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Neighborhood Streets and Plazas Could Be Redesigned in Plan to Reduce Crime

By James Fanelli | September 26, 2016 7:25am
 A city presentation on using design to combat crime highlighted the Fulton Center for creating a layout allowing for maximum surveillance of people.
A city presentation on using design to combat crime highlighted the Fulton Center for creating a layout allowing for maximum surveillance of people.
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DNAinfo/Irene Plagianos

NEW YORK CITY — The city's newest crime fighters may be architects and urban planners.

City officials have recently explored the idea of redesigning streets, plazas and buildings in The Bronx and Brooklyn to prevent crime, DNAinfo New York has learned.

Last spring, the Department of Design and Construction gave a presentation to the mayor's office and the NYPD that showed how swaths of Morrisania and Brownsville could be made safer through design tweaks that enhance "natural surveillance" — the concept that would-be lawbreakers are deterred from committing crimes in public areas when they believe more people are watching.

The presentation — which was delivered April 13 and can be viewed below — showed how expanding the width of sidewalks and creating more appealing public spaces at intersections along Webster Avenue in Morrisania would prevent crime. Making areas inviting and pedestrian friendly leads to increased people traffic — and more eyes watching the area, according to the presentation.

The presentation also shows how buildings such as Brownsville's fortress-like public library could be made more appealing and maximize surveillance if it was redesigned to look like the nearly all-glass Stapleton library in Staten Island.

It also envisions beautifying Brownsville's drab Osborn Street Plaza with artwork covering the ground. The presentation says that the art coupled with installed seating would promote "positive pedestrian activity."

The city has no specific plans to implement these concepts. However, DDC created the presentation at the behest of the mayor's office.

"In keeping with the mayor’s vision for a safer and healthier city, DDC was asked by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to develop concepts that explored how public design could promote safety," the DDC said in a statement to DNAinfo.

"The preliminary concepts presented comply with the DDC’s ‘Guiding Principles’ for design and construction excellence to promote equity, sustainability, resiliency and healthy living.”

Many of the DDC's crime-prevention ideas were conceived decades ago by renowned urban planner Jane Jacobs and criminology theorists.

Dr. Ronald Clarke, a professor at Rutgers University's School of Criminal Justice, said that natural surveillance and other techniques like controlling access to public space have been proven to work.

"Most offenders take quite a lot of precautions to avoid being caught," Clarke said. "If there's a possibility of people seeing what they're doing through natural surveillance, then they're less likely to behave criminally."

Natural surveillance dates back to Jacobs, who coined the phrase "eyes on the street" in her 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

"She advocated for the design and layout of houses that make it easier for residents to see the streets," Clarke said.  

The DDC presentation also identifies public spaces that are already designed well to combat crime.

Both the Queens library's Flushing branch, with its steps that invite people to sit, and the pedestrian- and bike-friendly Tillary Street maximize natural surveillance, the presentation says.

The newly opened Fulton Center, with its escalators leading to a central lower level, is a good use of "natural access control," according to the presentation.

"Directing people throughout the space allows for maximum surveillance," the presentation says.

Clarke called the city's presentation "encouraging" but small scale since it focused on just a few areas. He said that the United Kingdom and Europe have more readily embraced the idea of crime prevention through environmental design than the United States.

"The concepts are much more widely employed in the UK, for instance, because there is a different attitude to public spaces than there is here," he said.

In contrast the United States has traditionally placed stronger emphasis on private space over public space, he said.