Miami, Crime, and Urban Design

This is a dangerous place, and dangerously divided as well

Did you know that Miami has the highest rate of violent crime in America? We are also the second most stressful city in the nation (after Tacoma, Washington), according to the latest report from Sperling's Best Places USA (

They put it this way: "Miami has the highest violent crime rate in our study, as well as one of the highest property crime rates.... Making Miami even more stressful is the long commute time ... and a high unemployment rate."

It's even more alarming to know that Sperling's depiction is already old news. In 2002, with the exception of forcible rape, Miami's grim statistics were roughly double the national average in crime per 100,000 people for offenses such as murder, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/theft, and motor vehicle theft. (See areaConnect at

Keep out: Gated communities are less likely to 
experience crime, but more likely to foster isolation, 
especially among the young
Jonathan Postal
Keep out: Gated communities are less likely to experience crime, but more likely to foster isolation, especially among the young

Since this column also deals with urban issues, I'd like to take a look at this situation from a different angle. Obviously there is a relationship between the social problem of crime and the environment in which it occurs. So are there urban factors that may reduce or stimulate crime? Can crime be reduced with well-thought-out design?

There are two main approaches to crime prevention: the "dispositional" and the "situational." The first looks at the criminal's motivations and calls for education, moral guidance, sanctions, and/or penalties. The situational approach identifies the offender's physical context. Once he or she has made the initial decision to commit a crime, certain techniques can be employed to make the commission of that crime in that particular place more difficult. The consensus among experts is that design can indeed reduce the opportunities for people to commit crimes, though design alone will not solve the problem.

Let's do a bit of history. Environmental crime prevention appeared as a field of study in the Sixties with Jane Jacobs's well-known The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Elizabeth Wood's Social Aspects of Housing in Urban Development. Then a surge of interest in the possibilities of manipulating the built environment to prevent delinquency emerged in the Seventies with C. Ray Jeffery's Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design and Oscar Newman's Defensible Space.

Jacobs stressed the need for activity to promote surveillance between "private" and "public" spaces. In her conception, the safety of these spaces would not be enforced by police but by the voluntary control of people becoming "active participants." Newman built on some of Jacobs's ideas by establishing a credible link between urban design and crime rates (he suggested that high-rise buildings' inner elements like elevators, fire escapes, roofs, and corridors -- isolated from public view -- had much higher crime rates than low-rise buildings).

Newman proposed a restructuring of urban environments by a "community" of people sharing a "common terrain" (by the way, this "topographic" vision later proved to be a limiting notion of community). In his analysis of the relationship between design and crime in public housing, Newman came up with three crucial factors: territoriality, natural surveillance, and image/milieu.

Territoriality assumes that people need to mark out and defend their territories. Good design encourages people to express these urges: They would defend their space against intrusion by outsiders. For example, a well-designed housing project would make clear which spaces belonged to whom -- that is, some would be completely private, some could be shared with permission from the owner, and others would be public.

Newman's natural surveillance calls for residents to observe and monitor public and semipublic spaces in their environment and be aware of those who don't belong. Thus residents develop a sort of territorial instinct about their housing project and feel responsible for its safety.

This method is referred to as a "management" or "regulatory" approach, as opposed to the "keep off premises" tactic in our upscale and middle-class communities, in which strangers are deterred from entering but residents end up feeling "trapped" in their fortresses, particularly the young, who after school are isolated in a world of TV, video games, and idle private activity.

In America's poorest ghettos, citizens don't always have the means and/or power to enforce the law when it's broken, as Newman and Jacobs had it. In the inner cities, when people call for help, law enforcement's response is slow or nonexistent. In addition Newman's emphasis on territorial definition may promote social segregation.

Recent developments in urban planning endorse a more open interaction among the city's different players (this is what architect Zaha Hadid calls "porous" design). Bill Hillier, a professor of architecture and urban morphology at the University of London, defends a more fluid and egalitarian social interaction in his 1988 book Against Enclosure, in which he engages Jacobs and Newman by reinterpreting "surveillance" as people moving through spaces.

In Hillier's view, activity and safety depend on continuous occupation and use. The more the natural presence of people and traffic is eliminated, the greater the danger. The idea makes sense. Why should one exclude all strangers from a district, regardless of whether they're peaceful or predatory? Fresh research shows that burglary rates are higher in less integrated neighborhoods than in more integrated areas. Hillier argues that Newman and Jacobs's situational, and more "restrictive," approaches could only redirect or redistribute crime.

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