Grounded In Safety

Most area law enforcement agencies consult with area neighborhoods and businesses on ways to prevent crime in their communities. Indeed, crime prevention is much more important, not to mention cost effective, than law enforcement in the minds of many.

You are probably familiar with programs such as Neighborhood Watch, Dare and Community Policing in the area of crime prevention. Another program that has been used effectively by law enforcement is a program called CPTED.

CPTED stands for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. This program provides valuable concepts for the design or modification of structures and spaces to reduce criminal activity.

Our local parks have used some of these basic concepts and adapted them to our needs. In doing so we have created more patronage, greater safety for our visitors, higher satisfaction of our users and reduced costs for maintenance

Goals & Concepts

The goal of CPTED within our parks is to ensure that proper design and effective use of space and environment will lead to a reduction in crime and vandalism, while increasing park use and customer wellbeing.

Concepts that are universal in the CPTED approach to design are:

1. Physical Environment -– Simply stated, this is the lay of the land and the layout of structures and their proximity to one another. By paying attention to the topography, natural landscaping and positioning of buildings and amenities within your park you can greatly enhance the usage of the facility and discourage undesirable activity within the park space.

2. Behavior of People –- People will behave in predictable ways depending upon certain characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity and activity. Recognizing this and planning the space and space usage within your park area will help to further increase appropriate use while discouraging undesirable activity.

3. Effective Use of Space -– We have found that this concept as it applies to park design is the design of spaces so that they can serve multiple functions and facilities concurrently. What that really means is to have a park design so that it is being used all of the day and evening for multiple activities by the public.

Bad people, unfortunately, will continue to do bad acts. While this is insensitive and even stupid on their part, most often they are not willing to perform bad/illegal acts in the presence of witnesses. Thus a sports facility comprised of multiple playing fields and little else is only in use during the season or part of the day. With the inclusion of other amenities such as playgrounds, tot lots, walking paths and picnicking facilities, other uses will be encouraged during dead times.

This will reduce that opportunities for undesirable activities that lead to higher maintenance costs, and other unwanted consequences. All of which serve as a deterrent to the use of the facility by the general public.

4. Crime/Loss Prevention -– Most public spaces will suffer from the consequences of undesirable activity. These acts could be simple vandalism, such as graffiti, to serious acts of lawlessness. Let's be clear... If your customers think that they or their loved ones are not safe in your parks they will stay away. If the regular customers stay away your public parks will suffer even more costly abuse.

This downward spiral can only be reversed by close attention to crime/loss prevention. Remove graffiti within 24 hours. Inspect problem areas often. Turn your maintenance staff into garbologists. Inspect trash and the contents of your trash receptacles. If evidence of alcohol abuse, drug use or gang graffiti appear, document this and engage law enforcement in a prevention effort.

Consider hiring private security to walk the park during the hours that your logs show high probability for undesirable activity. Private security is much cheaper than police officers on overtime. The presence of a uniformed person is very comforting to park patrons. Since your goal should be to get regular users back into these parks you can make a strong case for this to the policy makers of your community.

We have had great success with this approach, coupled with aggressive maintenance. Several parks in our inventory are located in a rough part of the city. These parks were in terrible shape and were virtually abandoned by the community. Repeatedly vandalized, they became havens for illegal activity of all types. Customer satisfaction was nil and people were afraid to use them.

We determined to take back these parks for our customers. Staff committed to rebuild and repair these parks every day if necessary, to bring back the neighborhood.

At the beginning, that is exactly what was done. I quickly saw that this might be a budget-busting effort. The reverse was true.

After six months, these parks became some of the highest used facilities with some of the lowest per capita maintenance costs. Customer satisfaction soared in these neighborhoods. The bad guys didn't stop doing bad things. They just stopped doing them in these parks.

Tips for Park Design using CPTED

Natural Surveillance

Landscapes -- Park landscapes should be designed and maintained to have clear and unobstructed views. This does not mean that you have to clear cut the park to accomplish this goal. It does mean that you should limb up low hanging branches and view your park from the angle of a patron being put upon by an unseen assailant.

Another tip is to consider upgrading your walking and jogging paths. If you make your walking paths at least ten feet wide groups can pass one another without having to step off of the path. More importantly law enforcement can drive their patrol cars along them.

One crusty sergeant once told me that if I thought he was going to get out of his cruiser and stick his head into the bushes of a park at 2 a.m., I had better think again. He intended to live to enjoy his retirement. We currently design our hike and bike trails to a 14-foot width. We use spring loaded bollards so that a police cruiser can gain access by driving slowly over them.

Use landscapes to control and direct activity. We experienced real problems with beach users detouring from our beach board walks into the coastal sand dunes. Worse, visitors were constantly removing coastal vegetation, thus destabilizing these very important buffers. This was quickly controlled after we planted several truck loads of sandspurs among the dune sea oats. Virtually everyone stays on the boardwalks now.

Improve visibility with lighting –- Survey your parks after dark. Even if they are to be closed and gated, light them. Make the interiors more visible. By doing so you may also want to consider creating a Park Watch Program based on the same concepts as Neighborhood Watch Programs. We have had some good success with enlisting adjacent neighbors as extra eyes and ears for local law enforcement agencies.

Avoid the creation of building entrapment areas –- Walk around the enclosed buildings at your parks as you survey them. Are the lower story windows close to the ground? If so they may become access points for thieves. In new design and in retrofitting existing buildings consider placing windows higher on exterior walls on ground floors.

Are there indented areas around enclosed buildings? If so, you are inviting entrapment areas for your patrons and employees. If these areas have ledges or other overhangs you are creating spaces for loitering or other abuses. Challenge designers and architects to deal with these issues. Require them to be knowledgeable on CPTED design issues in public parks.

Natural Access

Ingress/Egress –- One way in... One way out. This is a critical concept for auto traffic patterns. One ingress/egress will discourage speeding. It will also discourage cruising in the park for unlawful purposes. This is because the cruisers will have to double back to exit the park. That gives other patrons two chances to observe and identify abusers.

Meandering Interior Roads –- Straight and level may be good for commercial air travel. It is an invitation for speeding within a park. A meandering internal roadway is safer and much more interesting aesthetically.

Parking –- Locate parking lots on the same side of the park as tot activity. This reduces the likelihood of small children darting out into the path of oncoming vehicles.

Autos -- Automobiles are very important to people. I like mine so much that if my bedroom door was wider I would probably park it next to my bed. People like to park as close to their destination as possible. Cars are a base of support for us when we go to the park. They hold all of the things that we take along to make our stay more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, they are a base of support for undesirable activity too. They can hide coolers containing alcohol or other substances. They can contain weapons. In our parks we have many outdoor basketball courts. They are very popular with our young men.

As competition escalates on the court so too can tempers. In one of our parks one tragic incident reinforced the need to separate cars from people under certain conditions. A basketball game turned tragic when a young man became so angry over the events in a game that he walked a few short steps to his car and returned with a handgun. Seconds later another young man was shot and died.

Territorial Reinforcement

Activity Nodes -- Consider carefully the location of parking lots in relation to activity components. So too, consider activity nodes in proximity to other park components. Twenty-something male basketball games can and often do generate some blue language. Don't locate children's playgrounds nearby. Moms won't appreciate it and your staff will hear about it often.

Restrooms -- Where possible, separate free standing restrooms from parking areas. This will help eliminate deviant activity in these facilities. Design interior and exterior surfaces to be durable, vandal resistant and to facilitate maintenance and odor control.

Activity mix –- Design park spaces for overlapping and concurrent uses. This will encourage greater length of stay by park users, thus reducing opportunities for abusers.

Shade -– During hot weather months shade in parks is critical to length of stay by patrons. If the landscaping does not provide it naturally, build it in using shade canopies over playgrounds and bleacher/spectator areas. Don't forget to shade the areas where mom sits to watch the tots on the playground.

Site Furnishings -– Comfortable seating areas with water fountains close by are another way to increase length of stay by park users. Consider installing park benches in a way that several are installed end to end. This allows larger families and groups to be able to sit together. Unfortunately park benches in some of our urban settings have become sleeping stations for vagrants. If you select benches with arm rests this will discourage that. Don't forget the shade.

As our urban spaces become more populated CPTED principals make good sense. Employing them will increase length of stay by park users who will use your parks for their intended purpose. Their increased satisfaction with our public parks is really what we are all about. Give it a try.

William Potter is the parks and recreation division manager for Orange County Parks, Florida. He can be reached at