Indefensible design: the high social costs of ‘security’

The pedlars of gates, alarms and CCTV have an ever-growing business. It’s the community that pays, according to research by Anna Minton and Jody Aked

November 16, 2013
7 min read


Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century city, published by Penguin. Details at www.annaminton.com

survAll our public buildings, including schools, hospitals and housing, come with high levels of security that are transforming the nature of the environment around us. At the same time, fear of crime and concerns about safety and security are at an all-time high. Although crime has been falling steadily in the UK since 1995, the vast majority of people (as high as 84 per cent, according to the British Crime Survey) believe it is rising.

High security is a now prerequisite of planning permission for all new developments, through a government-backed design policy called Secured by Design. While this includes sensible recommendations, such as the need for adequate locks on doors and windows, the application of Secured by Design standards tends to create very high security environments, which can appear threatening. For example, a gated development in East London was commended for its small windows, reinforced steel door with full‑size iron gate and grey aluminium military-style roof.

Schools in particular have become high security environments, emphasising gating, high fences and CCTV. Because Secured by Design requirements for schools and public buildings are based on an audit of local crime risk, higher crime areas, which correlate with higher deprivation scores, are characterised by buildings with a militarised feel. Fortress levels of security are now a visual marker for poor parts of Britain.

How and why did these ‘standards’ become contemporary orthodoxy? Over the past 30 years, private property has become increasingly prominent because of the growing importance placed on home ownership, and the spread of ‘mass private property’, in the form of shopping malls, finance districts, airports, leisure parks, conference centres, university and hospital campuses and gated communities. Criminologists Clifford D Shearing and Philip C Stenning, in a seminal article in 1981, pointed out that mass private property inevitably demanded private security.

Defensible space

Around the same time, the idea of ‘defensible space’ was becoming influential. Coined by Oscar Newman, an American architect and town planner, this design idea amounted to a new political and intellectual philosophy for crime and its prevention. Expounding the virtues of private space, individual responsibility and territoriality, it chimed with the rise of neoliberalism.

The appeal of Newman’s thesis for policymakers was that it put forward a straightforward solution for preventing crime in highly complex situations, championing a ‘can do’ method of changing people’s behaviour, which Newman claimed worked even in the poorest areas. His main finding was that ‘territoriality’ created space that could defend itself. By marking out boundaries clearly, residents would feel a sense of ownership over places, encouraging them to look after their patch and discouraging strangers and opportunistic criminals from entering.

The key figure responsible for importing Newman’s ideas to Britain was the controversial geographer Alice Coleman. If Newman’s work was received with scepticism among American peers, Coleman’s 1985 book Utopia on Trial: visions and reality in planned housing was excoriated by critics who claimed that her dismissal of the influence of poverty was based on ‘pseudo science’. She nonetheless went on to gain the ear of Margaret Thatcher in 1988, receiving an unprecedented £50 million in government funding for what Thatcher considered ‘an important social experiment’.

Secured by Design came into being in 1989. Its influence is considerable: planning permission for all public buildings, housing and schools is now contingent on meeting its standards. Although it is administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers, Secured by Design is now an independent private company, funded by 480 security companies which sell products that qualify for Secured by Design standards.

There is scant evidence that the spread of gating, CCTV and defensible space strategies create safe, cohesive and trusting communities. The Scottish Office found that, while people often believed CCTV would make them feel safer, both crime and the fear of crime rose in the area investigated. The author concluded the introduction of CCTV had undermined people’s personal and collective responsibility for each other’s safety.

Field study findings

Our field study examined the effects of Secured by Design in a social housing estate in south-west London. Focus groups and interviews were carried out with residents and practitioners (workers in estate services, youth services and so on) on a Peabody Trust estate in the Pimlico area. We began by defining what high security meant for the groups. Their definition included gating, fencing, removing permeable spaces, gating off entrances and exits, CCTV across the whole site, security guards wearing high visibility uniforms, alarm systems and electronic systems.

Incidents of actual crime were rarely mentioned. By far the biggest problem was young people hanging around late into the night around the play area in the courtyard of Peabody Avenue. On a number of occasions the play area had been vandalised. Two views emerged. The first was that security innovations were the solution and were seen by many as a power struggle, with young people playing ‘a game’ to outsmart authority. The other view was that, while disruption to residents into the early hours was unacceptable, there were too few alternative activities and places to go for young people in the wider area.

Our respondents echoed the findings from other research that efforts to create ‘defensible space’ could increase fear of strangers. They worried about gates restricting access for elderly and disabled people. There was also concern that high security gave a message to those outside that ‘something is wrong with that estate’.

CCTV was very popular with residents, although it did not necessarily add to feelings of safety, with residents reporting the presence of CCTV could in fact increase feelings of anxiety. One resident said, ‘Sometimes it makes me feel more anxious. Because I think I’m in a bad area, I get into a panic sometimes because, for one, you’re not sure the cameras are working.’

The importance of trust

Fear of crime does not correlate with actual crime – which was barely discussed by the groups – but it does correlate directly with trust. In turn, high levels of trust correlate with well-being. The residents interviewed felt that ‘knowing people’ was the key to creating trust. This gave rise to a discussion on the role of caretakers, who lived on the estate until 2005. Caretakers or ‘supers’ as they were known, were badly missed by practitioners and residents alike, who commented that technological solutions had replaced ‘people on the ground’. This particularly affected elderly and isolated people, who found great reassurance from the presence of known individuals with friendly faces, who would also notice if certain residents hadn’t been seen for a few days.

We ended by giving participants a fantasy budget to create a safe and trusting community. They chose to make some investment in security features but decided to allocate the largest portion of the budget to ‘people on the ground’, including caretakers and youth workers.

Our engagement with Peabody has revealed a substantial disconnect between the assumptions underpinning Secured by Design and the day-to-day experiences of people living amongst CCTV, high fences and gates. It was a small study, but clear conclusions have nevertheless emerged about the links between fear and trust and the removal of guardianship figures who were seen to provide the ‘social glue’ in communities. Their loss was an indirect result of compliance with Secured by Design. Yet it appears that they were much more effective in building trust in communities than the installation of CCTV, gating and door entry systems.

Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control. Jody Aked is a PhD student at the Institute of Development Studies. This article was extracted from a New Economics Foundation report. The full version is available at annaminton.com


Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century city, published by Penguin. Details at www.annaminton.com


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