Territoriality and Surveillance: Defensible Space and Low-Rise Public Housing Design, 1966-1976
Pages 171 - 191
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This essay investigates how theories of crime prevention through
environmental design influenced the architecture and planning of
American public housing in the 1960s and 1970s. In this period, high
crime rates were strongly associated with high-rise public housing,
exemplified by St. Louis’s notorious Pruitt-Igoe complex. Analyzing four
federally-subsidized housing projects, I show how ideas about the
environment’s effect on human behavior, exemplified by Oscar Newman’s
theory of “defensible space,” motivated experiments with low-rise,
high-density public housing as alternatives to crime-ridden high-rises.
Newman’s theory held that correct design could solve the crime problem
by increasing a sense of territoriality among residents and encouraging
their surveillance of public spaces. The projects analyzed here had
variable success in preventing crime and fostering community among their
residents, raising questions about the efficacy of architecture and
planning alone to produce security and constitute community in public
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