What Is CPTED and How Can It Help Your Community?

by: Julia Ryan, Community Safety Initiatives Director, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)

“How about hostile vegetation?” It’s not a question you hear every day. But when asked by a police officer in a crime prevention training in Houston, TX, it launched an intense discussion about whether thorny rose bushes could deter burglars from entering ground floor windows in a new residential property. Not a typical police response to a crime problem, right?

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED, pronounced sep-ted) is a multidisciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior that focuses on changing how places are laid out, and how they look and feel. Criminologist C. Ray Jeffrey coined the term in the 1970s around the same time that architect Oscar Newman’s ideas about “defensible space” took hold.

Fundamentally, CPTED suggests that you can change how people act in a place by altering its design. The goal is to reduce crime and fear, and improve quality of life. Basic principles include “natural surveillance,” which harkens back to Jane Jacobs’ ideas about the positive power of eyes on the street, described in her influential 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and “territoriality,” which looks at how signage and maintenance suggest that a space is cared for. These principles often get people talking about windows, lighting, fences, and landscaping (including rose bushes), which can reduce opportunities for crime in relatively cost-efficient ways.

More advanced principles go a step further and look at how people come into the picture. For example, “activity support” encourages bringing intended users to a space to make it less hospitable to criminal activity. In Milwaukee, WI, sports and environmental programs started bringing kids into a park reclaiming it from illicit activity. In an area of south Los Angeles, street crime is significantly lower when thousands of people come to the farmers market. Discussion about “movement predictors” in Philadelphia, PA, prompted a CPTED team to think about placement of fence openings and public art around a handball court in a crime hot spot.

These strategies hint at several important points on how CPTED can work extraordinarily well. First, good use of CPTED requires input from multiple people, including users of a space who might have varied perceptions of what makes it feel scary or safe, as well as property managers, community developers, and law enforcement personnel who bring different information and resources to conversations about crime.

Secondly, CPTED is best used as a tool in a problem-solving or planning process, not as an independent intervention. If preventing first floor break-ins was the only goal of the CPTED project in Houston mentioned earlier, installing window bars might be more effective than rose bushes. Rarely is stopping crime the only goal – CPTED seeks to improve quality of life and create new social and economic opportunities. Rose bushes enhance the building’s appeal more than bars.

Along those lines, something like courtyard benches might create a place for people to linger to enjoy them with their neighbors, but also come with additional concerns. Benches could encourage neighbors to hang out, or pose a risk for loitering and criminal activity. It is a consideration that underscores the importance of CPTED and knowing your neighborhood. No outside CPTED “expert” alone can answer questions regarding how CPTED principles can impact a community. A team of people with different viewpoints and professional expertise can answer them, particularly if they commit to analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data about their specific problem as they consider how CPTED principles could be applied to solve it.

The International CPTED Association offers links to more information about CPTED. For additional information, case studies, and tools about collaborative responses to crime that include CPTED, visit LISC’s Community Safety Resource Center.

Julia Ryan is the Director of LISC’s Community Safety Initiative, where for the last 10 years she has helped communities integrate CPTED principles into their crime prevention strategies.

BJA NTTAC has identified CPTED as a new training and technical assistance (TTA) initiative and is offering TTA resources that will help community leaders and officials assess their needs related to the environmental conditions that may be leading to crime incidents. If you know a community that would benefit from TTA or if you are a community or agency with a critical need, click here to complete the online TTA request form. If you are interested in authoring a TTA Today blog post on the work of your organization or jurisdiction, please email us at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.