Barry Poyner

Author of 'Design Against Crime'
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Barry Poyner, architect and social researcher: born Coventry 15 June 1938; researcher, War Office and Ministry of Public Buildings and Works 1960-67; Research Fellow, Birmingham School of Architecture 1967-69; consultant, then Director of the Crime and Environment Programme, Tavistock Institute of Human Relations 1972-90; Associate, Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, University College London 2003-06; married 1966 Ann Jones (one son, one daughter); died Halstead, Essex 26 November 2006.

Barry Poyner was a most unusual architect - who developed a research career on the effect of the environment on behaviour. Rather than leave monuments to his creativity, he wanted to improve the lives of ordinary people. Other architects with this ambition have imposed their ideas on an unwitting population, sometimes with disastrous results (witness post-war housing). Poyner understood that successful architectural innovations must be grounded in the details of how people actually use buildings. He brought these insights to the newly emerging field of "design against crime" - a phrase he popularised - in the early 1980s.

To collect hard evidence to support his views, Poyner embarked on a sophisticated programme of research exploring the distribution of crime in relation to the design of houses and housing estates. He examined, for example, whether the occurrence of burglaries and car thefts was related to the ability of residents to see out on to the street or to see their parked cars.

These studies allowed him to produce detailed guidelines for "designing out" opportunities for crime, laid out in his classic work Design Against Crime (1983) and in his final book, Crime-Free Housing in the 21st Century, published a few months before his death.

Innovators who cross the borders of disciplines often meet with suspicion. For 25 years Poyner, a trained architect, was engaged on a programme of social research funded by the Home Office and other government agencies. That he did so successfully as a private consultant, without any institutional backing for much of his career, is evidence of his talent and determination.

Poyner was born in Coventry in 1938. He studied at the Birmingham School of Architecture, qualifying in 1960. He spent his early career working on user requirement studies in the War Office and Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, and, following two years as Research Fellow at the Birmingham School of Architecture, he moved into commercial consultancy. In 1972 he joined the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations as a researcher, becoming Director of the Crime and Environment Programme there. His later consultancy concentrated on crime prevention and environmental design research; from 2003 until his death, he was an Associate of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, University College London.

Poyner's architectural training taught him how to communicate the essence of crime prevention guidelines in sketches and photographs that enliven his books; but it did not teach him that good design could prevent crime - an idea largely dismissed as "architectural determinism" by leading architects and criminologists of the day. Instead, Poyner arrived at his thinking through studies of accidents conducted in the late 1970s and 1980s at the Tavistock Institute.

This was a most creative phase of his career. One of those studies, of accidents in the home, uncovered the link between falls in the elderly and osteoporosis. Another study, for Lord Wheatley's Inquiry following the disaster at Ibrox Park in 1971 when 66 spectators were killed, led to the first design guidelines for safety at sports stadia (the "Green Guide", published in 1973).

But it was his investigations into accidental drownings that gave rise to his future work on crime and design. He found that drownings were concentrated in places with the greatest "opportunities" for them to occur. For example, people drowned in canals that were in towns and cities, not way out in the country where few people ever went. He argued that fences, warning notices and lifebelt stands should be located for greatest benefit on urban not rural canals.

With this background of experience, Poyner was open to Oscar Newman's ideas, then just beginning to cross the Atlantic, about the lack of "defensible space" designs in public housing and the crime that resulted.

Newman's ideas were highly influential - remember those spectacular pictures of the demolition of huge, unsatisfactory housing blocks - but they were panned by social scientists, who accused him of disregarding the social causes of crime. He helped his critics by making methodological mistakes, which was hardly surprising since he was an architect not a social researcher.

Poyner never made these mistakes, however, because he was a researcher by instinct even if not by training. His studies were always meticulous, but their hallmark was the focus on specific forms of crime. To obtain data on different crime types he and his colleagues - including this writer - would sift through hundreds of police crime reports to sort them into more specific categories.

For example, when studying "street attacks" in Birmingham and Coventry for the Home Office, he sorted these into distinct sets of incidents - handbag snatches, robberies of drunks, pickpocketing at bus queues - each of which depended for their occurrence on the opportunity provided by clearly defined situational conditions. The findings allowed him to think about ways in which to change the conditions giving rise to each set of incidents. For example, he proposed different ticketing and queuing systems for buses, which would remove the opportunities for pickpocketing.

It was the determination to make research relevant to practice that drove his work. He was never interested in merely elucidating the relationship between design and crime; it was much more important to him to ensure that crime-prevention design, founded on a solid base of research evidence, became an integral part of architectural practice.

This is why his guidelines are so tangible and practical. That they have not been more widely adopted speaks volumes about society's attitude to those that break the law. Punishing offenders might satisfy our abhorrence and our desire to see justice done, but, if we really want to reduce crime and make our towns and cities safer places in which to live, then much can be achieved, as Barry Poyner showed, by good management and design.

Barry Webb