Urban planning: an essential tool to prevent crime

On 22 June 2018, the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) published the “Report sulla percezione della sicurezza” (Report on security perception), updated to 2015-2016 after the previous 2008-2009 survey. The report reveals that, while the influence of crime on daily life has decreased, some 40% citizens believe that the fear of crime significantly or fairly affects their habits.
With regard to the single offences, concern has decreased about pickpocketing (from 48.2% to 41.9%), robberies (from 47.6% to 40.5%), car thefts (from 43. 7% to 37%) and sexual violence (from 42.7% to 28.7%), while the percentage of citizens that fear being burgled in their homes has remained the same (60.2%).
Despite the generally improved security perception, the percentage of citizens who believe they live in a crime-risk area has increased (from 22% to 33.9%).
The ISTAT report reveals the need to take steps that can positively affect the perception of urban security regardless of actual crime incidence, as perception conditions daily habits and in turn influences the subjective ability to perceive risk.
The concept of “urban security”, coupled with the principle of “integrated security”, was introduced in Italian legislation by the so-called “Minniti decree”, containing “Urgent measures on the security of cities”; urban security is defined as “the common good that relates to the livability and cleanliness of cities” to be pursued through integrated steps involving “redevelopment operations, including urban, social and cultural planning and upgrading of degraded areas or sites, elimination of marginalisation and social exclusion factors, crime prevention, in particular of predatory crimes, promotion of legal culture and better social cohesion and coexistence”. The State and local authorities, based on their respective roles and functions, are responsible for urban security.
This decree was followed by the 24 January 2018 Accordo della Conferenza Unificata and the 26 July 2018 Accordo della Conferenza Stato – Città ed Autonomie Locali; the former dictates the general guidelines for public integrated security policies, while the latter sets the guidelines for urban security implementation.
The Minniti decree is an emergency measure, since it is called “Urgent measures on the security of cities”, while intrinsically conveying awareness of how an exclusively reactive approach is inadequate and of the need to take “situational prevention” steps in eliminating the causes of deviance and decline, which are at the root of petty crime and widespread crime.
The emergency nature of the decree is also shown by the preparatory documents for the conversion law, which stress the need for a number of measures to reassure civil society with a view to ensuring social cohesion, by reason of the now more and more multi-ethnic society; so, the decree suggests that the right to protection prevails over the protection of rights, as migration poses a threat to social cohesion and is a potential deviance factor.
Still in the wake of contingency, the implementation guidelines of the decree propose reinforced deterrence and repression tools (heightened police and security force presence, installation of urban video surveillance systems, better information exchange between local and national police) and reduce “situational prevention” tools to unspecified educational and cultural policies of doubtful value; as deviance develops in culturally unintegrated and socially marginalised environments, the said cultural tools have turned out to be ineffective over time.
A tool introduced but underestimated by the decree and its implementation guidelines is the urban redevelopment of degraded areas. In particular, since as early as the 1960s, crime prevention tools in the United States have been studied and implemented by way of environmental design measures (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, CPTED), that have proved to be effective in reducing both perceived and actual risks arising from petty crime and widespread crime.
In this regard, we can mention the “Broken Windows Theory” introduced in 1982 by Wilson and Kelling, based on which it is not the intrinsic socio-economic factors that determine local crime rates but negligence, dirt and disorder in the urban space. To prove this theory, the two scientists chose different urban areas that were subsequently transformed in different ways and at different times, observing that antisocial phenomena increased hand in hand with increasing decline in the areas under consideration.
Over time, this approach has also been recognised as useful within the EU, where the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) has developed several technical regulations on the subject, including the Technical Report CEN/TR 14383-2 on “Crime prevention through urban design planning”; in particular, the report provides guidelines on how to assess the risk of crime and/or fear of crime and measures, procedures and processes to mitigate such risks.
The CPTED approach is based on the idea that well-organised urban spaces can help boost spontaneous surveillance, reinforce citizens’ sense of collective belonging, reduce perception of insecurity and facilitate police action. The CEN standards have outlined in a relatively simple way the environmental crime prevention strategies for the three levels of urban planning, urban design and management of public spaces. The CEN has simplified a subject that involves diverse knowledge and skills and requires coordination between several decision-makers, ranging from local communities to public bodies, private companies and individual citizens.
Ultimately, the CPTED approach sums up all integrated urban security strategies, requiring that information exchange processes be developed and shared at all levels of the local community, starting from the context analysis phase up to implementation of tangible territorial governance measures. At the same time, this approach can make educational and social deviance and degradation prevention policies effective, provided that – despite the CPTED being a general principle – the single policies are designed based on local specificity.