Design out crime to increase feelings of safety

photo of 'Freedom of Munich' metro station from Flickr/Rajesh_India

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‘Designing Out Crime’ is a significant element of contemporary public transport environment design. Bernetta Harting, Co-ordinator Public Safety & Crisis Management at HTM in the Hague and certified expert on CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) talks about how public transport surroundings influence passengers’ perception of security.

Whether we are talking about a major transport hub or a single bus stop, unacceptable levels of anti-social behavior and petty crime within and around it must be avoided so that passengers feel safe to use the system. But rather than spending lots of money and human resources on repairing vandalism, it’s better to take a closer look at the design of a public transport environment, as well as the surrounding public space, at the very beginning.

‘Design out Crime’ is a concept that first appeared in the ‘30s in the US and was developed into theories such as the ‘Defensible Space’ theory by Oscar Newman in the ‘70s and the ‘Broken Windows’ theory by Wilson and Kelling. Broadened understanding of the Design out Crime concept led to the establishment of international organisations such as the European Design Out Crime Association.

For several years now, there has been a perceptible increase in the application of the concept of Design Out Crime in public transport systems. It’s certainly not the answer to all security related problems and threats, but it is a good cost-effective starting point. It doesn't just rely on cameras, fences or to fortify your system. It is about a natural way of influencing behavior. An important role needs to be granted to CPTED-educated security staff of public transport companies at the very start of a design.

Passengers have to pass through the surrounding neighbourhood on their way to a public transport station. If this area is not well maintained, they might opt instead to take their car or in the case of Holland, their bike. A well-maintained environment does not always require a full upgrade of housing and streets; sometimes simply maintaining green areas or removing litter in time can contribute to the feeling of safety. And it’s not too late for older stations. With little or sometimes large adjustments, an area can be upgraded in such a way that the perception of safety is improved.

Purpose, partnerships and ‘demonstrating presence’

When considering the design aspects of public transport stations, its purpose should be taken into account; does it allow for a longer stay? Or is it just a transfer point? In the latter case, the architect should avoid provisions that encourage long-stay or people hanging around. Does the design allow for maintenance and if so, who is going to maintain what and how often?

It is a good idea, in addition to the design, to ‘map’ the environment and local parties (schools, shopping malls, retirement homes, etc.). The conditions of cooperation with local parties can be established through written agreements that assign responsibilities. Local parties can be the public transport companies, local authorities, police, but also school board or managers of nearby shopping areas. What’s clean and intact stays clean and intact for longer (the Broken Window theory). Another aspect of maintaining public transport areas such as isolated stations, tunnel areas or even depots, is demonstrating presence. People who consider themselves unseen are practically invited to worsen an already desolate situation.

Changing demographics require design adjustments

Sometimes the perception of a lack of security can make people avoid using public transport. In bigger cities, especially, older people avoid using public transport after dark. They might feel vulnerable about passing groups on the street or at isolated stations or bus and tram stops. They might consider themselves easy targets for pick-pockets and other petty criminals. Some older people have no qualms with using public transport at all, while some younger people have might have the same fears as some older people often have. And of course, there are parents who are not to keen for their children to use public transport, especially at night.

Perception of safety is not based only on gender or age, but also one’s own behaviour. One design that fits all is utopic. Society is changing and developing all the time and areas that are new today are subject to reconstruction tomorrow. Areas with mainly young families change over the years into areas full of older people. This means that we need to stay focused on the changes and adjust. Together with the community we can establish the most safe and secure environment possible.

Elements that influence a person’s perception of security in a public space

  • Clear purpose of the area with adequate references
  • Sightlines with no obstacles
  • Transparency with no obstacles
  • Art and decoration
  • Use of transparent materials
  • Use and colour of material
  • Social interaction, not only at platforms or in stations but also outside
  • Natural boundaries (guiding lines on the street, flowerbeds, illuminated routes, etc.)
  • Natural illumination, low intensity and colour to avoid dramatic contrast with light and dark
  • Use of music or fragrance (though fragrance can be controversial)
  • Natural associations to engender desired behavior (e.g. people in a library usually silent)
  • Mirrors to activate self-image (you don’t want to see your self throwing your litter or cigarette away)

Elements of design that make users feel unsafe

  • Dark, hidden places
  • Large obstacles that obstruct sightlines and transparency
  • Dark, solid materials like concrete
  • Bad or absence illumination
  • Easy accessible walls for graffiti
  • Absence of litter bins without communicating you’re not allowed to eat, drink, etc.
  • Possibilities for youth to hang around
  • Non-repaired acts of vandalism

For more information please contact Andrea Soehnchen, andrea.soehnchen(at) or editor(at)

Photo: 'Freedom of Munich' metro station from Flickr/Rajesh_India

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