Urban design is the practice of shaping the built environment, including buildings, streets, public spaces and neighbourhoods, to improve the liveability of cities and towns. When a place is designed well, it provides social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits including increased civic engagement and greater resiliency. 

Urban design is important for crime prevention because poorly designed and managed places can create opportunities for crime and make people feel unsafe. However, it is important to note that poor design and management of places are not the only risk factor for crime. Crime is the result of a complex interplay of social and environmental factors that cannot simply be ‘designed out’. A holistic approach focuses on promoting liveability and participation in community not just as a direct means of preventing crime, but as a means for individuals to achieve greater personal satisfaction and quality of life.

Design principles which help make public environments safer include:

  • visibility and natural surveillance – places where activities can be easily seen deter potential offenders
  • access, movement and sightlines – crime is less likely to occur in places where there are clear, well defined routes and people can easily enter and leave
  • activity – maximising the use of public places by a mix of people encourages social interaction and cohesion, increases visibility and surveillance by passers-by and reduces the risk of crime
  • ownership – places that generate a sense of ownership among users discourage crime. This is best achieved by creating partnerships within the community and coordinating shared activities and programs
  • maintenance – public places that are well managed and maintained generally feel safer and encourage people to use them. This in turn encourages activity and natural surveillance
  • co-design – designers and planners should engage meaningfully with future or current users in a way that takes into account gender, sexuality, ability, age, race and other considerations that may affect an individual or groups’ use of a space and how safe they feel.

Changing the built environment can be difficult and costly, so applying good urban design at the outset can help to prevent problems and greater expense later. Where this is not possible and there are existing crime problems, applying good urban design principles to a particular location is one way in which a crime problem can be addressed. Good urban design should also address the accessibility and sustainability of the site and include consideration of the ongoing engagement, activation and management that is necessary to ensure a safe, welcoming and inclusive community space.

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