'What if buildings could hate people, too?' Victoria's history of "crime prevention"

A history of “crime prevention” in Victoria
Whenever a new “multi-unit residential, commercial [or] industrial” property is proposed in Victoria, developers have to refer to the City’s “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” (CPTED) guidelines. An “acceptable application for development” in Victoria will consider the following, which are CPTED (allegedly pronounced ‘sep-ted’) in a nutshell:

  1. “Lighting,” to “reduc[e] crime” and “the fear of crime”;
  2. “Natural Surveillance” – e.g., “see-through fences and walls,” and “ensur[ing] the presence of people at all times”;
  3. “Formal Surveillance” – e.g., cameras and security guards; and
  4. “Territoriality” – i.e., taking “areas which [people] consider their own and which they will defend” and “extend[ing] this sense of ownership from private space into semi-private and even public spaces” by using “hedges and fences” or “symbolic barriers,” such as “changes in paving stone patterns and colour.”
Victoria’s CPTED guidelines stop someone from reaching their flashlight. Image source: City of Victoria CPTED Guidelines.

Victoria’s CPTED guidelines stop someone from reaching their flashlight. Image source: City of Victoria CPTED Guidelines.

Victoria’s reliance on these guidelines has allowed CPTED to shape how the city is built. If you want to put up a condo, you have to tell the City how that condo will limit the possibility of crime. Crime prevention has a loose definition, of course. In Victoria, CPTED has meant moving up fences to “deny sheltered unsecured areas for sleeping, congregating, etc.”; designing developments so that residents are always watching ‘public’ spaces, where people are already told they can’t sleep; the provincial government installing fences and jagged rocks to displace people; and the City wondering whether or not to install lighting, because while it might make people feel safer, it could also enable “drug injection.”

Tom Cruise reviews a Victoria development proposal for pre-crime. Image source.

Tom Cruise reviews a Victoria development proposal for pre-crime. Image source.

CPTED’s hateful past
It’s not like the use of CPTED to marginalize certain groups is a recent development. In fact, it’s being used just as it was intended when the phrase was coined by an American academic nearly 50 years ago.

The phrase “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” comes from a 1971 book of the same name, by C. Ray Jeffery. The book includes lots of theoretical discussions, but his general idea was that “crime … can be controlled … through the manipulation of the environment” (19). By barring a window, for example, you could prevent a break-in. By removing a bench, he said, you could prevent certain people from using a space.

CPTED author C. Ray Jeffery in 1996. Image source.

CPTED author C. Ray Jeffery in 1996. Image source.

To illustrate his point, Jeffery praised the New York City bus terminal. The terminal wanted to eliminate the “antisocial behavior” of “indigents” (poor people) who “use the waiting room … for its benches, restrooms, heating, and air conditioning.” “Alcoholics,” “homosexuals,” and “hustlers” (sex workers) were also targeted as the terminal was redesigned to get them out. The terminal “made changes to keep people from leaning on railings”; replaced benches with individual seats so no one could sleep there; and added strategic lighting. To repeat, the targets of CPTED in Jeffery’s example were poor people seeking shelter and access to washrooms; alcoholics; LGBTQ folks; and sex workers.

Jeffery’s work was supported by another book that came out around the same time, Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space: Crime Prevention through Urban Design. Newman actually redesigned two developments with CPTED principles, using a “recreation area,” for example, to “expunge the addicts” from an area (170; 172). Victoria has certainly taken those ideas to heart, embracing playgrounds as a way to displace homeless people.

Jeffery thought CPTED needed to go even further, though. He wanted developers to make defensive architecture plans before their buildings even went up. If “criminologists [could] work with urban designers in the planning of cities,” he said, and if “the police department” could “determine­ spots and remedial measures … before a crime is committed,” CPTED could keep certain groups away (217; 207).

In Victoria, B.C., Jeffery got his wish.

CPTED comes to Victoria
In the late 1970s, the B.C. Police Commission was pushing hard for police departments to focus on crime prevention. So few crimes resulted in convictions, they said, that police departments “should be looking at crime prevention” more than anything else. After local police officers attended a 1980 CPTED seminar, the Saanich police department announced that they were moving forward with the “concept called crime prevention through environmental design” that had been “developed … in the United States.” 

"It's Cep-ted for Saanich police," Victoria Daily Times, 2 April 1980.

"It's Cep-ted for Saanich police," Victoria Daily Times, 2 April 1980.

According to the media, Saanich was the first Canadian police force to adopt this proposal, which would “give police a bigger say in the management of the environment.” The police “would have a say in building designs, approving residential and commercial building developments and adjusting pedestrian and vehicle traffic patterns to cut crime.”

CPTED was also trendy in Victoria, with the police chief praising crime prevention that same year. The provincial government was on board, too, with the Attorney General talking a big game about crime prevention funding. According to the Times Colonist, CPTED officially became Victoria City policy in the early 1980s, with “police hav[ing] a say in approving development permits for all construction projects in the city.” Victoria’s current CPTED guidelines are the end-result of Jeffery and Newman’s books, and the “crime prevention” trend that swept through B.C. in the 1970s and 1980s.

CPTED’s hateful present
Little has changed since C. Ray Jeffery coined the term “CPTED” and decided it was a great way to remove poor people and LGBTQ ‘criminals’ from bus stations. Victoria’s CPTED guidelines don’t mention it, but the City and police have consistently used the concept to target poor, homeless, and LGBTQ individuals. For decades.                                                         

Just likes Jeffery’s bus station example, Victoria’s CPTED targets marginalized groups in an attempt to remove them from spaces where they might be seen by more privileged individuals. Metal is installed on planters to deny people a place to sit; rocks are placed under overhangs to remove sheltering sites; fences are put up in front of churches; and buildings are designed to police people’s behaviour. CPTED in Victoria is about keeping marginalized groups from using spaces where they might otherwise interact with local rich-o’s. In that context, the possibility of a homeless person using an alcove is a “crime” that the City wants developers to prevent at all costs, using fences, rocks or whatever it takes.

CPTED was discriminatory garbage when it was a 1971 book, and it’s discriminatory garbage as official City policy in 2017. In my next post I’ll talk about how CPTED has been used by Victoria and Vancouver to target the LGBTQ community.

Newspaper articles referenced

  • “Stop-Crime Plan Urged,” Victoria Daily Times, 30 January 1976, 1.
  • “Police take homework to residents,” Victoria Daily Colonist, 16 April 1976, 21.
  • “Preventing crime aim of new chief’s plans,” Victoria Daily Colonist, 27 March 1980, 13.
  • “It’s Cep-ted for Saanich police,” Victoria Daily Times, 2 April 1980, 17.
  • “Some police training criticized,” Victoria Daily Times, 24 May 1980, 3.
  • “Williams pushes crime prevention,” Vancouver Sun, 25 October 1980, A14.
  • “Police help developers build in security,” Victoria Times Colonist, 23 May 2002, B2.

Stephen Harrison