Within the past seven decades, the world has experienced an unimaginable growth in urbanization. Today, more than fifty percent of the world population reside within cities with most post – industrialized nations having over seventy-five percent of their citizens living within metropolitan centres.

Without doubt, the growing urbanization has directly and indirectly impacted individuals, communities, economies, nation states, and the natural environment. When coupled with an equally significant rise in global migration and globalization, cities around the world have truly become urban centres that we could call a ‘Global Village’.

With these massive increase in urbanization, globalization, and global migration, also came new challenges in maintaining public safety and security. Agreeably, global crime rates have generally reduced, but threats associated with terrorism and transnational crimes have increasingly become visible.

Over the years, experts and research have proven that crime can be reduced through informed physical and urban design. By properly acknowledging how the physical environment impacts individual behaviour, urban planners and developers can create (or redevelop) urban spaces that deter potential offenders from committing crime.

Also, by designing urban spaces with the aim of promoting public safety and security, citizens become less fearful of crime and more focused on community development. As a result, cities become more liveable urban cities with vibrant economies and engaged citizens.

According to experts, the external physical environment can directly influence crime situations by defining areas, cutting or enhancing accessibility by creating or eliminating boundaries and circulation networks, and by enabling surveillance by the police and citizenry.

The proliferation of crime is inversely correlated to the level of activity on the streets; less activity equals less surveillance which in turn equals more opportunity for criminal activity to go unseen.

Crime prevention through physical urban design emphasizes on design features that support natural surveillance of an area by residents, the goal being to reduce or eliminate the occurrence of crime.

This approach is a crime prevention program that is based on: a shift from a punishment or treatment model to a prevention model; an interdisciplinary theory of behaviour which is psychobiological in nature; and an appreciation for the role of the physical environment in behaviour, including criminal behaviour.

Despite criticism that physical design does little more than displace crime, there is no arguing that a well planned, designed, and maintained urban spaces results in more secure and vibrant communities.

For many decades, criminologists and security professionals from around the world have repeatedly shown that physical design is highly effective in reducing crime. Yet, despite the success of these crime prevention efforts, there is still much that can be improved upon.

How Physical Design Helps or Hinders Crime Prevention in Urban Communities

Crime prevention through physical design is a critical concept in security planning. Physical design can help in lessening of the fear and occurrence of criminal activity. This crime prevention principle goes way beyond the traditional techniques of locks on doors and bars on windows. It is a philosophy of preventing crime by designing a physical environment that positively influences human behaviour.

Benefits of Physical Design as a Crime Prevention Strategy in Urban Communities

The benefits of using physical design are common to both the urban communities and the suburban residential environment. The benefits of this approach greatly outweigh its disadvantages. According to reports, this approach is beneficial to community residents, community leadership, law enforcement and business leaders as well as planners.

The benefits of using physical design as a form of crime prevention in urban communities include: fewer cases of crimes committed and fewer victimization of residents; improved sense of security and quality of life through reduced fear of crime; increased interactions among residents and stronger neighbourhood bonds.

Also note that law enforcement agencies will benefit from opportunities to take up meaningful roles in community crime prevention.

Business owners and leaders will also gain safer locations that are more attractive to customers and employees and improved problem – solving partnerships with local government and community members.

Intangible benefits may also result. For instance, the ties between public law enforcement, private security, city planners and area builders are strengthened.

The use of this approach also increases citizen’s surveillance, or “eyes on the streets” and this helps to maintain vitality and reduce crime in urban communities. Increased visibility and separation of space into areas assigned to smaller groups of residents encourages resident’s sense of territoriality and improve their ability to control that space, as well as their willingness to do so.

Disadvantages of Physical Design as a Crime Prevention Strategy in Urban Communities

The use of physical design as a form of crime prevention has proved to effective in urban communities, but it also comes with some shortcomings. Two key factors have been identified as being associated with high levels of crime. These are low illumination and dormancy in public spaces after dark.

This is very true especially in large areas of public space. Extremely low – density settings with highly privatized spaces and lack of sense of public realm typically do not facilitate natural surveillance in public spaces.

Therefore, in such situations, normal in urban communities, the use of physical design and planning will be ineffective in deterring crime. Thus, other approaches to deterring crime will need to be employed.

Nonetheless, it is pertinent to note that generally crime hotspots are more likely to be associated with clusters of public housing properties or housing concentrations more common in the inner city, diffusing outward into nearby private housing areas.

Some reports have stated that social interventions are more effective than physical design and planning in reducing crimes in both the urban cities and the suburban residential environment. Also note that without supporting social strategies, physical design is limited in reducing crime.


Physical design as a form of crime prevention is, no doubt, an important consideration when designing houses in estates so long as the design maintains aesthetics, traffic flow and does call for too many expenses. With global rates of urbanization continuing to rise, resulting in most major urban centres experiencing high levels of gentrification, the demand for new and innovative approaches of crime prevention will undoubtedly intensify. Considering the importance modern urban centres play economically, socially, and politically, it is critical for both the public and private sectors to invest in the advancement and promotion of public safety and security.

Ajaero Tony Martins