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In Need of a Champion: Reviving the Practice of CPTED (Essay)


Staff member
Dec 14, 2023
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Last month, we traveled to Edmonton to give a one-day workshop to a group of participants attending the annual conference of the Alberta Community Crime Prevention Association (ACCPA). The topic of our workshop was the practice of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) in rural communities. Since there’s barely enough time in a one-day workshop even just to introduce the basic CPTED principles, we requested participants fill out a form outlining three barriers they saw to implementing CPTED in their home communities.

Overall we received about 75 barriers. The essay below is a consolidated response to these barriers, which we grouped into five general categories:

1. Getting buy-in from community residents and municipal councils/regional executives.

2. Getting buy-in from land developers.

3. Financial constraints.

4. Developing a realistic implementation plan.

5. Lack of knowledge, understanding, and continued learning on CPTED, including youth engagement.

This essay touches on all of these categories, however it’s main focus is the first two topics relating to general buy-in of CPTED concepts: convincing our communities, councils, governments, and land developers that CPTED is a value-added practice to incorporate into the earliest stages of development processes. Without buy-in, it is impossible to overcome barriers related to funding priorities, implementation planning or knowledge development. Over the coming months we plan to look deeper into these additional challenges.

Some may wonder why buy-in is such a challenge with rising property crime in rural Alberta (which many attribute to economic downturn) — a huge cause for residents to demand action from town councils and police services. Amidst all of this heat, one could think timing could not be better for councils to adopt requirements for the application of CPTED methodologies into bylaws as a simple and positive source of action. If not CPTED, what else are councils pursuing, other than attempts to bolster resources for policing?

Simple does not always mean easy. CPTED’s biggest limitation is the absence of a true champion. This is a failure of the CPTED community, which has presented CPTED as such simple common sense that anyone can do it. As a result, CPTED is often handed off to town planners and police as a secondary function. This is a mistake. Done effectively, CPTED requires resource capacity well beyond what municipal staffers’ can realistically handle alongside their primary roles. Practiced to its full potential, CPTED involves focused collaboration amongst a vast multitude of stakeholders, as well as strategic, community-based research and engagement. CPTED is complex work requiring more direct leadership and attention than what professionals can typically accomplish off the side of their desk if primary responsibilities lie elsewhere.

This includes the police, whom most municipalities look to as the experts responsible for bringing CPTED to communities. Police are crucial stakeholders in CPTED due to their knowledge and experience in dealing with behaviours involved in crime, yet they generally lack the capacity, expertise and resources to lead the overall charge of developing CPTED as a best practice. Under police guardianship, CPTED seems to begin and end with target hardening strategies, techy physical security gadgets and environmental design recommendations that merely aim to suppress undesirable behaviours. Without resource capacity to look beyond specific problem areas they are called to, police tend to look at those areas in isolation of the rest of the surrounding neighbourhood. This would especially be true for rural areas that are usually policed by the RCMP and would not have trained officers to do this kind of work. Such piecemeal CPTED application has the potential to simply encourage criminal behaviour to alter in form or relocate elsewhere, leaving communities and councils disillusioned to the effectiveness of CPTED as a practice.

In this sense, CPTED’s greatest enemy could be the first word of its name: crime. CPTED involves proactive focus on the safety and well-being of people as opposed to specifically on crime. The word “crime” is very useful, because it is what is happening and it is what people are afraid of; yet many residents and professionals are beginning to recognize that reactive responses to crime are serving to exacerbate our feelings of fear. Throwing millions of dollars at policing, for example, is not solving our problems any more than it’s solving terrorism or the War on Drugs.

At its heart, CPTED is a proactive, dynamic practice that is incomplete without strategies to engage communities in ways that merge discussions of safety, development and quality of life. It’s a multi-way relationship amongst communities, their authorities and leaders, commercial enterprise, and the whole spectrum of how land development happens. While municipalities typically do try very hard to base decision-making on good understandings of the needs, desires and opinions of their communities, there is no specific science or art that outlines how these understandings should specifically occur. Authorities make the best rational decisions they can with the best information available. Unfortunately, most processes municipalities use to engage (or “consult”) communities aren’t designed to learn beyond the assumptions what matters most to community members. More unfortunately, communities lack their own on-the-ground leadership to understand what fuels any sense of collective belonging.

Communities deserve more than an invitation to a public conversation made incoherent by their own lack of capacity to act together. And when community members increasingly feel they need to be out for themselves, community buy-in to community becomes difficult — possibly the ultimate barrier to CPTED.

One could ask, isn’t making the tough decisions on behalf of our diverse, messy, beautiful communities, who really can’t agree on anything, the reason why we have elected officials? Yes and no. Elected leaders are certainly our caretakers of community accountability, yet there is something to be said about how we generate our knowledge about communities and how we bring them to the table. Changes to our physical environments impact people at personal levels that can seem to go unappreciated by town authorities. The risk here is that best-of-intention decisions inadvertently exacerbate vulnerabilities somewhere, damaging community trust and possibly even leading to irrational actions such as crime.

A key theme here should be evident: communities, municipal authorities and development leaders all lack capacity to put the work into maintaining active relationships with one another to make collective sense of the beautiful chaos of our neighbourhoods. CPTED bridges this gap in capacity by applying coherence to these multi-stakeholder conversations by drawing out activities related to safe environments, quality of life, and community values. What personal and cultural meanings do people draw from neighbourhood spaces and how? What challenges stand in the way of fuller expressions of community life? The point isn’t to empower one culture over another or generate consensus on a single neighbourhood vision (which would be impossible) but to illuminate the chaos and support positive social activity.

The real opportunity for empowering CPTED is with land developers. The active research and engagement methods of full spectrum CPTED allows developers to refine their definitions of project risk, create more compelling community spaces, and ultimately improve their returns on investment. Most importantly, CPTED gives developers the opportunity to break the “us versus them” cycles of conflict that commonly arise with potentially controversial projects. Ironically, if there is conflict to be had over a development project, it often heightens when developers try to educate communities on why their project is a good idea. Such one-way education almost always puts communities on the defensive. Meanwhile, the mutual learning processes of CPTED engagement strategies aim to build trust and shared calls to action. Developers have the power and means to enable the types of leadership spaces that tend to evade communities, while at the same time demonstrating what a good neighbour can look like.

Municipalities often express fear of scaring away developers by imposing more rigorous CPTED requirements within bylaws. The mistake here has been framing CPTED as a series of development restrictions (akin to zoning regulations) instead of as value-added possibilities. This is where there is real potential to merge CPTED with Community Economic Development (CED), helping local economies diversify and avoid instabilities brought about by volatile politics. CPTED involves studying neighbourhood environments as they are, which can reveal market gaps for business development and commercial opportunities to activate community spaces. Implementing CPTED recommendations to the built environment is also an economic generator. Even developing CPTED as a business practice to empower industry champions offers an avenue to contribute to local CED, leading to more widespread use and coherent understanding of CPTED principles.

The trick is to be proactive with CPTED as opposed to applying it as piecemeal (and often expensive) afterthoughts designed to merely suppress or displace particular negative behaviours. CPTED will never be given the attention it requires at the earliest stages of development processes until it can start to benefit from the rigour and growth of a more established discipline and industry. As the engines of physical change in our communities, developers are key leaders in the multi-stakeholder relationships that would allow this to occur.

This is why empowering CPTED champions is so important. Just as builders build, planners plan and architects draw, CPTED requires dedicated, skilled cultivation as a holistic practice. Practical experience in CPTED, which only comes from participating in actual CPTED projects, is an absolute necessity for it to be effective. A four day course may introduce the concepts and the work involved, but expertise is still required to do the actual work. For example, a CPTED assessment project would typically include the following activities:

  • On-site observation of problem or target areas at all hours of the day.

  • Define and survey the surrounding neighbourhood. Liaise with police as key partners in sharing crime analyst data.

  • Develop an exploratory research strategy appropriate for the project and/or target area to identify social connectivity patterns and activity trends.

  • Interview a broad spectrum of community members and other stakeholders (identify friends and enemies!).

  • Compile and analyze qualitative interview data, re-engage community and other stakeholders with findings, and reassess findings as necessary.

  • Conduct spatial risk assessment research and other literature reviews into precedents from similar community structures.

  • Develop a comprehensive recommendation plan that applies First and Second Generation CPTED principles (implementation strategies are based on practitioner experience and research and should include programmatic activity support as well as physical design elements where possible).

  • Develop a long-term evaluation plan to assess outcomes.

So — real work, and depending on the project, it can all can take a few weeks or a few months. It is also fun and extraordinarily rewarding. If it seems unrealistic to convince developers, municipalities or provincial governments to plan for and fund such work, ultimately the problem remains with buy-in because comparable effort and rigour go into every professional industry. Furthermore, opportunity exists throughout these activities for academic and corporate partnerships as natural CPTED stakeholders. It’s why CPTED needs a champion: to drive these relationships as well as its implementation and growth as a practice. If we continue to neglect CPTED, we admit we prefer the visceral fight-and-flight of it all to creating safer communities, realizing social and economic benefits, and actually preventing crime.

In conclusion, it is worthwhile to comment on the idea that communities are resistant to change. This brings us back to the conflict that can arise in response to seemingly unwanted land development projects: and if we can’t build, we can’t do CPTED. Notwithstanding that CPTED aims to reduce this risk of conflict, it’s important to recognize that change can stir up fear in everyone. This includes decision-makers in those moments they are faced with complexities of procedural change, which is something that CPTED demands. The activities of our daily lives, whether in our work or in our home neighbourhoods, form a delicate network of intersecting cultures that interact with individual experiences at very personal levels. Somewhere someone said that people don’t really object to change so much as being changed; and the prospect of even a small change can strike an avalanche of fears. In that sense, maybe all of our fears need a bit more of an attentive conversation than we are all used to. CPTED changes the conversation beyond mere advocacy for either change or no change to one of mutual, active learning — and as a result, action.

In the coming months, it is our intention (Rethink Urban) to produce a series of articles that continue to explore CPTED barriers, including deeper looks into natural CPTED stakeholders and funding partners, implementation projects and continued learning strategies.

Image Credit

Photo courtesy of CPTED Canada

First published at Rethink Urban

Guest Author Bio
Brekke Beyer

Collaborative Consultant in Discovery & Transformation
Systems Change / Software Engineering
The Blue Mountains, Ontario

Brekke has been navigating systems change for 23 years. She brings a powerful humanities lens to software engineering, an industry often caught up in technology as its own end while neglecting its tremendous influence on societal imaginations and behaviours. In her work, Brekke aims to expand this narrow call to action by anticipating community response to arising conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity and change, and ultimately overcome the profound disconnection many of us feel between economies and our general livelihoods.

Read Brekke’s full bio here
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