The fortress theory of urban design: How have the neighbourhoods we live in changed?

I’m registered as a follower of Policing, Politics and Public Policy, a blog by Menno Zacharias, a former Winnipeg police official. Over the years, I’ve read quite a few of his posts and found his commentary to be intelligent, sensible and progressive. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of his former police colleagues consider him a dangerous radical. His views about policing make a lot of sense to me, but when he recently turned his attention to urban design , my former fellow traveller in blogging morphed into an advocate of the worst in city planning.

He advocates an approach to the achievement of safe neighbourhoods that he calls Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Over the decades, this monicker has acquired so many conflicting meanings that it really means nothing unless the meaning is spelled out. I call Menno’s version the fortress theory of urban design, but don’t ask me, because he explains his theory very clearly. He says we can make urban neighbourhoods safe by:

  • minimiz[ing] the number of entry and exit points on a block; and
  • design[ing] roadways to discourage through-traffic.

“Couple those two tactics with a barrier around a neighborhood,” he continues, “and you have an excellent recipe for crime prevention.”

In order to find out more about what he’s advocating, click on the two links in the first paragraph above. They take you to the two blog posts in which Menno briefly and clearly explains his argument. The first includes maps and the second photos that illustrate how the policies he advocates play out in specific neighbourhoods. Anyone in Canada or the United States can easily picture the neighbourhood design he advocates, because much of what he calls for can be found in most, if not all, North American cities. It all looks normal. So what’s wrong with it? Let’s start with a little background.

Until the end of World War II, most residential neighbourhoods featured street layouts that took the form of a grid, like this:


But that all changed. The following Google map excerpt is a fair representation of what we have been building since the 1950s:


Since we have all spent our lives under the influence of planners and developers who have been busy designing and building neighbourhoods like the second one, a typical reaction to the first picture is likely to be, “boring…” and to the second, “That’s better.” That’s because most of us are used to thinking of cities and neighbourhoods in terms of how they look. We are less likely to think about them in terms of the way people and vehicles behave and interact.

Add behaviour and interaction into the picture, and here’s what you get: In grid streets, everything is readily accessible to both people and vehicles. In the left two-thirds or so of the first picture, vertical streets are residential, while some of the horizontal ones, like the one labelled 95 in the picture, are built to accommodate speedy traffic and commerce.

Because the commercial streets are usually just a block or two away, people living on the residential streets can walk on some of their shopping errands. Moreover, for people in cars, streets and street addresses are easy to locate. And because the residential blocks are long, most homes are shielded from the traffic noise, even though stores are just a short walk away.

Those of my city planning colleagues who aren’t obligated to speak for city governments would probably agree with me that this neighbourhood is pretty well planned. Neighbourhoods like it are relatively economical in the amount of land they consume, they make it easy to find your way around, and they are relatively easy to navigate on foot or by bicycle. They are more neighbourly and easier on the environment than fortress neighbourhoods.

But, from the viewpoint of people who like fortress neighbourhoods they are too accessible, to criminals, as well as other outsiders. Because fortress neighbourhoods are accessible only by a couple of points of access, and because the street design is curvilinear, it’s difficult to find a way into the neighbourhood, never mind a particular address. Unless you have friends there, you’ll have trouble finding your way into and around the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood will be quiet and if you can’t find your way in, one can hope that criminals won’t either.

(Mind you, inaccessibility doesn’t offer protection from criminals that live in or near the neighbourhood. But then, residents of fortress neighbourhoods tend to assume that criminals come from other neighbourhoods.)

For the sake of the argument, let’s concede that a fortress neighbourhood is a relatively safe place to live. But is the development of fortress neighbourhoods a crime prevention strategy, as Menno Zacharias claims, or is it just a strategy for shifting crime to other neighbourhoods? A related question: As more and more of our neighbourhoods are constructed on fortress design principles, is more crime being shifted to those unlucky neighbourhoods — West Broadway, the Spence Neighbourhood, the North End, perhaps in time south River Heights — that aren’t fortresses?

Those are questions for a criminologist, and since I’ve suggested that Menno might be well advised not to practise as an amateur city planner, I’ll practice what I preach and not try to practise criminology. But Menno would know how to answer those questions. Maybe we should ask him.




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