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article imageOp-Ed: 'Defensive space' — How CCTV and security create paranoia

By Paul Wallis     Oct 31, 2012 in Crime
Sydney - The theory of security is that people feel better and safer with more of it. The opposite effect, however, is becoming the problem. The original idea of a “defended space” has rebounded into increased defensive behaviour and fear.
The Guardian’s Anna Minton provides a good example of the issues. She reflects on the mindsets created by “Secured by Design” (SBD) security policies in the UK. The result is a true eye-opener.
After visiting a military style gated housing estate she describes as “oppressive”, she explains the theory of SBD:
SBD has its roots in the idea of "defensible space", created by the American architect and town planner Oscar Newman in the early 1970s, as a result of research he carried out in three deprived New York housing projects. His main finding was that "territoriality" created space that could defend itself. By marking out boundaries clearly, residents would feel a sense of ownership over communal spaces and would discourage strangers and opportunistic criminals from entering.
This is a sort of hybridization of the ideas of a home being a castle and property boundaries, but takes it one step further into the assumption that the same sort of security used in jails will make people feel safer. It’s a non-sequiteur, by definition.
Fear is a survival tool. It’s safer to be scared, and people naturally look for threats. Minton found an interesting view of the problem while researching:
Security measures including gates and internal doors elicited a similar response, with residents illustrating that "defensible space" can increase fear of strangers. "Because of the doors, if you see someone you don't know, there is an element of 'Who is this?'" one resident commented. A practitioner added: "The more you secure a block or an estate, the more it gives a message that something is wrong with that estate."
Mindsets vs. needs
The fact is that if protection is so heavily emphasized, “protection against what?” is the logical inference, and let’s face it, the warehouse/jail type of security isn’t a great look for residential zones. Constant reminders of security issues are also guaranteed to keep these issues literally visible all the time.
Result, “acquired paranoia”. There are also a few own goals in terms of the theory of creating a sense of community:
Living in a defensible space has to include obvious demarcations between private and community space. The rules are different, so behaviour is different. The tendency is to enforce the defensive aspects of community space. That’s fine in theory, but defensive behaviour is also distrustful behaviour, naturally enough.
Defensible spaces can include an inevitable “opt out” for residents. They just don’t have to associate with community issues. They can fester away with their own problems and fears.
The environment creates the mindsets. In a park, people have space to work with. In a fortress/jail environment, they have only so much space to work with. Horizons and issues are reduced in scale to individual issues. The big picture can be lost in the minutiae.
Paranoia, beyond the survival level, can become an obsession. People can become experts on what might happen, potentially at the expense of real risks to their immediate environment.
CCTV is a case in point. It does have its uses and is often a good deterrent, but the level of backup to these systems is debatable. Monitored security is the top of the range. I’ve done some work for security companies, and their monitored systems are excellent. That said, a lot of places don’t have that level of security or anything like it. They have “passive routines” which are nothing like as effective. It’s an excellent example of after the event information. It may identify criminals, but doesn’t stop offenses.
In these environments, the high security doors, barred small windows and the rest of the shopping list are actually the first line of defence. Since people don’t necessarily trust third party security, however visible, when it comes to their own safety, the mentality of “Who is this?” is unavoidable.
SBD needs to evolve to include credible levels of protection simply to improve the mental health of residents. It also needs to evolve to reflect healthier lifestyles and create a better environment.
Security culture- In need of a major makeover
The “security culture” needs to become post-Neanderthal, too. It feeds off paranoia and tries to increase it to get sales. I had a couple of “people” on the doorstep a while back selling cameras and alarms telling me all the terrible possibilities of a break in:
What if someone broke in?
It’d be their bad luck.
Did you know there’s a way of stabbing someone that severs the nerves in the neck?
And so on. This sales pitch is very close to illegal in Australia, incidentally. It implies that security will prevent crime, which it won’t and can’t. Burglar alarms don’t stop bullets. There was no way I would have bought so much as a bar of chocolate from these cretins. I was glad to waste as much of their time as possible. I’ve done door to door work so I decided to make sure they’d sell a lot less that day. The result was no sale and a certain pleasure in making sure I said no to every single irritating reference.
In short- Get a realistic view of security needs and work with those needs. People need to feel safer, not more paranoid.
And for god's sake stop sending around idiots selling gadgets to people who know better.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about residential security, CCTV, Secured by Design architecture, SBD, security culture
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