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Using environmental design to fight crime invites discrimination | COMMENTARY

Baltimore’s Committee for Public Safety and Government Operations held an informational meeting for city agencies recently on Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), to explore ways that the city might better utilize the strategy in everything from neighborhood planning to urban greening.

CPTED is an approach to urban design that has its origins in the “urban crisis” of the 1970s, a time of national panic over rising crime rates, increasing racial tensions, and deteriorating material conditions in the American inner city.

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At the heart of the approach is the creation of “defensible space” by erecting real and symbolic barriers to movement and entry, designing spaces to enable surveillance by residents and police, and installing features that discourage the use of spaces by undesirable groups. Like the discredited “broken windows” theory, CPTED suggests that environmental “disorder” in the form of urban blight encourages crime.

Many proponents have pointed to the fact that areas of urban blight are very often also locations of high rates of street crime. This correlation should not be surprising to anyone; however, both urban blight and street crime are the product of decades of disinvestment and neglect of Black communities, driven by long-standing structures of systemic racism. The CPTED model not only fails to address the persistent inequity at the heart of these problems, but its singular focus on crime will only further stigmatize Black communities and many of their residents.

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Crime Prevention through Environmental Design and related approaches to urban design influenced some of the most damaging alterations to the fabric of American cities during 20th century, from street closures and wall construction that have separated and fortified wealthy white enclaves, to the removal of street trees from low-income Black communities to better facilitate police surveillance. Likewise, important neighborhood amenities like public toilets, bus shelters, benches, and trash cans have been systematically removed from many Black communities to prevent their misuse. More recently, CPTED has been implicated in the rise of “hostile architecture,” the most infamous example of which is the ubiquitous anti-homeless spikes, the metal or concrete studs that seek to deter loitering and sleeping. And indeed, we should see this type of environmental design as no more effective at preventing crime than anti-homeless spikes are at preventing homelessness.

In recent years CPTED has come under criticism as a key form of spatial anti-Blackness, because it encourages suspicion toward those deemed illegitimate users of public space, most notably Black youth and other marginalized groups. As killings of unarmed Black men at the hands of police and white vigilantes have caught the national attention and inspired a new wave of civic activism around racial oppression, there have been increasing calls for CPTED to be removed from municipal codes. For years advocates of the approach have attempted to deflect criticisms by incorporating more community engagement or including additional aims like neighborhood livability. The continued negative impacts of these strategies are often simply blamed on “poorly trained practitioners.” But despite revisions, little has changed in the basic aims and concrete interventions of the strategy. Like many regressive public safety approaches, CPTED locates causes of urban problems in poor Black communities themselves, rather than in the systemic conditions that have produced extreme racialized poverty, urban decay, and social misery in these communities in the first place.

Crime prevention advocates are not wrong to call attention to urban blight as a critical issue. But the real problem to be solved here is the massive disparity in care and maintenance, neighborhood amenities, and public services that exist between urban communities, cutting largely along racial lines. This disparity is rooted in historic patterns of disinvestment in cities like Baltimore, in which public funding and private investment were redirected toward the stabilization of economically and politically influential communities in the white L and areas around important city institutions.

Wealthier communities have also long had the power and influence to effectively advocate for their own needs, as well as the capital to fund enhanced public services exclusively in their own communities. It is these unequal conditions we should seek to change. Efforts to design better neighborhoods, address urban blight, and expand and improve green spaces in Baltimore cannot just be a cynical ploy to reduce crime. If so, it will only serve to reproduce the shameful inequity that has ravaged the city for decades.

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Rather than pursuing regressive strategies like CPTED, Baltimore must embrace emerging approaches to urban design that interrogate, challenge, and transform unequal social and economic structures by centering values like equity, justice, and care. We need urban spaces that are nourishing, supportive, and safe for all Baltimoreans.

Nathaniel Adams is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University.

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