Crime Prevention through Design

This focus on crime prevention for a building is called environmental design. In this instance, environmental design is a design approach that considers all elements of the environment in which a building exists. That includes paths of travel to and from the building, secure access and many other elements both inside and outside its walls. The environmental design approach considers natural site elements as well as social and cultural elements. As in most of our posts, the design approach is specific to individual projects that all include a multitude of nuances pertaining to that project’s needs and goals. 

Environmental design can also be defined as an approach to building design that includes sustainability measures and considers positive and negative environmental impacts. These two approaches can overlap, but for the purposes of this post, we will consider the first definition. 

In this post, we’ll discuss environmental design from the building site, to the building exterior, to the building interior. My first in-depth exposure to this concept was in a presentation given by Crux, a security and technology consulting company based in Fort Worth, Texas. I have a lot of respect for their team and have learned a lot from their thoughtful, experience-based approach to building security. 

This post’s relevance is fairly obvious and applies to all buildings. Unfortunately, crime happens everywhere and sometimes when least expected. To maintain a connection to the content, consider a school or workplace that you or a loved one spend most of your days in. You could consider your home as well. Try to maintain a strategic mindset vs. a fearful one. Thinking through these scenarios with a clear head can help you be as proactive as possible. As I write this, I am thinking about the elementary school my mom works in and appreciate the existing environmental design measures put in place and the potential ones that could be added. 

Considering Potential Scenarios

When considering a site for your new building or an existing site for a renovation project, there are a lot of factors to consider. Those factors include drainage, wind and sun protection, building orientation, access points, and a multitude of other characteristics that are specific to each project and its intended use. We will focus on crime prevention for this post. One way to understand the potential for and type of crime is websites and apps that track crime statistics in your area. These are easily found via a Google search. One I recommend is the Crime and Place app. Using these resources can help you form your prevention tactics based on if you are facing threats of vandalism, theft, etc.

In addition to using online resources, be sure to converse with facilities managers, property managers, neighbors, and others who have first-hand insight on the local happenings. They can often tell you what is “normal” in terms of foot traffic, vehicle traffic, and other site considerations with a great amount of intimacy and detail. They may even be able to tell you if they have witnessed a crime take place and what measures they now take to avoid a similar situation. 

Whether you have a new building project or are renovating an existing building, I recommend surveying the end users of the project. They are the managers, employees, residents, etc. who will be using the building on a daily basis. Ask questions like these:

  • Do you feel safe walking to and from the building to your car, bus stop, or bike rack?
  • Is the lighting adequate indoors and outdoors?
  • Do you think the building access points (doors, windows, loading docks, breezeways, etc.) are secure?
  • Can anyone walk up to or into the building?
  • Can anyone see into the building? Could they see anything of value?
  • Do you know of any emergency preparedness plans put in place to protect you?
  • Do you know what to do in the instance of an intruder, or major weather event?

The answers to these questions can add valuable, first-hand information to your approach and start conversations that improve the project’s environmental design. 

How Can My Design Prevent Crime?

The word crime carries heavy connotation and includes actions outside of established laws that range from vandalism in bathroom stalls to mass casualty events. Environmental design seeks to prevent all types of crime in and around the building site. 

To maintain a safe building, the design does not need to mimic a metal box. A safe building can also be an architecturally beautiful building. Many environmental design measures are not readily visible or blatant. Even before one enters the building, environmental design can begin to take effect. 

Approaching the Building

A building’s driveway or parking lot can include multiple safety measures. Ever wonder why roads in apartment complexes and neighborhoods often curve so much? The curves require drivers to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings. They can be coupled with speed bumps and signage to be even more effective. Gates that open automatically or with a code or card swipe offer a physical barrier as well as a visual deterrent to an intruder or thief. Parking lots and driveways generally have paving or natural continual paths that lead people to the main public entrance of the house or building. This is intentional, and draws people to their destination without them knowing they are being influenced. This also prevents wandering, snooping, or confusion about where to enter.


The landscaping around a building also encourages people to stay or travel in certain areas. People generally avoid walking through green lawns, flower beds, and bushes. While adding visual interest and natural beauty, landscaping allows you to control the flow of people entering, exiting, etc. The placement of benches, fountains, and the like can encourage people to linger, sit and talk to friends, and enjoy the scenery. If this is your intention as the building designer or owner, this is a great strategy. If people lingering near a certain part of your building is not your intention, if that may cause a security risk, you may consider not supplying benches or nice places to linger.

The types of plantings can play a role in your environmental design strategy. The first example I think of is the huge holly bush along the front sidewalk at my grandparents’ house. I learned at a very young age not to touch those leaves or get near the bush, since the leaves have sharp barbs that can really cause a good sting. The placement of that bush is perfect, since it is underneath their bedroom window, so it discourages anyone getting close to that window to look in or try to break in. It also lines the front walkway and passively keeps people walking up and down the sidewalk, since it is no fun to linger near a holly bush.

Trees are a great way to add focal points and direction to a landscaping approach. Heavily wooded areas are usually thinned to make way for buildings. This is good and bad, since trees are naturally good wind breaks and shade providers. They can also block views which can be good if you want your building obscured from the road. Too little visibility from the road may encourage some criminals to feel as if they can’t be seen if they attempt to break in. Each site will come with different natural elements that you can use strategically to fit your crime prevention goals.

Driveways and Parking Lots

Your driveway and/or parking lots should offer easy to navigate spaces with enough room for vehicles and pedestrians to maneuver safely. The more visibility, the better. Also, the more lighting the better, especially if the lot will be used at night. Adequate lighting can deter would-be criminals as well as make the building users feel more safe and visible when in the lot. The pedestrian pathways to the building entrance should be located in sensible, easy to find locations. Signage, mirrors, paint striping, etc. can be made to be more visible and even reflective to become even more effective.

Stay tuned for Part II of this post, where we actually enter the building to find out what environmental design measures take place inside!

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