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No Key, No Entry: The Role of the Physical Environment in the Criminal Event

Crime is a catalyst for policy, infrastructure and lifestyle decisions in modern society. While previous studies have held physical determinist views, current research considers crime as the result of multiple causes. Still, similar to modifications of the physical environment which formed a major component of crime control efforts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, security cameras in store windows, steering wheel locks and house alarms comprise the primary defense against criminals today. Research on the role of the physical environment in the criminal event is relatively new however, evidence indicates that governments, housing planners and offenders themselves regard the physical environment as a collection of cues which drive their decisions and actions.

Corresponding to the human impulse to confront a threat to their safety with tangible barriers, Oscar Newman’s defensible space template proposes that building in barriers and territorial markers increases private and semi-private space while decreasing semi-public and public space. This template is highly deterministic, discouraging buildings over seven stories, double stairways in apartments, and low visibility in entry hallways of apartments. Newman favours low rise apartments with limited families per entrance and symbolic barriers.

Patricia and Paul Brantingham criticize Newman's defensible space for being more closely linked to feelings of safety on the part of residents. The Brantinghams define crime as an event that occurs at a specific site and in a specific situation. An offender follows a decision process, whether consciously or unconsciously, whereby motivation or preparedness to commit a crime is furthered by the identification of a target and an opportunity to commit that crime. Given the high variability of the lives of both victims and offenders as well as a constantly changing environment, crime cannot be attributed to one cause and must be examined as an indivisible whole instead of separate components. The term “environmental backcloth” is used in environmental criminology to embody the myriad elements which must be taken into account when exploring the etiology of criminal events. According to the Brantinghams, patterns are easily discernable despite the complexity of the environmental backcloth.

The Brantinghams’ article studies the complex etiology of crime through individual and aggregate patterns in criminal behaviour and the role of the physical environment in those behaviours and patterns. The majority of offenders, regardless of the type of crime they commit, evaluate potential crime sites and crime targets in a similar manner. The type of neighborhood; the site's location within a neighborhood; the site's position on the street network; the position of the building on the site; and a variety of site wealth indicators all appear to be positive attractors. For the purpose of their research, the Brantinghams section the physical environment in three: routine paths, nodes and edges. Nodes are concentrations of activity - schools, bars, shopping centres – around which people build their daily routines. In their search for sites and targets, criminals rarely stray from their nodal points or the paths which connect these points. Grid-like road networks, and roads along public transit routes are favourable pathways for people prepared to offend and who are engaged in the search process for ideal sites and victims. Choosing sites and targets along their routine paths and near nodes where they feel a sense of belonging allows offenders to avoid attention. Skytrain stations in Vancouver, particularly ones with large bus loops, attract crowds of teenagers or other loiterers. Surrey Central Station is a nodal point for offenders and non-offenders alike, as the transit system and grid design of streets and avenues facilitate easy transport to the city centre and suburban areas. This concept of routine paths and nodes can also explain the high rate of crimes of opportunity. At a bus loop, passengers waiting for buses often set their bags at their feet while they read newspapers. For an offender alert to target and site cues, the person's focus on the newspaper makes the unattended bag a suitable target, even though the offender may not have been actively looking for a target.

Transit and easily navigated road layouts often connect land used for different purposes. Cities are urban mosaics of residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural areas. It is the transitional spaces between these community structures that the Brantinghams label as “edges”. The article states that ttraditional criminological studies show heavy concentrations of crime in transitional' areas where strangers are more easily accepted because they are frequently and legitimately present. Edges also apply in a temporal context, such as closing time. Many of the crimes that occur at high activity locations such as sporting arenas or commercial centers, or that occur at high activity times such as store closing or bar closing, in fact occur at the edges of the high activity location or high activity time.

Sacco and Kennedy approach the topic of environmental criminology from a demographic perspective that shows higher crime rates in cities than in rural areas. A Winnipeg study on spatial patterns in crime reveals that lower socio-economic levels and denser, more transient populations contribute to the increased crime in urban centres. Forty percent of violent victimizations occur in or around commercial or public institutions; 26% occur in a street or public place. This supports the Brantinghams’ theory of pathways and nodes: cities contain several nodal points with ample pathways to facilitate site and target searches. Sacco and Kennedy classify nodes into social domains, or spheres where people spend time and energy. The major social domains are family/household, work and leisure. Recognizing distinctive social domains aids in identifying patterns in crime. The leisure domain is notorious for juvenile delinquencies, as well as assaults like homicide and date rape. White collar and organized crime are more common in the work domain. Time spent in social domains differs with the lives of offenders and victims; teenagers frequent leisure domains and retirees spend a lot of time in the home. Given this fact, seniors may be targeted for violent home invasions and teenagers may be involved in more brawls. Absence from social domains also creates opportunities and targets for crime. An offender who knows when a family leaves their home for school and work will take advantage of the absence of guardianship to commit a robbery. The family's routine may be noted by the offender because their house is on his routine pathway. Understanding nodes and social domains assists police in protecting vulnerable targets and in patrolling areas where offenders are known to gather. With regard to Oscar Newman’s defensible space template, Sacco and Kennedy concede that the template contributes to crime reduction in some settings but does not apply at all in other settings.

A key tool in crime prevention and crime reduction is the relationship between routine activities theory and criminal event theory. The presence of a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of guardianship, collectively referred to as routine activities theory, is a piece of the puzzle that is criminal event theory. Criminal event theory encompasses locational and situational precursors to the crime (where the physical environment asserts its influence), the bringing together of people in time and space, the actual crime and the aftermath. Sacco and Kennedy’s criminal event theory echo the Brantinghams’ concept of the criminal event being an indivisible whole. In attempting to use patterns in crime to develop solutions, government, law enforcement and community developers need to consider the entire picture or environmental backcloth. The Brantinghams and Sacco and Kennedy realize that the physical environment can provide valuable insight into the mental template offenders use when preparing to commit a criminal act. As mentioned in the Brantinghams’ article, most offenders learn about their surroundings through legitimate channels. Sacco and Kennedy underline this fact in their social domain structure. No one associates in a specifically criminal domain. Certain venues lend themselves more readily to criminal activity than others. The crowded bus loop at Surrey Central Station allows small-time drug dealers to complete transactions without attracting too much attention. Fights will break out quicker at a bar than at a church. Implementing defensible space barriers seldom deters insiders from offending and even outsiders will run the risk of triggering an alarm if he thinks he can escape unnoticed. The impulse to “clean up” an area by pushing out offenders is not necessarily effective if the area is close to a nodal point like a transit depot or shopping centre. Research in environmental criminology is action oriented. When a discernible aggregate pattern of criminal behavior is found governments change laws or create new policies. The pressure for action research focused on finding environmental designs that reduce crime is increasingly driven by civil law suits in which crime victims sue landlords for negligence in failing to provide protectively designed and securely maintained premises. Analyzing the criminal event as a collection of factors including the physical environment, will lead to more thorough findings and long-term resolutions.

(c) Kristy Kassie, October 31, 2007


Criminal Event: An Introduction to Criminology, Sacco, Kennedy & Plass, 1995

Nodes, paths and edges: Considerations on the complexity of crime and the physical environment. Brantingham, P. L., & Brantingham, P. J., 1993

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