think that would be obvious, but how many apartment communities are there where apartment numbers are prominently displayed for each parking spot? That simply lets the bad guys know when tenants are gone.
Landscaping for Protection. In the beds in front of windows and around yard perimeters some shrubs will discourage criminals from trying to get through windows into the unit and into the yard. The kinds that tend to stay small and stay below the level of the bottom of the window and/or can be pruned to do that are the best solution. Here is a partial list:
Holly: try ilexaquifolium Ferox, also known as hedgehog or porcupine holly, thus named for its prickly spined leaves. It grows slowly and can be pruned easily to maintain the appropriate size.
Silverberry: (Elaeagnus commutata)
This one grows up to 12 feet but can be pruned to an appropriate height. It has scaly silver leaves and small fragrant flowers followed by silvery berries that birds enjoy. It is best used as a hedge.
Barberry: (Berberis) Any of the Japanese barberry will do the job. They have big, sharp thorns. Just let some criminal try to crawl in over that.
Flowering quince: (Chaenomeles) Several different varieties with spiny branches that can grow to six feet, but are easily pruned lower.
Roses: Rosa rugosa are prickly-stemmed, sturdy and disease resistant.
Yucca: Yucca filamentosa ‘Gold Sword’ has stunning gold and yellow variegated leaves.
A property designed, constructed and maintained with the idea of preventing crime attracts good tenants. These are people who want to feel safe in their homes. By the same token, criminals don’t want to live in properties that keep their antisocial activities out in the open.
Few of these alterations to properties cost much, but they pay back many times over in better tenants, higher rents and peace of mind.