Beat crime by design

When 73-year-old Mike Johnson smashed through the boom closing off a residential street in President Park, Midrand, earlier this year, the issue of road closures, 'gated communities' and property crime rose to the fore yet again.

The topic remains a controversial one, with activists like Johnson highlighting the inconvenience caused by what they consider unconstitutional, and predominantly illegal, road closures; and the communities themselves citing the substantial reductions in crime such measures appear to produce.

Many of the communities claim that they have been reluctantly forced to take such extraordinary measures to protect themselves because of the high crime levels in their areas and the apparent inability of the South African Police Service (SAPS) to protect its citizens.

Gate crashing

Although booms appear to br effective deterrents against opportunistic, petty criminals, the Institute for Security Studies' (ISS) Boyane Tshehla, notes that there is little evidence to suggest they deter more organised, serious felons.

Writing in the SA Crime Quarterly, Tshehla cites evidence that suggests booms do not actually solve the issue, but merely 'displace' the property crime to another neighbourhood and cause enormous inconvenience to the emergency services, pedestrians and rerouted traffic alike.

Key challenges

"Sadly, enclosed neighbourhoods and security villages are likely to remain part of our landscape for now because crime remains one of the key challenges facing our country," observes Niël Cronje, CEO of leading estate agency Engel & Völkers South Africa. "This is despite welcome statistics from the ISS and SAPS suggesting that some types of crime, like residential burglaries, are at their lowest since 1998, and the hopeful signs that this downward trend will continue in the near future."

Notwithstanding the magnitude of the problem, Cronje is optimistic that the country's strong economic growth and the government's approach to the issue through integrated policies like the National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) and Joburg 2030 Strategy is the right way forward.

"As highlighted by the road closure quandary, urban planning or 'environmental design' has an important role to play in combating property crime and it is great to see the government acknowledging this and making it one of the four pillars of the NCPS," confirms Cronje.

Property crime patterns

The experts agree. A recent paper, also published in the SA Crime Quarterly, by Karina Landman and Susan Liebermann of the CSIR Building and Construction Technology division states that crime is inextricably linked to the places where it is committed.

"An analysis of where criminal acts occur shows that many incidents are not spontaneous or opportunistic," the authors purport, "but that certain places are selected by offenders because they lend themselves to criminal activity."

The authors suggest that research conducted by CSIR Building and Construction Technology over the past few years in South Africa's major cities shows clearly that different types of environments contribute to the occurrence of different types of crime. They argue that many housebreakings, for instance, occur as a result of the layout and land use of the affected residential areas.

These conclusions are backed up by numerous international studies. Elizabeth Davison and William Smith, for example, studied the effects of 'accessibility' (street networks) and 'opportunity' (land usages) on property crime in North Carolina.

High density = high crime

Publishing their findings in Sociation Today, the Official Journal of The North Carolina Sociological Association, the authors stated that not only do patterns of crime exist, but that crime is more often found in accessible areas with interspersed commercial land use. They argue that these areas are easily identifiable 'hot spots'. The authors also concluded that the more housing units on a residential street segment, the greater the property crime risk.

Steven Lab, author of Crime Prevention: Approaches, Practices and Evaluations, also cites numerous studies that suggest more accessible streets experience higher rates of burglary and that 'neighbourhood permeability' is more significant than housing density, turnover or an area's overall economic well being.

However, Lab also notes that several studies show that wealthier suburbs with higher value homes are, ultimately, most at risk because criminals will look for areas offering the 'highest potential returns'. He also cites evidence suggesting that traffic control is an effective means of combating crime.

Less crime through better design

"The second 'pillar' of the NCPS is to reduce crime through 'environmental design'," explains Cronje, "it acknowledges that we need to design residential communities in ways that make it harder for criminals to operate, and to strengthen social networks and cohesiveness to help prevent crime."

"It means that the government is committed to ensuring security — the prevention and detection of crime — which is the number one priority when designing or renewing areas and their amenities, like shopping centres," says Cronje. "It's an approach reflected in the high-profile transformation of the Johannesburg CBD that is currently taking place."

It is flagship projects like the renovation of the Johannesburg CBD that underpin Cronje's optimism that, if collectively addressed, the high levels of crime plaguing South African society can be tackled.

"Despite the unacceptably high levels of crime, a lot of good work is being done and solid foundations appear to be being laid," he confirms. "The government has made job creation a priority and, given the accepted link between unemployment and crime, this is to be applauded."

Participation not fortification

"There are no quick fixes, but I am encouraged by the increasing involvement of communities in the process," Cronje continues. "The participation of local communities and businesses in crime prevention initiatives, like neighbourhood watch schemes, is a sign of increased integration and inclusion."

Cronje's attitude echoes the sentiment of the CSIR authors, Landman and Liebermann, who argue for more integration and inclusion instead of segregation and fortification. "Relying too heavily on physical barriers against crime often causes fragmentation and segregation," they warn, "and, ultimately, further tension and conflict within the city."

Article by: Felix Sebata -