Dialectics of defensible space

September 8, 2009

This (again) is intended as a set of preliminary notes towards a wider investigation of the implementation of defensible space theory in urban planning. NB. Written but not yet proof read or edited (I do enough of that in the day to not want to do it in the evening).

So, defensible space, Oscar Newman’s theory that was popular with urban planners during the 1970s and early 1980s, holds that the built environment can be manipulated in order to influence behaviour. Essentially, that negative activity (here understood as criminal activity) is a result of the sociophysical urban environment – Newman pointed to higher crime rates in high rises; the housing formations where residents are divorced from a feeling of territoriality – as evidence of this correlation.

While it must be noted that although the implementation of defensible space in urban developments in the capacity that Newman outlined has fallen out of favour, the legacy of the late-modernist project’s developments still has resonance today.

Things to note: that construction of defensible space is the preserver of low-rise, as opposed to high-rise, building projects and that its integration in social housing was an attempt to to fake (I use this word with the caveat that the relations’ foundations are in the capitalist right to ownership), or create a synthetic tie, from the residents to the property. The idea being, that they would defend their social housing as if it were their own private property.

Leaving aside the questions of ownership that the division and affectations of behaviour in private and social residences raise, I’d like to address the concept in terms of its impact on the interplay of public and private space. Suggesting that the construction of defensible space creates the condition for its attack: dialectical reasoning suggestion that the formation of defensible zones (and note the language here, the notion of defense is associated, I would suggest, with militaristic rhetoric, conservatism, and the establishment of the binary ‘us and them’ position) creates the condition for their attack. Not, in the sense of a literal assault – as an army may attack the defensible space of a castle – but an attack in terms of generating the behaviour that it seeks to dissuade.

The traditional view is that there is little recourse to territoriality in high-rise developments. The current urban formation of tower plus fenced in land, sometimes landscaped, sometimes not, is the standard deployment of urban social housing. It must be added to this that the fenced area often includes only one entrance – a main point of access for residents. If we draw a distinction between the physical presence of such developments – towers whose relative isolation in enclosed space makes them foreboding to visitors – as an expression of territoriality, and the internal space of the towers; the configuration of apartments and their residents as a place of individual space within in the collective footprint, we can develop a more complete expression of high-rise territoriality.

In high-rises the territory of the individual rarely extends beyond the front door of their apartment. The lifts stairs and communal areas – the lobby, corridors, and carparks – are a areas of transition. Dead spaces configured to provide no benefit other than access. Given the density of the population in high-rise buildings, the collective disinclination for communal ownership and responsibility can be high. So, while the impression to non residents can be one of foreboding and inaccessibility, the physical structure of the high-rise fails to empower residents with a sense of territoriality internally.

Low-rise developments, favoured by defensible space theory, can, we are told, imbue residents with a sense of territoriality. The idea being that multiple sight lines, public space that appears available for private curation create an illusion of ownership, and, in doing so, give rise to the willingness to defend property.

Of course, while capitalism exists on a cycle of retained private property, the effectiveness of trying to instill this in social housing must be questioned as the results are illusory.

To return to the matter of dialectics. Conceived as a response to negative behaviour in urban developments, defensible space sets out design principles that shape the environment to the familiar configuration enjoyed by those who own property: the clear demarcation of boundaries and the individual’s right to the land.

What it creates is a defensible space, a space that asks to be defended by constructing the sociophysical environment accordingly. But, in doing so, is it not asking to be attacked? In generating the conditions to enable its own negation – once defensible space is overrun, and an area becomes a locus of negative behaviour – is it not then easier to hold on to, to defend? Does the negative aspect become embedded in the environment in the places that set out to negate it, to prevent its formation?


To be continued. If anyone knows of any writing on the subject please do let me know.


One Response to “Dialectics of defensible space”

  1. Dr.Majdi Alkhresheh Says:

    Please check a book called Crisis of the built environment: the case of the Muslim cities http://archnet.org/library/documents/one-document.jsp?document_id=3550

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