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Robert A. Gardner, CPP

Crime will kill a business district. Fortunately there is a planning tool that can both prevent crime and increase the perception of safety. That tool is Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design or CPTED. Anyone tasked with the development or redevelopment of a business district or downtown area should be familiar with the CPTED principles.

The CPTED goal is the elimination of crime by removing opportunities for criminal activity while encouraging legitimate use of an area. The success of CPTED stems from the manner in which crime prevention concepts are integrated into the architectural and streetscape design process.

Defensible Space

"Defensible Space" describes "zones of defense" created by the application of CPTED design principles. These principles designate all areas as either public, semi-private, or private. These zones give both occupant and intruder clear points of reference. Occupants can more readily recognize intruders and intruders lose a portion of their anonymity.

"Public Zones" are generally open to anyone and are the least secure of the three zones. A public sidewalk is an example of a Public Zone.

"Semi-Private Zones" separate public and private zones. A street side courtyard, an entrance alcove and a controlled parking structure are examples of Semi-Private Zones.

"Private Zones" are areas of restricted entry. Access is controlled and limited to specific individuals or groups. Private residences, secured office buildings, and non-public business areas such as back offices and stockrooms are examples of Private Zones.

Zone divisions are generally accomplished with some type of physical or symbolic barrier. Physical barriers, as the name implies, are substantial in nature and designed to prevent or impede movement. Fencing, some forms of landscaping, and locked doors are examples of physical barriers.

Symbolic barriers are less tangible and usually do not actually prevent movement but rather clearly delineate a transition area. Low decorative fences, flowerbeds, changes in sidewalk patterns or materials, and signage, are examples of symbolic barriers.


A strong sense of territoriality encourages an individual to want to defend his or her surroundings. In downtown areas, a sense of territoriality can be fostered in the business community by employing architectural and streetscape design elements that instill a feeling of pride and ownership for the area. Shop owners for instance, may feel a sense of ownership for the sidewalks and parking areas adjacent to their business.


Environments in which legitimate occupants can exercise a high degree of visual control encourage legitimate use and discourage criminal activity. People feel safer when they can easily see and be seen and criminals are less likely to act when there is a high risk of their actions being witnessed.

Informal Surveillance. Opportunities for informal or natural surveillance occur as a direct result of architectural design. Designs that minimize visual obstacles and eliminate places of concealment for potential assailants offer the most protection against crime.

Formal Surveillance. Formal surveillance methods, such as closed-circuit television, electronic monitoring, fixed guard posts, and organized security patrols, are normally used only when natural surveillance alone cannot sufficiently protect an area. Public and semi-private zones that are hidden from view or that experience regular periods of isolation or inactivity may benefit from formal surveillance.


Good lighting is one of the most effective crime deterrents. When used properly, light discourages criminal activity, enhances natural surveillance opportunities, and reduces fear.

To the degree possible, a constant level of light providing reasonably good visibility should be maintained at night. The absolute level of light, provided it meets minimum standards, is less critical than the evenness of the light. In general, bright spots and shadows should be avoided. Highly vulnerable areas and those that could conceal a potential attacker should be illuminated more brightly than areas designed for normal activity. The object is to light up the criminal without spotlighting the victim.

As used in CPTED, lighting also plays a part in creating a sense of territoriality. Lighting can influence an individual's feelings about his environment from an aesthetic as well as a safety standpoint. A bright, cheerful environment is much more appealing than one that appears dark and lifeless.


From a surveillance standpoint, good landscape design is critical. Visual corridors must be maintained to enhance informal surveillance opportunities. As a rule, effective visual corridors can be established by limiting shrubbery to a maximum height of three feet and trees to a minimum height of six feet at the lowest branches. Landscaping can also be employed to create barriers and define zones.

Physical Security

In conjunction with the design features already mentioned, it is important to incorporate thoughtful building design, proper placement of doors and windows, installation of high quality locks and other security hardware, and effective use of protection barriers into the design process. As an element of CPTED, physical security is intended to deter and delay criminal attack without creating a fortress environment.

Compatible Uses

It seems obvious that an upscale shopping district that includes a halfway house for recovering addicts is a receipt for disaster. Unfortunately, incompatible uses frequently arise. There is no magic formula for what uses compliment each other. Planners must be sensitive to the issue and consider the use factor in their designs.

Hardware, lighting, and surveillance are standard crime prevention tools. Land use planning, landscaping for crime prevention, and the concept of territoriality are less familiar crime prevention tools. The emphasis of CPTED is not just on the tools, however. It is when and how these tools are used that makes the difference. Traditionally, buildings have built and then secured as an afterthought. With CPTED, they are secured and then built. More importantly, not just the building is secured but also the sidewalk, streets, parking lots and common areas surrounding it. Through the CPTED concept public safety becomes an integral part of the environment.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design is a concept that can be used effectively to protect one business or an entire city.

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Robert A. Gardner, CPP is a licensed independent security and public safety consultant with offices in Santa Paula, CA, Las Vegas, NV and Scottsdale, AZ. He is a former corporate security manager, law enforcement administrator, and police crime prevention specialist with more than 40 years of experience planning and managing security and crime prevention programs. He was an advisor on architectural/environmental security to "America's Safest City" and is a nationally recognized authority on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

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