Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia - Jan 2, 2018: perspective view of an Australian police car parked in the historic center of Fremantle, among tourists, churches and old buildings. Preventing crime through urban design Taylor Burrell Barnett

Preventing crime through urban design – a contemporary take on an old concept


James McCallum

08 Mar 2022

How do you engage with your city? Are there places that make you feel safe? Places which make you feel unsafe? 

In this article I’ll explore how the very shape of parts of our city can make individuals feel safe or unsafe, and examine the current planning framework for preventing crime through urban design.

When designing better cities, we need to focus on more than function. Well-considered city design, that considers how we experience a space, is critical to promoting positive behaviour, while having the potential to reduce anti-social behaviour. 

As an example of designing for safety, how about comparing two laneways at night? 

  • One is poorly maintained, there isn’t much lighting, there are plenty of spaces for someone to hide and you’re not sure where the end of the laneway is. 
  • One is well lit, you can see clearly to the end of the laneway and there are no clear places for offenders to hide. 

Preventing crime through urban design - laneway example

I’m guessing you’d give the first laneway a miss?

Designing our cities to promote a feeling of safety is not new. Once, cities were designed to withstand invasion. They were enclosed in walls, with castles, moats and towers. Cities were designed with defense in mind. Since the Industrial Revolution cities have shifted from a design approach which focused on avoiding invasion, towards creating safe and secure places at a more personal level, cities where people will want to spend their time. 

As the world is becoming more urbanised, more people are living in cities and it is becoming more and more critical that the design of cities ensures a healthy quality of life, including making people feel, and be, safe. City planners have responded by promoting design which enhances safety, defined by a set of principles known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED for short. 

There's also been new perspectives on urban design, driven by massive societal upheaval in the past few years. The COVID pandemic challenging the fabric of society, the isolationism which comes with lock downs, and an increasing focus on mental health. Feeling a sense of belonging and feeling safe in our community has never been more important. Preventing crime through urban design is one way to approach this challenge.

CPTED (First Generation) explained 

So, what is CPTED? There are five core areas of CPTED, also known as First Generation Principles: 

  1. Surveillance – establishing design features and activities that create a perception of increased risk of detection. Basically, the idea is that criminals don’t want to be seen, so if we can see them, they won’t offend.  
  2. Access Control – the use of design features which deny offenders access to targets, or limit escape opportunities. If you can’t get to it, or get away, you are less likely to commit a crime. Examples include gates, fences and doors, or a reliance on security guards. 
  3. Territorial Enforcement –the use of physical features to establish ownership of a space, separating private and public space. For example fences used around a front yard. 
  4. Target Hardening –the physical securing of buildings and places to limit access for offenders. Small interventions like window bars (not very friendly looking!). 
  5. Management and Maintenance – Active management of a space indicates that it is owned, cared for and, most importantly, monitored. Remember the dark laneway mentioned above? What if the area was clean, free of graffiti and rubbish? An area which is managed is less likely to attract anti-social behaviour. 

The First Generation Principles outlined above are focused on physical or ‘hard’ interventions - aspects of the city which we are able to see, touch and experience. These sorts of interventions are easy to see, so the community knows if they are being done well, or in fact, being done at all. 

The role of planning 

In 2006, the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage released the Designing Out Crime Planning Guidelines which set out these principles, provides handy examples, and advises how these may be embedded in planning projects. These guidelines were introduced as a useful toolkit for planners, designers and architects to inform how buildings and parts of the city could be planned to promote safer places. 

The other consideration is the State government’s Perth and Peel @ 3.5 million framework which encourages planning and development to occur in a more compact and sustainable manner.

In fact, we have seen a significant amount of planning reform coming from the State Government over the past few years in this area. The focus has been on how we can make our cities more compact and sustainable, evolving into more interconnected communities and ensuring that individuals maintain a high quality of life, and delivering a better quality of built form overall. These aspirations are defined within the 7.0 series of State Planning Policy, otherwise known as DesignWA. 

We are moving towards an urban form which brings people together physically, but with the conventional approach to CPTED focusing on physical health and safety outcomes, are we focused enough on social outcomes? Is WA ready to embrace more compact living and has COVID changed society's attitude to higher density living? 

Where to in 2022? 

CPTED is an integral part of the DesignWA vision, and we have recently seen the release of a new document Safer Places by Design: CPTED Guidelines as an updated version of the 2006 Guidelines. 

Safer Places by Design

The good news is that the draft guidelines provide a better presented and more easily understood framework for the application of CPTED. It manages to condense the amount of information and bring concepts to life with images and diagrams. Essentially, it looks, and works, better than it did. 

However, in the 16 years since the 2006 guidelines were released the way we use our city has evolved. Greater emphasis is being placed on public transport, walkability and compact living. Our planning frameworks are rapidly evolving to better support these goals through a number of different improvements (e.g. DesignWA), so why not the CPTED guidelines?

A missing link – CPTED Second Generation   

While First Generation CPTED Principles focus on ‘hard’ interventions, the focus of the Second Generation is on ‘soft’ interventions. Second Generation CPTED Principles are geared towards the social elements of how we create communities and form links between people to promote positive social outcomes. Not only will strong social links discourage crime but if communities are strong then the benefit to mental and social health is improved.


Second Generation CPTED is focused on four areas: 

  1. Social Cohesion – nurturing an environment where a mutual respect and appreciation of the various groups and individuals which make up a community. Accessible public events and functions.  Remember street parties? 
  2. Community Connectivity – coordinating activities and programs between communities, focusing on government and non-government agencies with intended to empower communities. Basically, how can governments assist community groups to succeed, is it funding perhaps better spaces to meet? 
  3. Community Culture – establishing cultural events or functions to provide opportunities for individuals to come together, assisting to develop a strong sense of community. Similar to social cohesion but with a focus on meeting new people from different walks of life. 
  4. Threshold Capacity – Promoting human scale and pedestrian oriented activities which assist to ‘put a face’ to other members of the local community. Just a fancy way of saying that if people know each other, recognise each other, that they are less likely to commit crimes. This also helps to break down barriers and reduce the number of ‘strangers’ in an area. 

The second generation CPTED principles aim to create a city where its citizens are working together to make a safer place. 

Will ‘Safer Places by Design’ live up to the Second Generation expectations?

It is a core objective of DesignWA to foster community outcomes, encourage greater human interaction and promote mental health outcomes. I’m concerned that the new Safer Places by Design: CPTED Guidelines currently out for public comment, doesn’t go far enough to consider how mental and social safety will be realised. The implementation of Second Generation CPTED Principles are particularly important in our growing communities, at first led by a recognised facilitator like a local government or estate developer. For these reasons the use of Second Generation CTPTED Principles needs to be a focus in Precinct design to ensure that planning promotes a better community outcome.

Conventionally, planning is focused on the built environment and establishes appropriate controls to achieve this. Our CPTED policy framework which guides physical safety could also be expanded to consider mental and social safety too.

What might this look like? There are already ideas out there. Real-world tools like Healthy Street Design and One Planet Living, or nationally accredited programs such as the Green Building Council of Australia’s Communities tool, which emphasises establishing strong social and community ties. Relating these tools to the CPTED policy framework could allow Western Australia to be a leader in promoting better social outcomes in our built environment. 

Cities have grown, how we use them has changed over time, but most importantly the people that live in cities have diversified and expect more from their city. My two cents - the draft Safe Spaces by Design Planning Guidelines may be missing a beat without considering how Second Generation CPTED principles may be implemented to drive a better way to create better urban communities. 

Learn more about TBB's approach to creating places for people: placemaking