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Hostile Design in the Built Environment

Transcript for Stop #4: Trinity & 2nd | Austin Convention Center

KATILIN: Here we are at stop number four right in front of the Austin Convention Center. As you look up and down the sidewalk, you’ll notice the trees in planters. And around the tops of those planters, you’ll see metal discs that boast the Texas star. 


ASHLEY: Oh, a nice little Texas touch!


KAITLIN: You might think so if you don’t skateboard. Those little discs are actually “grinder minders” that prevent skateboarders from grinding on the edges of those planters. 


ASHLEY: Why would anyone care about skateboarders hanging out? I mean, I know teenagers’ insults seem to be able to pinpoint what you're most self conscious about, but it seems a little extreme to go through all that trouble to keep them away.


KAITLIN: It’s actually because skateboarding can damage the hardscaping, and it would cost a lot to fix or replace. 


ASHLEY: That makes sense. 


KAITLIN: Now, the grinder minders are an example of how environmental design can be used to prevent a nuisance or frustration, but environmental design can also be used to help prevent crime. And the way principles are being applied has received a lot of attention lately because the implementation can unfairly prevent women and people of color from comfortably existing in a public space. 


For an overview of these more serious and targeted practices, we turned to Brendan Wittstruck, Principle and Urban Designer at Asakura Robinson Planning Urban Design and Landscape Architecture here in Austin. 


BRENDAN WITTSTRUCK: Recently, there's been a lot of talk about CPTED. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design or CPTED gained acceptance in the early 1970s and it's based on the belief that proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in crime and the fear of crime; thus, improving the quality of life of communities. You may not have heard of CPTED, but you've certainly seen it in action. CPTED theory can be seen everywhere from the design of access points into public spaces to hostile design features such as center bars on benches, which prohibit comfortably sleeping and other design elements that prohibit unwanted activities or movements in public space.


Recently though, CPTED has fallen under critique, opening up an exploration in urban design principles, considered canon for the first time in a generation. In total, there's overwhelming evidence that CPTED principles can exacerbate existing racial prejudices and discourage people of color from participating freely in shared open spaces.


A key tenant of CPTED is natural surveillance. Based on Jane Jacobs' theory of eyes on the street, CPTED calls for the design and placement of physical features to maximize the visibility of space and its users, intending to foster positive interaction between the public and private realm. But what happens when the eyes on the street are prejudiced against the people on the street. The perceived connection between crime and people in the public realm can encourage vigilante behavior, including unwarranted 911 calls and unintentionally assigned perceived ownership in the public realm to homeowners or private uses.


Further, it sends a signal, particularly to people of color, that they are excluded from being participants in the public space. A second tenant of CPTED is natural access control, which intends to limit crime by selectively placing entrances and exits or otherwise limiting access in a landscape. This principle flies in the face of a growing body of research aimed at reducing and removing targeted harassment from public spaces, particularly directed at women.


For example, while CPTED uses natural access control to limit access points in public spaces, having multiple entrances and exits to a public space is incredibly important to someone who is or perceives to be the target of harassment, including verbal abuse, stalking and physical violence. In absence of that freedom of access, many people, and disproportionately women, cannot or do not participate freely in public spaces.


CPTED principles also include territorial reinforcement promoting the community ownership of space, but this too becomes problematic when community ownership is marred by prejudices that exclude people of color. The result is overwhelmingly that people of color are either directly pushed out of public spaces by harassment from surveillance or avoid social spaces for fear of being seen as an outsider or as a threat. Second generation CPTED has tried to think beyond the physical environment, focusing more on social dimensions of space, enhancing connectedness and community and promoting community governance over safety and security.


While not without its problems, the idea of expanding community agency over design decisions has great potential for achieving more humane outcomes for public spaces. Key areas of potential include increasing communal utilization and ownership of shared public spaces, enhancing sense of safety and inclusion for all users, empowering communities to develop their own forms of safety and security, and signaling public investment and commitment to a space.


Solutions for alternative strategies to improve neighborhoods security and safety and build social cohesion broadly coalesce around three main points. One, there is greater need for community dialogue that is inclusive of those who are most impacted by violence in order to create a shared understanding of what is meant by safety and security. Two, we cannot rely solely on design to prevent crime. Strategies have to look at policies and programming as well. Three, efforts to create safety must be community led. The built environment around us may look like an accident like it just happened, but design is everywhere around us when we participate in the public realm, visible and invisible, and it is up to us to constantly reacknowledge that design and question it when it falls short of supporting the most essential goal of public space. That public space should be for everyone.

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