Criminal classes

What could a policeman possibly teach an architect? How to design crime off the streets, for one thing.
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The Independent Culture
Peter Hardy is standing at the entrance to a shoddy shopping parade in Sussex. "This," he says flatly, "is a nightmare." And you can see exactly what he means. The Barton parade in the sprawling town of Crawley is tainted by vandalism, litter, graffiti, drug-dealing and theft. And the cruellest truth is that it ended up like this thanks largely to architects who had no idea, 20-odd years ago, that crannies and blind corners would provide a perfect haven for yobbos.

But they did. Now, however, Hardy - 30 years a detective and built like a tank - is at the centre of a police operation which is hitting back at areas like this all over the country. Whole shopping centres, housing estates, vast car parks, walkways and bus stations are being subtly altered as crime is, quite literally, "designed" off the streets.

If this sounds drily theoretical or even unlikely, you should jump into Hardy's car and whizz round his Sussex patch. The facts of this strange phenomenon soon begin to make sense. Crime - and its prevention - is physically changing the face of the urban landscape. You may possibly object; but more about that later.

The devil is in the detail. Hardy stops the car and points at a walled, high-gated pub that looks utterly impregnable: "Look at the wall alongside," he says. "There's a ledge half-way up: that's your first foot-hold. From there you reach the top of the gate. Then the high wall itself becomes a hand-hold ... and you're over into the yard."

In this tiny example lies the key to an entire philosophy, one that has led every police force in the country to appoint at least one expert like Hardy - technically, an architectural liaison officer (ALO) - since the idea of linking design to crime prevention first emerged at the end of the Eighties. If you expand the vision you quickly see how the layout of public spaces can be a criminal's Godsend ... or a turn-off.

Now we are standing in the middle of another shopping parade in Crawley. It's like thousands of others in Britain: utterly familiar, desperately tacky. But it's worse than aesthetics. Hardy waves a hand: "There's drug- dealing here. There's public nuisance too: damage, graffiti . Look at the shops. They've got shutters on, which always gives you a good idea that there's a problem."

His design answer is currently the subject of a formal submission by Sussex Police to the local authority. Some details are intriguingly small, but put together they amount to defensive street architecture. For instance:

Seating: Public benches encourage gangs to linger in shopping malls and - surprise surprise - two benches close together give comfort to bigger gangs. Hardy's answer: separate the seats during the day, and take them away at night. Then eradicate "natural seating" such as low, flat walls by setting top bricks at an angle so that no one can perch.

Open space: Too much smooth, flat space around shops - particularly near take-aways - encourages skate-boarders and general mucking around. Police are called out, sapping resources. Hardy's recommendation: lay cobblestones at strategic points.

Escape routes: Most shopping parades have alleyways half-way along for easy access. Hardy calls these "crime generators" because at night they provide shadow and a rat-run for muggers. So gate them off after dark, he says. Pedestrians are then forced onto other routes, providing "self- policing".

Hardy took me to two large housing estates where the architects have followed police guidance on an even bigger scale. The vast, 18-month-old Maidenbower Estate in Crawley includes 100 or so local authority houses. Here, long stretches of footpaths have been re-directed to avoid the backs of houses (67 per cent of burglaries happen from the rear), and rows of homes were "turned" through 90 degrees at design stage to make them overlook vulnerable stretches of path.

Hardy also persuaded designers to re-site what he calls "natural ladders": lamp-posts or street signs set flush against walls. The whole tone of Maidenbower reflects security, even down to psychological building tricks. At the entrance there are rumble strips on the road and large pillars left and right - a deliberate device, says Hardy, to make criminals feel they are intruding.

Twenty miles away on the coast at Brighton lies the Whitehawk Estate where the effects of police architectural guidance are still sharper. There have been two murders and one abduction in recent years around these tatty council houses, plus vast quantities of damage and theft. Hardy pinpointed the fact that two key roads had no fewer than 18 pedestrian access routes running through "tunnels" beneath overhead rooms linking blocks of flats. Criminal heaven.

He had them bricked up. Each one became a new room in the flat-block. Architects also created small cul-de-sacs to improve community feeling.

There are 138 ALOs like Peter Hardy employed by police forces. Some are civilian (Hardy himself is an ex-policeman who re-trained), some are serving police officers - also specially trained - and some also have architectural qualifications. In Manchester ALOs actually run accreditation courses for local architects. So the shape, convenience, style and structure of the urban landscape will increasingly be altered to cater for the criminal.

Which leaves two key questions. The first is, does it work? Tony Ashdown, ALO for Essex Police, points to the Crudens Estate at Pitsea outside Basildon in Essex, where vast numbers of rat-runs, poorly sited carparks "and all the bad design features you could think of" have recently been altered. "From being a crime-ridden estate we now have a very, very low crime rate and the residents are thrilled," he insists.

Manchester ALO Gordon Dixon points to examples such as the Bolton bus station, once the scene of mugging and vandalism. He advised moving a "wall" of timetable boards which separated the station from the main road. The gangs vanished.

More pointedly, the local authority section of the Maidenbower Estate in Crawley has seen no break-ins at all in the last year. Surrounding private roads have suffered 99. And when I knocked on the doors of residents at Whitehawk, Brighton, I met a stream of almost pathetic gratitude. "We are talking to each other more now," said one. Another said: "The kids used to congregate outside my bathroom window and smoke, drink and swear. They're not there any more. It's 99 per cent better."

The Department of the Environment is about to launch a two-year evaluation of the effect of "Secured by Design" - the police architectural brand name. And earlier this month the Association of Chief Police Officers, which launched the whole idea, announced a fresh emphasis on this and other aspects of crime prevention.

So to the most sensitive question. Should we be angry at this enforced re-design of our streets? Peter Hardy took me to a bleak underpass in Crawley. It was filthy, litter-strewn, blighted by graffiti - thanks to design flaws that isolate the place. The underpass is used by drug dealers ... and children.

Hardy's recommendation, still to be enacted, is that steel mirrors should be installed to open up the area. He also recommends that the council fits blue lights, because tests have shown that drug users can't find a vein if their flesh looks blue, so they mooch on.

In one sense it is chilling. In another, there are those kids to think of. George Dixon would be chuckling in Dock Greenn