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Patterns of Defensible Space

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

50+ years of thinking distilled into an identifiable pattern

I’ve just wrapped up Defensible Space by Oscar Newman. The book is about the study of residential areas and how they contribute to (or deter) criminal activity. More broadly speaking, the book examines the question, “How does an environment affect behavior?” and goes into, “How might we change the environment (through design) to reduce crime rates?”

The definition of defensible space provided by the author is, “…a living residential environment which can be employed by inhabitants for the enhancement of their lives while providing security for their families, neighbors, and friends.”

The book was published in 1973 which was not the best time for urban space in America. Alarming urban crime rates accelerated “white flight” as people with available resources moved away from urban areas to the suburbs.

Newman examines data from The New York City Housing Authority which managed 169 public housing projects in the City of New York and discusses what works and what doesn’t. One of his examples is the discussion of the Co-op City Development.

An important principle of defensible space is to allow residents to distinguish neighbors from intruders. Using Co-op City as a case study, Newman discusses how suburban developments attempted to attract residents but with misguided (I’m being polite) strategies.

I want to share a passage from the book:

Co-op City now works because it is far from the site of crime. But, how long before the project is recognized as vulnerable — before the criminal extends his range and mobility? The developers of Co-op City recognized that by ensuring a uniform middle class population they could ensure a low crime rate. So long as all the families in Co-op City are exclusively white, middle class, and elderly, the crime rate will stay down. The appearance of anyone else sends out a danger signal as obvious as an alarm bell. But already (in 1972) there are young families moving into Co-op City (families of color)seeking the same security and using the same means to achieve it. As the population becomes mixed, the success of this strategy will diminish. An important principle of defensible space is to allow residents to distinguish neighbors from intruders. In Co-op City this is accomplished not through design but by isolating a large, uniform population. It employs statistics and segregation as weapons for keeping out those who are already chief victims of crime — the poor. It will not work for very long and it is repellent by virtue of the racism and prejudice it practices. It will not, in any way, contribute to the redemption of our cities.

Newman was right on multiple levels. It didn’t work. Co-op City went the way of most projects with challenges the community is still working to overcome today. An interesting side note - both Queen Latifah and Justice Sonia Sotomayer were residents of Co-op City.

So how might one design a defensible space to allow residents to distinguish neighbors from intruders? Newman suggests 4 ways:

  • Create areas of influence for inhabitants.

  • Position apartment windows to allow residents to naturally survey the public areas.

  • Adopt building forms that avoid the isolation of inhabitants.

  • Locate residential developments adjacent to activities that do not provide a continued threat.

The first and third are most interesting because they appear to be the most abstract. Areas of influence? Avoid isolation? Newman uses the following illustration:

Source: Defensible Space by Oscar Newman

Notice how dwellings (represented by the circles) surround a common area? In this illustration, the arrows are intended to show surveillance opportunities. We have 8 dwellings and a shared courtyard. Area of influence for residents? Check. Avoid isolation for residents? Check. On a more micro level, Newman illustrates further:

Source: Defensible Space by Oscar Newman

As soon as I saw this drawing I recognized a pattern across other architects and planners I’ve been studying. Christopher Alexander and his Intimacy Gradient (1977) is visible in the thinking behind the hierarchy Newman presents:

Source: Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander

Jan Gehl’s, Life between Buildings (2011) discusses how to create more vibrant public spaces. Consider how you would feel if you don’t live here or haven’t been invited. It’s not hard to imagine that you would feel a certain intimacy of the space and that you wouldn’t be alone. There would be people in their windows and mingling in the courtyards:

Source: Life between Buildings by Jan Gehl

Similarly, Daniel Parolek’s Missing Middle Housing Cottage Courtyards (2020) align with a now noticeable pattern:

Source: Missing Middle Housing by Daniel Parolek

On a larger scale, David Sim’s Soft City (2019), discusses how enclosed blocks are an ideal form of urban development. You can see how stacking all these concepts previously discussed would result in something like this:

Source: Soft City by David Sim

Considering our post-pandemic world, these courtyards, open-air, semi-public spaces are an even more valuable part of our urban fabric and can create a safe, dynamic, place to live, work, and play.

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