• U.S.

Environment: Housing Without Fear

5 minute read

It is an astonishing book. It explodes just about every long-accepted rule on the way we build housing projects. It shows a direct relationship between the design of a building and the amount of crime committed inside (TIME, Nov. 6). It also suggests a solution in its title: Defensible Space (Macmillan; $8.95). The author: Oscar Newman, 37, a tall, bushy-bearded architect, director of New York University’s Institute of Planning and Housing. His guidelines are being adopted by HUD, the New York State Urban Development Corp., and city housing authorities in Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis. In an interview with TIME, Newman explained his theories:

The idea of defensible space first emerged back in 1964, when I was part of a team of architects and sociologists who were studying why the notorious Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis was being torn apart by the people who lived in it. Every public area—the lobbies, the laundries and mail rooms—was a mess, literally. There was human excrement in the halls. Except in one small area on each floor of each building. You had to go through a fire door and then you were in a little hallway separating two apartments. This little hall was spotless—you could eat off the floor. When we called out to each other in the other hallways, we could hear people bolting and chaining their doors, but in this area we heard peepholes click open. Sometimes people even opened their doors. The reason was that they felt this little hallway was an extension of their own apartments. We knew we were on to something.

In 1969 the U.S. Justice Department commissioned the N.Y.U. Institute to study crime in public housing. We had thousands of interviews with residents, managers and policemen, and we got the statistical data amassed by the New York City housing authority. Certain patterns became clear. Obviously, high crime rates were linked to social variables such as the percentage of families on welfare and the number of families without a father, but we were surprised to find that overall density of population in a project is not a critical factor. On the other hand, the design—where you put people—is crucial. Height itself is one major element. We discovered that high-rise projects, like the Rosen houses in Philadelphia and Van Dyke in New York, suffered much worse crime rates than those in some adjacent projects, which had similar densities and social types but were built low and broken up into smaller units. The reason is that as buildings get bigger and higher, they become more and more anonymous—no defensible space. They are also full of angled corridors and blind public areas. These hidden places are where 55% of all crimes in high-rise housing projects are committed. The empty staircases required by fire regulations also provide criminals with alternative routes for flight.

Actually, the problems with huge high-rise projects start with their location in slum-clearance areas that are already centers of crime. Then architects make things worse. When they plan a new project, they usually design tall buildings with front doors that open onto interior recreation grounds. Often, they lay out whole superblocks with no streets through the middle of the project. It’s stylish, elegant, and just what Le Corbusier taught. But it doesn’t work. People on the neighboring streets neither see into the project nor travel through it. Criminals can prowl around without anyone paying any attention. Nobody asks “What are you doing here?” In richer areas, middle-income families can afford to pay for doormen and superintendents to guard their high-rise buildings, but the poor cannot.

All the major physical flaws in the design of public housing can be fixed. Projects must be open to view from the outside. Cars should be allowed through them. Jane Jacobs was right when she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities that the presence of casual onlookers provides safety, but she did not go far enough. Along with increased surveillance, there must come a feeling of territoriality—a sense of pride and responsibility for specific areas of the project. When that happens, people start looking after each other’s safety and their project as well. Proof? We have found that when you get more than six families on a corridor in a building, they don’t feel ownership, and the crime rate is likely to double on that corridor. If you change the layout of the same building so that only six families share the hall—you might have to move elevators—the crime rate will drop sharply.

Even less drastic changes can help. We’ve been granted $2,000,000 by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department to modify four existing public housing projects in New York City. By adding simple amenities—fences, play equipment, benches, better lighting facilities—we can definitely make people feel the project is theirs. After we did this in the Clason Point project in The Bronx, the crime rate dropped to one third of what it was before we went to work.

Besides suggesting ways to increase surveillance and territoriality, we tell officials that new public housing projects should be built in middle-income areas, and they should be kept small (500 units) and low (under seven stories). Ask the poor themselves what kind of housing they want. They’ll describe what look like middle-class row houses or suburban bungalows. To an architect, that’s pure kitsch, but the poor are right in what they want.

Our work is not going to turn American cities into Utopias, but it should help to make them safer places. In these fear-ridden times, that’s incredibly important.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com