Designing Methods Emphasizing Security and Safety
Designing Methods Emphasizing Security and Safety

by Michael E. Bregman, AICP

Among the chief concerns that a family or individual makes in choosing a neighborhood to live is the security of the neighborhood. Many different means exist to safeguard the home, but they have no influence when one leaves the bounds of his/her home and ventures into the outside world's streets. Means and methods utilizing design to provide adequate security in the street vary, but they are usually based on common principles.

Today, most of these methods focus on making streets safe for pedestrians. The need to safeguard streets for pedestrians is grounded in the principle that an occupied street is safer than one that has few or no pedestrians. With other people watching, criminals are far less likely to carry out nefarious acts. City planners refer to this condition of natural surveillance as "eyes on the street." Different elements contribute to an environment in which these conditions exist and the interaction of them all is necessary to create that environment. The lack of any certain element weakens a neighborhood's ability to provide security.

In addition to security, people are more likely to walk when they find walking pleasant instead of solely utilitarian. Since people walking on the street increases its safety, encouraging people to walk, rather than only making it possible to do so, "walkability" enhances security. Nevertheless, discussion of the all of the elements that comprise a pedestrian-oriented element is beyond the scope of this article and is the subject for an entire book. This article focuses on the subject as it relates to safety and security.


Density represents one of the most misunderstood concepts in city planning. Conditions that were present during the Industrial Revolution i.e., overcrowded and unsanitary cities, pervade the minds of many people today. Many people conceive of cities with images from that era, despite knowing that those same cities, such as London and Paris, are now very different. Many people often confuse the concepts of density and crowding. Density is a measurement of units per area, and may take many forms. In the realm of city planning it is most often measured by people per area or housing units per area.

Crowding is a condition of having too many people in a single defined space, like a dwelling or sidewalk. Density makes an urban area safer by simply putting more people in a neighborhood. Having more people in a neighborhood increases the probability that it's streets are occupied more often. In addition, as explained below, greater densities help to support more variety in neighborhood shops, making the area more interesting, and thus encouraging more people to walk.

Mixed Use

However, simply having people on the street may not suffice. In The Death And Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs illustrates that a secure and populated street is based on the need for social networks to generate a more protective environment. Residents of neighborhoods using the same shops develop relationships with shop owners and with each other. These relationship provide the basis for social networks. Individuals are more likely to help someone in need when they recognize him/her.

Also, different uses should be intermingled as much as possible. Having different types of shops, offices, civic uses such as houses of worship and parks, and residences creates a cross-movement of people moving on different schedules in different directions and elongating the time a street is occupied. Sometimes, city governments adopt plans by which a defined area contains mixed use solely by definition. That is, there may be residences and shops within a certain defined area however they may still be segregated. Under such a pattern all of the residences are collocated and all shops are also collocated but on different streets.

Such a pattern detracts from the neighborhood's ability to provide cross-movement of individuals and provides a less secure environment. Mixed use depends on density for variety. With more people in a neighborhood the greater the market for individual goods and services. In turn, the greater variety of goods and services in the neighborhood attracts more people to the neighborhood and its streets.

Building Design

Building design may enhance or inhibit the security of abutting streets. A street with buildings does not automatically increase security. In order for the eyes to "see," the street must be clearly visible to building occupants. Placing frequent doors and windows on the street generates an interaction between building occupants and passers-by. In contrast, blank walls contribute little to a neighborhood's safety or aesthetics. In addition, buildings setbacks, the distance between a building line and the street/sidewalk, should be as short as possible or be eliminated completely. When building setbacks are deep the pedestrian may lose perspective with his/her surroundings and people inside buildings lose contact with the street. Buildings without setbacks or setbacks that are as short as possible facilitate interaction.

Street Pattern

Another chief concern of providing a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood is the street pattern. Residents and visitors uses streets to arrive at their destinations. However, distance influences an individual's desire to walk. Long distances discourage walking. Considerations may be time, fatigue, weather, or any combination of them. Neighborhoods require integrated systems of streets and blocks in order to encourage walking. A system that features with many dead ends and cul-de-sacs inhibits travel and those that have long blocks increase the distance pedestrians must walk to reach his/her destinations, particularly if the destination is located on the far side of a block. Also, a street system needs to be easily understood by people use it. If the system is confusing, some people prefer not to enter out of fear of getting lost. A system that features an interconnected hierarchy of streets, with higher-order streets at neighborhood edges and lower-order streets towards the center, allows both pedestrians and motorists easy and quick comprehension. Thus, the higher-order streets also act as natural boundaries between neighborhoods.


Pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods are far more secure than ones that discourage walking. People occupying streets provides natural surveillance. However, many different elements comprise such districts. At the most basic level, neighborhoods require density, mixed use, sensitive building design, and an interconnected, hierarchical street pattern all contribute to these districts. Omitting any of them weakens a neighborhood's ability to provide a safe and secure environment for both residents and visitors.

Michael E. Bregman is a city planner residing in Israel. He was formerly employed as Senior Planner by the Miami-Dade County Department of Planning and Zoning and is also the former chairperson of the American Planning Association Gold Coast Section.