The struggle to preserve our urban communities is fierce and on-going. On behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, I recently walked the streets of 50 neighborhoods in 14 different cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, Hartford, Baltimore, Seattle, Oakland, Gary, Richmond, Wilmington, Buffalo, Denver, and Fort Worth (Newman, 1994). I walked these neighborhoods with residents, mayors, governors, councilmen, and commissioners. They pointed out what was going on and discussed the cost and shame of it: small bands of drug dealers had taken over their neighborhoods, commercial districts, and housing developments. And this was not just in the urban core, but in middle- and working-class neighborhoods all over the city. The police, acting alone, admitted they were helpless, and that the criminals knew it. Residents felt isolated and unable to get together with their neighbors to do anything about it.

The unanticipated by-product of a desirably diverse, highly mobile society, unfettered by past restraints, may be the disappearance of communally held values and the accompanying loss in civility. We always knew that the old bases for community were going: common ethnic backgrounds; shared religions; extended families. Even the nuclear family, that once immutable core, is fast disappearing. Thirty years ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that the percentage of children being born to black mothers out of wedlock had reached catastrophic proportions. That percentage has now been equaled by whites, and the percentage for blacks has doubled.

This lack of commonality and civility among neighbors increases our vulnerability to criminals. And the price is not just fear and high crime rates, it is our withdrawal from public streets and from further communication with each other—the loss of the very cement from which social responsibility and civility is made. This has resulted in the abandonment of urban residential neighborhoods and of assisted housing developments. To city government, the price is a major decline in property values, the loss of its tax base, and the disappearance of commercial centers and institutions which depended on middle- and working-class users. It is also a loss of inner-city areas that once housed a diversity of economic and racial groups. The situation has become so bad that most new developments in the suburbs have taken to locking themselves up in gated communities to insure their security.

But just as people’s response to crime is a force so large it is changing the shape of residential neighborhoods faster than more police and prisons can do to prevent it, so the cost of using “Defensible Space” to stop this erosion is both low and of proven effectiveness. Given the federal government’s recent announcement that it will be reducing much of HUD’s previous roles—both in mortgage guarantees and in the construction and maintenance of public housing—a simple and effective means for stabilizing existing urban communities and assisted housing seems most apropos.

Law abiding citizens and communities are the biggest untapped resource for crime prevention we have, if only we knew how to use them. If only we could find a way to empower people to control their immediate environments so that they could work with police to contain criminal activity. “Defensible Space” does just that, without the specter of vigilantism, and without the need for a continuous infusion of money.

“Defensible Space” operates by subdividing large portions of public spaces and assigning them to individuals and small groups to use and control as their own private areas. The criminal is isolated, because his turf is removed. Even those criminals who live within a community, or housing development, will find their movements severely restricted. “Defensible Space” does not automatically oust the criminal, it just renders him ineffective.

What “Defensible Space” also does is give low-income families a self-respect they never had before; and an opportunity, in the case of our housing integration programs, to become part of the social mainstream. It gives people a new respect for the work and territory of others by giving them territory of their own to prize and to wish to see respected.

Many academics and practitioners are unfamiliar with the entire range of my work and research. Almost universally, they have assumed that the publication of Defensible Space in 1972 came at the end of my career rather than at the beginning of it. Those early studies of physical design evolved to also include the analysis of social, managerial, and security force variables. And in addition to assisted housing, I have worked with commercial, institutional, and middle-income residential communities (see References).

From reviewing the literature that has emerged from the CPTED movement (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design)—a spin-off of “Defensible Space”—I am surprised by how poorly the “Defensible Space” concept is understood and how often it is misused. I had always thought of my ideas as comparatively simple and down-to-earth. And, in explaining them, I have tried to avoid mystery and mumbo jumbo. Yet a whole cult has sprung up around these ideas, with its own pseudo-language, misbegotten concepts, and rituals. Reading the literature and examining the projects that have been built in the name of CPTED and “Defensible Space,” I am troubled by my failure to communicate my ideas clearly.

“Defensible Space” is not about fencing, it is about the reassignment of areas and of responsibilities—the demarcation of new spheres of influence. I have seen too many public housing projects that have simply been ringed with iron fencing with no reassignment of grounds or responsibility to residents. And when, upon analysis, the reduction of crime in such cases proves minimal or short-lived, the “Defensible Space” concept is blamed. Studies abroad involving the positioning of telephone booths in the public areas of a variety of housing projects have concluded that there is no validity to the “Defensible Space” concept. But what such research models have to do with “Defensible Space,” I cannot fathom. Many in the social science profession were quick to label my ideas “physical determinism,” without having taken the time to either think the matter through or to familiarize themselves with the origin of the term. “Defensible space” is, of course anything but. This has not stopped some from coining a counter-term: “social determinism”—whatever that is supposed to mean.

I try to assuage my guilt for communicating poorly by concluding that too many people, particularly practicing professionals, have limited themselves to reading only Defensible Space, and have not followed up with my books Community of Interest, and Design Guidelines for Achieving Defensible Space. Unfortunately, all three books are now out-of-print. Because I am less concerned with what people say, than with what they do, I have not bothered responding to my critics in academe or to those in government who have found it necessary to defend their past policies and practices by attacking me. But when I visit housing projects that have been physically modified in the name of “Defensible Space,” at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I find that it is all for not, because their designers have misunderstood the concept, I am mortified. Which brings us to this effort by HUD and myself to fill the vacuum.

What this book is about and who it is for

The renewed interest in “Defensible Space” is from people wishing to undertake similar projects in their own communities. Having spoken to, literally, hundreds of residents, planners, housing officials, mayors, councilmen, and police, I have learned that what they want to know is: Were the communities that implemented “Defensible Space” projects similar to theirs? How were the plans prepared? What was the community’s involvement in the planning process? What monies were used to implement the plans? What were the politics and mechanisms needed for ensuring the plans actually got built? And, finally, what were the results?

To address this interest, Secretary Cisneros of HUD asked me to prepare three case studies of my implemented projects, each to reflect a different housing situation. Together, the three were to provide guidelines on how communities could improve security in all of their residential areas: in inner-city neighborhoods composed of single family houses and small apartment buildings; in existing public housing projects; and in communities involved with the dispersing of existing public housing into middle-income neighborhoods.

Rationale for selecting the three case studies

To meet HUD’s request, I identified the following three projects:

1) the reorganization of an urban grid of residential streets to create mini-neighborhoods in downtown Dayton, OH;

2) the modification of a row-house public housing project in the South Bronx, NYC;

3) the dispersal of high-rise public housing residents into scattered-site townhouses in the middle-class neighborhoods of Yonkers, NY.

These three projects together deal with the housing problems common to all American cities. They also reflect some of the new programmatic solutions being proposed by HUD.

Case Study One: The Five Oaks Community in Dayton, OH

The successful reorganization of the existing urban grid of streets to create mini-neighborhoods in the Five Oaks community in Dayton, OH, has created a trend that is now sweeping the country. This phenomenon flows from our well-publicized study of the private streets of St. Louis some 20 years ago. The creation of cul-de-sacs at the end of streets is a useful mechanism not only for reducing crime and traffic, but for stimulating reinvestment and the occupancy of previously vacant units.

In Five Oaks, which is composed largely of two-family houses, this reinvestment also created newly refurbished rental units that serve Section 8 families. Given HUD’s inclination to provide Section 8 rental certificates rather than to build, or rebuild, public housing, the stabilization of urban communities containing low-cost rental housing is vital to that program’s success.

Further to the above, many communities are planning to use their Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to reorganize their street systems, as Dayton did. A municipal program that couples the provision of CDBG funds to communities for street modifications with a requirement that such communities also provide more rental housing in the units being rehabilitated can make both programs economically feasible, interdependent, and more socially acceptable.

Case Study Two: The Clason Point Project in the South Bronx, NYC

Clason Point, a row-house public housing project, was physically modified to reassign the previously public grounds to individual residents for them to use, control, and maintain. This reduced both crime and maintenance costs. Clason Point, which is typical of about 20% of public housing throughout the country, was originally designed with fully open grounds that were maintained and policed by the housing authority. Over time the grounds became bare dirt overrun by gangs and controlled by drug dealers. I used iron fencing and curbs to reassign all the grounds to individual residents. This removed gang turf and gave the drug dealers nowhere to operate. The resurfacing of buildings, and the provision of new paths, lighting and play equipment improved the look of the project and got residents to assume new responsibilities. This reduced maintenance costs and increased occupancy levels.

The funds for implementing such measures in other public housing projects are readily available from HUD. In a recent nationwide tour of such projects, I presented the work we had done in Clason Point and found residents and housing management uniformly interested in doing the same in their own projects.

Case Study Three: Dispersing Public Housing in Yonkers, NY

In Yonkers, existing public housing residents from concentrated high-rise developments were successfully dispersed into middle-income areas using scattered-site townhouses designed with “Defensible Space.” This is a program now under active consideration by many major cities in the country (Chicago, Dallas, Newark, Boston, Hartford, etc.).

Throughout the country, hundreds of existing 40-year-old, high-density public housing projects are ready to be torn down. Their inhabitants are insisting on the dispersal of these units rather than on their rehabilitation or replication. HUD has been taken to court by some of these residents and by the Justice Department to prevent the perpetuation of these ghettos. Yonkers provides a workable model of how this can be done without spreading crime, depressing property values, or prompting middle-class flight.

Presentation format

For those new to the “Defensible Space” concept, and for those wishing to be brought up-to-date with my work, I have devoted the first chapter to an introduction to its principles. I also discuss some research findings from our institute’s numerous studies. This chapter serves to explain many of the principles I use in approaching various design problems.

In each of the three case studies that follow, I first describe the community, its location, socio-economic make-up, physical plant, and crime and abandonment problems. I then present the conceptual solution, showing how some of the community’s problems can be addressed with physical modifications. The design principles used in making these proposed physical changes are then explained using photographs and graphics as needed.

As I mentioned earlier, people also want to know the step-by-step procedure I used for getting such projects off the ground: Who has to be the driving force in the city and neighborhood: residents, politicians, police? Which municipal, state, or federal agencies have to become involved? What is the needed participation of the city’s traffic, fire, emergency ambulance, garbage collection, and police departments? How does one insure the continued participation of residents? And how vital is resident participation to the planning and implementation process, and ultimately, to the success of the whole endeavor? (Preview answer: Essential.)

From this, I go on to explain how the physical plan actually evolved, including a discussion of the various options that were considered. I have tried to separate those aspects of the plan that are essential to each of the three prototypes from those that were specific to a particular site. I use schematic diagrams to explain the design principles involved, and hard line drawings to show how these design principles were applied to specific sites.

Where controversies arose in the planning process, or delays resulted in the acceptance or implementation process, these too are discussed to teach the lessons of other communities’ experiences and to prepare people for the struggles and pitfalls that lie ahead.

To the degree that such data is available (and it varies with each case study), I then discuss the effects of these modifications on the identified problems: residents’ fears and sense of control; vacancy and abandonment; traffic; the overt presence of drug dealers; crime; residents’ assumption of maintenance responsibilities; increase in reinvestment and property values; middle-class and white flight; etc.

Finally, I attempt to define the limits to which each case study can be applied to other communities. (For instance, the percent of renters or multi-family buildings may be too high in some residential communities to allow them to replicate the Dayton, Five Oaks mini-neighborhood project, and so on.)