Designing out crime

  • Living
  • Sunday, 29 Jun 2014

Built in: The water is used at the Sluseholmen Canal District (Copenhagen, Denmark) as a natural defence. It is all along one side of the building so no one can break in from there. - Wikimedia

As well as a bridge, Copenhagen and Malmo share an ambition to drive out crime by injecting the ideas of an open, democratic and empathetic society into their very bricks and mortar.

Halfway along the Oresund Bridge where Denmark meets Sweden, one of the darkest of Scandinavian crime dramas placed a body, cut in two and left lying across the border.

Such is the penetration of Nordic noir into our consciousness that even driving the route on a bright summer day, with the 8km structure glinting in the sunlight, you are thrust back into those bleak scenes featuring the socially awkward Saga Noren and her Danish sidekick Martin Rohde. As the pair pursued a perpetrator whose killing spree put Hannibal Lector in the shade, The Bridge explored extreme violence, political activism and social dysfunction in both nations.

Travelling from Denmark to the point where the body was discovered, the city of Malmo is visible through the windscreen as Copenhagen recedes in the rear-view mirror. While dramatists linked the two cities around an outbreak of violence that seemed to suggest something deeply wrong at the root of both societies, it is not a tendency to breed serial killers that the cities share, but an ambition to drive out crime by injecting the ideas of an open, democratic and empathetic society into the very bricks and mortar that surround its citizens.

In Britain, the authorities have tended to adopt a hostile and defensive architectural response to crime and anti-social behaviour: the erection of thousands of CCTV cameras, provision of gated communities and, most recently, the use of metal spikes in the streets. But in Scandinavia, despite higher rates of homicide and assaults than Britain, according to OECD figures (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), this approach has been rejected in favour of a softer option.

The results can be seen in developments like the one in the southern harbour area of Copenhagen, Sluseholmen – once a working-class dock – which has been regenerated around a canal system in a deliberate copy of Amsterdam. Low-rise modern flats with large windows and private balconies or gardens have been built around inner courtyards. Fences are replaced with glass and perspex, encouraging light to bounce off the surfaces, and increasing visibility of the families looking out on to the square and neighbours looking in. The aim is to use the natural surveillance of the residents as a powerful form of crime prevention.

In the middle of the courtyard, a children’s play area is well used. Toys lie scattered around, and babies sleep in prams around the edge of the space. The canals flow up the sides and back of the buildings, and the blocks look out onto the harbour itself. Bikes and kayaks – used by the residents to get to work in central Copenhagen – are left unlocked. There are no dark alleys or dead ends, and the atmosphere is open, calming and welcoming. Most strikingly for a visitor from Britain, there is not one CCTV camera.

Walking around Sluseholmen is the architect Bo Gronlund.

In his mid-70s, a small, energetic white-haired man, his enthusiasm about the impact architects can have on reducing crime is no less today than when he was a young man.

Eyes bright with zeal, Gronlund talks rapidly, gesticulating at architectural features in the area which, he says, make residents safer.

“The water is used here,” he gesticulates, “as a natural defence. You see how it is all along one side of the building – no one can break in from there. It is built around the courtyard principle where you have a public space in the interior. The car park is underground and not visible. There are no cameras here, of course. We are quite sceptical about them because they can almost only be used after a crime has taken place; they do not prevent it.

“This is a calming environment, it is not provocative. If you do things that tell you that you are a bad person – like have cameras or gates everywhere – you might become that bad person, at least a little bit.”

Gronlund was part of a group of architects in the 1980s who tried to put designing out crime at the heart of city planning. They drew up recommendations to give planners and designers a better chance of shaping the physical environment to minimise violence and vandalism.

“At the time, the only publication around crime prevention from the EU was a British one, and it was very British in its thinking: with fences, cameras and alarms,” he said. “We wanted to do it in another way very consciously. The basis was that Denmark should continue to be an open society with a minimum of physical barring and formal surveillance.”

A leading figure in the movement, architect John Allpass, was responsible for designing the first housing area in Denmark where creating safety and security was implicit in the design. Eight kilometres out of Copenhagen, the Sibelius estate is still considered a model of the designing out crime philosophy, shaped around:

> Creating a social space where the natural surveillance of the people within it prevents crime.

> Increasing people’s attachment to an area.

> Encouraging people to use common areas with seating, foyers and lobbies that invite social contact.

> Providing facilities for adults and young people in particular.

> Limiting the number of access points from surrounding streets.

> Frequent inspection and repair of vandalism.

> Avoiding alleyways, hiding places and blind spots, and only using locks, cameras and physical barriers as a last resort.

Bronzed and relaxed, Karsten Ellekaer is a familiar figure on the estate. He arrived here in 1985, shortly after the first phase was completed, with a young child. He brought up his family here and, though recently retired, has no intention of living anywhere else.

“Why would I want to leave? This is a wonderful place to live,” he says. “We have very little crime here. From the start everything was built in a certain way. The idea is the buildings are placed in the middle of an industrial area, which means that tenants can keep an eye on the industrial units at night, and when the tenants are out at work, there are people working in the industries who can act as a natural surveillance for the properties here.”

There is a bar run by tenants, a café, a laundry – where cards are swiped rather than cash used – a fitness centre and a common house which tenants can hire for parties. Neatly tended private gardens, with low hedges to increase visibility, line an inner road through the estate which is used by pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. The passage of people is another intended form of “eyes on the street” surveillance to reduce crime.

Ellekaer spends his days walking around the estate checking for graffiti, litter and signs of criminal damage. As the tenants’ association leader, he runs a team of caretakers who are busy weeding the verges alongside the interior road. On the basis of the “broken windows” theory – that vandalism and graffiti, if left, can escalate into more serious crime – so maintenance is deemed to be part of increasing safety and security.

But there are no CCTV cameras or warning signs banning skateboarding, littering or anti-social behaviour. “They are not necessary,” Ellekaer says.

Behind the high-wire fence of the national police headquarters a few miles away, Karsten Nielsen, a former police officer, sits in his small prefab office which is dwarfed by the police station opposite. A quiet and thoughtful man, he leads the Danish Crime Prevention Council and believes there is a vital philosophy behind his country’s desire to make its people feel safe without locking them in. The Sibelius estate, he says, brought together all the best ideas of building secure and safe environments.

“We want a society we live in to be a free, open society, and we don’t want to lock any gates or make barriers unless it is absolutely necessary,” he says. “It’s about creating safety and reducing crime through urban planning in the built environment, on the streets, in the living areas we create. It relates to all major crime categories like theft and burglary, vandalism and violence.”

But attempts to remodel Sibelius have not all been successful; some designs have created public spaces which are too large for the population – lending the feel of a suburb so deserted it feels like the aftermath of a nuclear attack. There is also, in some areas, a sense that the life has been designed away, leaving only a husk of anything that makes a city interesting to live in.

“You cannot have a completely safe city and a completely exciting city at the same time, they are completely contradictory,” Gronlund suggests. “You need to have the exciting part of the city which is perhaps somewhat dangerous. So it has to be balanced and in proportion.”

Look at any guidebook and one of the most “exciting, vibrant and cosmopolitan” areas of inner-Copenhagen is Norrebro, where nearly 30% of inhabitants are from immigrant communities and the organic cafes, bars and chic baby shops rub up against cheap kebab takeaways, pound shops and slightly seedy clubs.

Norrebro – according to police statistics – also has a higher rate of crime than many other areas of Copenhagen, with 2,200 crimes reported per square kilometre. These include gang-related activities including drug dealing, possession of weapons and robberies, as well as shop burglaries, vandalism and graffiti.

Daubed with the graffiti of rival gangs along its main streets, the area has been the scene of many riots over the years, most recently in 2007 when the police moved in and evicted squatters from the Youth House, a social centre and base for environmental activists. Now it is the subject of a detailed report by Gronlund into how to alter the environment in order to reduce the crime. “Obviously it is (only) small changes you can make; you cannot pull everything down and start again. It is about working with the buildings and making adjustments.”

Some in Norrebro, however, fear that an attempt to design out the crime on their streets could eradicate the very reasons they live here – its radical edge, multiculturalism and all-round funkiness.

Young people gather around café tables in the main square, where plant shops vie for space with juice bars and vegetarian restaurants.

“There are some gangs here and there is drug dealing, but I don’t feel this is a dangerous place at all,” says Hanne Kold, who runs a baby shop in the square.

“A lot of people who hang around come here because they need somewhere to go; they are part of this place,” Kold adds. “They don’t make too much trouble because this is their place too. I wouldn’t want this area being changed in some major way – I don’t see why they should want to do that.” — Guardian News & Media

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Designing out crime


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