The essay by Henry Cisneros, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development underneath President Bill Clinton, strategically applies Oscar Newman’s theory of Defensible Space to housing developments and neighborhoods across the United States. Written twenty-three years after Newman’s original text, Cisneros highlights the legacy of Defensible Space and connects Newman’s theory with Broken Windows as well as with strategies of land governance and ownership. “Defensible Space: Deterring Crime and Building Community” marks the formal recognition of Newman’s values by the American federal government at a time when the power of government and non-government forces alike was being wielded to transform, and ultimately erode, public housing.
Cisneros argues that Newman’s assumptions about the role of physical design in crime reduction, after decades of being dismissed as environmentally deterministic, are coming back into fashion. Now, according to Cisneros, the view that strategically designed housing can improve poor neighborhoods is once more gaining momentum, impacted by essays including Kelling and Wilson’s “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” Good housing was important, according to Cisneros, because the physical characteristics of a neighborhood impact where criminals choose to perform crime, and because evidence of physical decay indicated a neighborhood in which residents were less likely to respond when criminal activity occurred. Physical improvements could reverse the slippery slope from petty crime into criminal lawlessness imagined by Kelling and Wilson, reducing real crime as well as imagined fear of residents.
Cisneros recapitulates Newman’s belief that private, single-family homes and row houses are the housing typology most easily defended by residents against criminals, and that a safer version of public housing should be built in the physical image of such private models. In a readily “defensible” neighborhood, according to Newman and Cisneros, residents should be able to recognize strangers and will feel comfortable questioning them or challenging their presence in the area. This might take the form of fences that demarcate the ownership of a single piece of property, or of gates at the entrances to neighborhoods. According to Cisneros, these physical strategies advocated by Newman should be underscored by an increased community-based police presence, in the model advocated by Kelling and Wilson.