"Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design," Chapter 1: "Defensible Space"
Research 1961–1993

Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design details the author’s theory of “defensible space,” by which architectural design can be used to expand social control and prevent crime.

Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, the 1972 book by architect and urban planner Oscar Newman, details the author’s theory of “defensible space,” describing the role of architectural design in social control and crime prevention. Like the Broken Windows theory of policing, defensible space design aspires to an expansion of social and behavioral control — “clear, unquestionable control over what can occur” in a given space — though Newman, writing a decade before Kelling and Wilson, proposes to achieve this goal through design, as opposed to Kelling and Wilson’s expanded police presence. Similarly, however, Newman evokes the history of citizen patrol, as well as histories of spatial practices as old as Neolithic Settlements and Pompeii, to argue for more surveilled and secure public and private realms.

Newman describes four spatial strategies by which environments become more secure. The first includes a system of spatial organization that is subdivided into privately owned or controlled “territories,” and spatial tools such as fences that articulate these territories. Newman advocates for the spatial system of private property as the most securitized and surveillable, which he contrasts with the spatial system of shared residential high-rises, including the apartment towers that characterized US public housing. The second strategy entails casual surveillance mechanisms such as intentionally placed windows that create opportunities for residents to survey the public and exterior spaces surrounding their homes. The third involves the adoption of building forms and materials that de-stigmatize public housing developments by making them appear less separate from other urban buildings constructed by private owners. Fourth and finally, Newman advocates locating residential developments adjacent to “safer” urban activities, such as certain commercial and institutional facilities where storekeepers or security guards will have a stake in maintaining neighborhood safety.

Newman suggests that expanded policing will be futile in the absence of physical modifications that enable communities to defend themselves. Federal programs that adopted Newman’s principles married defensible space theories with an expanded community police presence. These programs included HOPE VI under the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, which enabled the mass demolition, reconstruction, and transformation of public housing. HOPE VI awarded federal grants to private contractors to build public housing developments that were not only more policed and securitized, but that irrevocably enmeshed in market economics.

Further Reading

Neal K. Katyal, “Architecture as Crime Control” (2002), Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works, 1886, link.

Neal K. Katyal, “Digital Architecture as Crime Control” (2003), Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works, 1885, link.

Entry Author
Buell Center (sz2950)