Monograph 16: Safer by Design: Towards Effective Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in South Africa


Dramatic increases in levels of crime in post-apartheid South Africa have placed the issue of crime prevention and control firmly on the agenda. While a National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) is now in place, little of it has been implemented. Released in May 1996, the NCPS seeks to co-ordinate the activities of government departments, other tiers of government and non-state agencies engaged in crime prevention. About 20 implementation programmes have been formulated under the NCPS, each falling under one of four pillars:

  • the criminal justice process;

  • environmental design;

  • community values and education; and

  • transnational crime.

Pillar 2 seeks to help prevent crime via appropriate environmental design.

The NCPS defines this concept rather broadly as reducing opportunities for crime by changing the environment in which it occurs.
Thus Pillar 2 of the NCPS is meant to apply across a range of initiatives, including design changes to private sector products such as cellular phones or motor vehicles.

However, while the NCPS attaches much importance to environmental design, it reveals a limited appreciation of what this actually entails, and its potential impact on crime levels. Indeed, three of the programmes under this pillar deal with issues which have no direct bearing on environmental design, such as identification systems for motor vehicles and citizens, and regulation systems for reducing commercial crime.

Besides these programmes, however, Pillar 2 also aims to introduce the concept of environmental design in respect of the physical or built environment such as development projects, residential areas or transport systems where government (whether national, provincial or local) plays a key role in enabling implementation. This monograph reviews international and local developments in respect of physical changes to the built environment aimed at preventing crime in effect, then, it falls under Programme 2.1 of the NCPS.

It is premised on a narrower definition of environmental design, which limits interventions to the built environment only and leaves product design to manufacturers. Indeed, international experience suggests that governments are badly placed to intervene in private sector design, where given the demands of the market, which increasingly include adequate security and crime prevention industry innovations are likely to outstrip any contribution by the state.

Research for this study was conducted by a multidisciplinary team; it was aimed at reviewing the debate on environmental design and the implementation of this notion in South Africa. This included a comprehensive (and sobering) assessment of international experience, which involved both a scan of the available literature as well as consultation of international experts.

Despite the impression created by the rather upbeat provisions of Pillar 2 of the NCPS, there is no magic formula for environmental design, and international research on the issue particularly as it relates to the built environment is fragmented and often contradictory. Given this, it is recommended that programmes in this area be implemented with caution; crime prevention through environmental design is not a simple matter of applying readily available formulas. This is particularly so given some of the unique characteristics of crime and its settings in South Africa.

Despite the central position given to this concept in the NCPS, the debate in South Africa around environmental design is just beginning, and there is much to learn. In particular, comparative experience suggests that while the notion of preventing crime by means of environmental design is attractive in theory, it is difficult to implement. The danger is that environmental design may be seen as a quick solution a simple question of designing physical environments correctly to reduce crime rather than a long and experimental process. This is not to suggest, however, that the concept is not important. More broadly, it relates to the design and governance of safer and more secure living environments for all South Africans. Indeed, programmes established under Pillar 2 should be seen as a longer-term social investment, potentially involving a range of interested role players and civil society groups.

Besides this, given that many development projects under the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) are still pending, there is a `window period` for learning and policy implementation in the area. This suggests that proactive inputs will be critical. Again a word of caution: planners and developers are confronted by multiple problems, of which crime prevention is only one. Added to this, local practitioners have had little exposure to the principles and practice of crime prevention through environmental design. Crime prevention policy needs to take account of this by ensuring that policy interventions do not place more obstacles in the way of the development process, or worse, suggest interventions which are unproven and may have little or no impact.

There is also the danger that issues of environmental design will be divorced from the general debate on crime prevention and local governance. What must be emphasised is that environmental design is only one strand of a far broader prevention exercise. Even if environmental design could play a key role in preventing crime, and this is by no means certain, some central government intervention is required. Critical to the success of any `designing out crime` programme will be a set of guidelines flexible enough to apply across a range of diverse projects and problems. This can be achieved by developing the analytical tools needed to assess problems and find appropriate solutions, rather than applying generic solutions which ignore local dynamics.

Moreover, in South Africa the danger of reactive forms of environmental design are amplified by the division of physical spaces as a result of apartheid. If the concept of environmental design and the related notion of defensible space are pursued to their logical conclusion, it is an easy step to walled suburbs and `pockets of safety` which will effectively separate the largely white rich from the largely African poor. Thus the notion of environmental changes aimed at securing space to prevent crime holds particular dangers in the South African context. Any programme of environmental design should seek to distribute crime prevention benefits equitably, thereby helping to ensure that social justice is restored and services equitably provided for all South Africans.

In the final analysis, introducing design issues into the crime prevention debate requires a careful assessment of how a range of players can be influenced to take this notion into account in planning and development processes and the management of spaces. It would be inappropriate to simply dictate a set of crime prevention standards, given how difficult it would be to enforce them and the fact that crime prevention (and by implication the design component thereof) is often location-specific. What is thus required is a South African strategy which seeks to place the issue of crime prevention through environmental design on the agenda of policy-makers, city officials, planners, designers, and other practitioners.

This study briefly outlines the state of the debate on crime prevention through environmental design, and reviews South African developments in this area. Drawing on these conclusions, proposals are made for a `safer by design` strategy under Programme 2.1, Pillar 2, of the NCPS.

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