Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The wall and the window - Mystery in space


Reading studies on crime and place I was recently struck by a mystery among environmental criminology researchers who study CPTED, particularly territoriality (the wall) and natural surveillance (the window).

It brought to mind other concept errors in crime and place research, specifically crime generators, permeability, cul de sacs, and the Achilles Heel within routine activity theory. This time the mystery cycles around guardianship.

Here’s the storyline…

Researchers regale the power of natural surveillance to enhance guardianship. Guardianship presumes to increase the risk that offenders will be seen and caught. Natural surveillance has appeal because you can observe whether a space has lighting, sightlines and nearby windows. Because surveillance presumably will produce more preventive action by residents (or reluctance by offenders to show up), you can then measure what happens.

EYES ON THE STREET

Natural surveillance assumes that people who see something out of place will act, thereby providing guardianship. Thus it is “real”. It's an assumption borne out nicely in low-crime, upper income areas but not so much in lower-income, high crime areas where residents are afraid to step outdoors and when they do their presence doesn’t deter anything.

Fences, windows and flowers creating territorial control on a San Diego public walkway 
On the other hand researchers question the power of territoriality to enhance guardianship, mainly because they say territoriality lacks "definitional rigor" and it isn’t “real”. Floral decorations or landscaping…is that it? Maybe it’s access control, walls and gates? Even worse, territoriality varies from place to place. Horrors!

They suggest natural surveillance is preferable to territoriality because it seems more measurable. That’s how they solve the mystery of territoriality. They ignore or downplay it, label it with   definitional problems and claim it isn't "real".

THE SECRET

Historian Howard Zinn warns us about such storylines: “Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept without much questioning someone else’s version of what that reality is.”

Consider this: If territoriality isn’t real, then how is guardianship any better? And why shouldn’t territoriality vary from place to place?“The real world,” says Zinn, “is infinitely complex and constantly changing.”

Perhaps social science research methods are too simplistic to tell us anything complex? Perhaps it is guardianship that has a definitional problem, especially given territoriality’s much longer provenance.

What provenance? Consider Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, Robert Ardry’s The Territorial Imperative, Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension, Oscar Newman's Defensible Space, and Alice Coleman's Utopia on Trial. And all that territorial work still continues today such as Kevin Leydon’s study on walkability and social capital.

MYSTERY SOLVED

CPTED practitioners seldom complain about such things because context always comes first.

For example in SafeGrowth practitioners and residents use a Risk Assessment Matrix for surveys, safety audits, site visits, and asset maps. Together they create a profile of the neighborhood and what residents feel about it. Only then do they determine to what extent designs enhance territoriality.

Overcoming "definitional rigor"?

Simple: Ask the residents and work with them to discover what they feel enhances their territorial control, a method known as action research and action learning. Mystery solved.


2 comments:

  1. Or, ask the offenders and work with them to discover what they feel diminishes a target's territorial control. I'm sure it's been done by someone. What does that research suggest?

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  2. Thanks Tim. There are a small number of great ethnographies that do just that. Most are done on more trivial crime like burglary and not gangs, drugs, and robbery - for obvious ethical reasons. Ironically, the best one's occurred during the early years of sociology at the University of Chicago in the 1930s - 1950s...the kind of action research long gone from criminology. In fact early 1970s CPTED used the advise of a paroled robber to help 7/11 redesign their stores!

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