Durable Growth

Promoting public safety through land-use design

Vertical mixed-use in Waynesboro, North Carolina

Vertical mixed-use in Waynesboro, North Carolina

I’ve previously written about UrbanPlan, a program of the Urban Land Institute which introduces students to the complexities and trade-offs of land-use decisions.  ULI recently updated the UrbanPlan package to include additional elements, such as green roofs, and new voices, such as aging-in-place advocates, to add to the complex balancing required of the students.

For many UrbanPlan participants, it’s their first exposure to a problem without a single right answer.  Working within a team, trying to balance multiple desirable but incompatible objectives, is a fine lesson for the working world.

I recently participated in my first mock city council under the new rules.  As always, I was impressed by the students.  Most had tried diligently to learn and to apply the lessons that UrbanPlan offered.

However, there was one point that struck me, and not for the first time, during the presentations.  It touched upon an issue of land-use theory that was inappropriate for a mock city council, but worthy of discussion here.

Within the fictional UrbanPlan setting, one of the buildings can have space dedicated to community uses.  A list of possible community needs is provided in the UrbanPlan package.  One of the possible uses is a police substation.  A couple of teams said that they planned to include a police substation to make their proposed neighborhood “safe”.

The problem is that police aren’t the best path to safely.  But site design is.

I intend no disrespect to the police.  In adequate numbers, they can provide deterrence.  But most municipal budgets don’t have the financial resources to sustain those numbers.  So instead police most often function in a responsive mode, reacting when a crime is reported.  A neighborhood police substation may shorten the response time, but only after a crime has been reported, which isn’t a definition of a safe neighborhood.

On the other hand, site design has the capacity to prevent the crime from occurring, providing the deterrence that’s otherwise unaffordable.  That deterrence, often called “eyes on the street”, can be provided through multiple elements of site design.  Residential units upstairs from retail in commercial neighborhoods.  Smaller setbacks between homes and sidewalks.  Accessory dwelling units allowing more sets of eyes to live on a street.  Walkable destinations so more people are likely to be on the sidewalks.  Well-used parks.

The role of site design in minimizing crime is well-known.  In Happy City, Charles Montgomery writes of lower crime rates in public housing where site design encourages gathering in courtyards.  More than fifty years ago in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote how busy and active sidewalks made for safer neighborhoods.

Jacobs also noted that the expanses of grass around public housing towers, the lawns that idealists thought would be used for games and picnics, instead became the domain of miscreants, emboldened by the lack of nearby watchful eyes.  Eventually, public housing residents came to despise the grass, yearning for the small stores that had once provided eyes on the street but had been razed to make way for the towers and lawns.

Many communities understand the problem with the absence of eyes, encouraging the formation of “neighborhood watches”.   But the watches are a poor substitute for the eyes of people who have a reason to be on the street and who would provide a deterrence that no neighborhood watch can match.

Imagine designing residential streets to a 45 mph standard and then imposing a 20 mph speed limit.  No matter how law-abiding a driver wants to be, it’d be harder not to let the speedometer creep upwards.  It would take an Orwellian flotilla of traffic enforcement officers to keep the traffic close to 20 mph.  So we don’t build 20 mph streets to a 45 mph standard.  Instead, we build 20 mph streets with narrower lanes and smaller radius curves, so drivers naturally drive at speeds close to 20 mph.  It’s only common sense.

But it’s a common sense that we’ve usually failed to translate into our land use planning.  We’re taken the eyes that could have provided deterrence and instead put them into family rooms at the rear of homes or in cars hurrying through neighborhoods and shielded from streetlife by tinted glass.  We’ve encouraged land-use patterns that are inherently less safe and then we’ve tried to add safety after the fact.

Fortunately, the UrbanPlan toolkit includes building types that can help return eyes to the street.  (I’d prefer more vertical mixed-use options, but perhaps that omission can be addressed in the next update.)  But the students, many because they don’t see examples in their own worlds, don’t grasp the crime-prevention power that they have.

However, I’m hopeful.  Urbanism is slowly making inroads.  Perhaps in another decade or two, the public safety aspects of good urban design will become evident to all.

And when that happens, perhaps a site planner on an UrbanPlan team will say “We considered a police substation for the restored historic building, but had designed our land-use plan to reduce crime, so instead included a community childcare center.”  That’ll be a good day.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

1 comment to Promoting public safety through land-use design

  • Jame

    I am not really an animal person, but my neighborhood felt a lot safer at night as th number of dog owners increased. There were more people out and about when I walked home from the bus stop late at night. A lot lf our planning and street engineering have removed the activity from our streets. Here’s to putting it back!