Environmental or spatial approaches to the explanation of crime


Author’s name

Institution affiliation

There have been various theories that have been put forward toexplain what causes crime. Sociological aspects and behavioralcontexts have been the key aspect that researchers have been using toexplain crime. However, recent studies and theories by variousscholars have associated crime with certain parts or sections of anenvironmental design. Environmental or spatial approach to crimeasserts there are certain structural designs or certain places in acity that are more prone to criminal activities than others (Adler &ampLaufer, 2012). This approach does not consider the sociologicalcontexts of a place but only considers how certain places are proneto crime than others on the basis of environmental design. Newman’sdefensible space theory has been one of the significant bases ofenvironmental or spatial approaches to the explanation of crime.According to the defensible space theory, there are certain placesthat are safer than others. Newman asserts that people can createdefensible places such as residential houses or the city.

Crime and place

Research has indicated that some places will record high rates ofcrime and will be susceptible than others despite an overallchangeover of populations. This is a clear indication that there aresome places where crime is high than others. In the design of majorcities across the world, architects have tried to design buildingsand paths that would discourage criminal activities. The focus onstructural designs as primary causal factors of crime is a completechangeover from the contemporary social context which focuses ofsocial aspects as the major elements associated with crime (Rengertet al., 2010). For instance, social disorganization has largely beenassociated with crime for centuries. Newman’s theory focuses on thefact that some physical designs and layouts are more prone to crimethan others. Urban settlement designs can be manipulated andtherefore city managers have used this approach to control crime.This is an advantage over the traditional sociological contextapproach to crime since sociological aspects such as behaviors cannotbe manipulated and therefore hard to control crime.

Newman’s defensible space theory

Newman’s defensible space theory has been the focal referencepoint by various scholars who approach the issue of crime on thebasis of environmental design. Newman states that urban designs canbe modified to create spaces that are safe than others. Newman arguesthat urban residential houses can be designed and built in such a waythat it enables people to control their spaces or even defend theirspaces against criminal activities. Newman’s theory has beenlargely criticized by academicians on the ground that it is vague andcannot be put to empirical tests. However, this theory becameincreasingly famous in the 1990s when the American and Europeangovernments applied its principles to design safe cities andresidential houses (Ratcliffe, 2005). The principles of the theorygave birth to the crime prevention through environmental designprogram that has recorded tremendous success in the cities where ithas been applied. Results have shown that environmental re-designshave resulted in tremendous reduction of crime and crime relatedbehaviors. This has given the theory and the environmental or spatialapproach to crime great credit.

Natural surveillance

Spatial approach to the explanation of crime asserts that there arecertain designs that can either encourage crime or deter crime in theurban settlements. Natural surveillance is one aspect that has beensaid to be critical in explaining crime. Newman states that placeswhere there is sufficient natural surveillance, crime rates areextremely low (Mayes &amp Lewis, 2012). In the environmental designof urban residential houses, it is essential to ensure that designresidential houses that are facing each other. This enables theresidents to have a clear view of their neighbors’ houses, as wellas the public space between the buildings. It is essential to havethis view that would enable the residents to keep watch of theirneighborhood and therefore control their own security. This,according to Newman would keep away criminals and offenders who wouldfear that they will be known or identified while trying to commit acrime (Piquero &amp Weisburd, 2010). Environmental designs musttherefore leave spaces between buildings in urban centers that theresidents can use to watch their space and defend it if necessary. Ifbuildings are designed in such a way that there are no spaces throughwhich residents can keep watch of their spaces, chances of criminalactivities are extremely high. It is also the prudent to place doorsand windows in the front of the house where residents can have aclear view of what is going on outside their houses and also watchtheir neighbors’ houses. In such open places, criminals are afraidand scared to commit any crime (Encyclopedia of GeographicalInformation Sciences, 2007).

Environmental design or image of a place

The environmental design of a project such as construction ofresidential houses creates an image to the public or a perceptionthat says what kind of a residence it is. Research has indicated thatin places where the residence has an image of a well maintained andcontrolled by residents place, offenders and criminals are deterredfrom committing crimes in such places. On the contrary, if a placeappears to be neglected and dilapidated, there are chances that thelevel of crime will be extremely high and such places are prone tocrime. Well maintained places make the residents to have a sense ofpride and therefore take care and defend their space (Greene et al.,2009). On the other hand, areas that seems or appears dilapidated andseems less maintained triggers the residents to have little or noconcern over their space hence encouraging crime and deviancy.Spatial or the environmental approach asserts that a place is alsoviewed as crime free if the neighboring urban area, paths or streetsare considered as safe. The element of safety through association isused in this explanation.

Environments that are viewed as being disorderly and poorly managedare said to have high rates of crimes. The theory of the brokenwindow asserts that if one window is broken and it is not repaired,there is likelihood that another one will be broken. Eventually, thepublic behavior in such neighborhoods becomes uncontrollableresulting into crime. Criminals are mainly attracted to places wherethe environment is conducive (Encyclopedia of GeographicalInformation Sciences, 2007). The environment in a neighborhood mustbe safe if the residents have to feel safe. An example of creatingsafety and reducing crime in a neighborhood is when foot patrolofficers are deployed. This strategy has proved successful andresidents recorded high levels of safety and confidence while intheir neighborhoods (Adler &amp Laufer, 2012). When buildings areleft to dilapidate without repair, there is the likelihood of havingsuch a place turning into a crime zone. It is evident that when suchplaces are left to dilapidate, majority of the people shift to otherneighborhoods leaving the children and the elderly. Research hasindicated that the elderly are not affected by criminal activities asyoung people are.

Police presence in foot patrols

Although the presence of police in foot patrol may not reduce crimeas expected, it is evident that they create an environment that isorderly. For instance, the presence of police in foot patrol ensuresthat there are no beggars at bus stops or drunkards who aredisorderly. This public order creates a sense of security andresidents view crime as having significantly reduced. In a bid tokeep the environment safe, strangers are screened and theirintentions identified by the police (Encyclopedia of GeographicalInformation Sciences, 2007). An orderly environment will detercriminals from carrying out their criminal activities. Disorderly inan environment creates fear amongst the residents and police have theresponsibility of maintaining order (Adler &amp Laufer, 2012). Theaspect of the broken window is a representation of the prostitute,the drunkard, the panhandler or the drug addict. When these brokenwindows are not checked, they ultimately make a neighborhood unsafe.This happens when the thieves or the buglers take advantage of theprevailing conditions in a neighborhood to conduct crime. Thecriminals act in the presumption that the residents are alreadyintimidated by the existing conditions and that it would be extremelyhard for them to report any crime incidences to the police. It istherefore abundantly clear that the occurrence of crime dependslargely on the environmental public order in a place.

Mapping of crime

It is evident that there are various places where criminalactivities are higher than others. This has begged the question ofwhat are some of the factors that make some areas to be more prone tocrime than others. Mapping of crime has been a recent developmentwhich has shown that there are indeed some places and spaces that aresusceptible to crime than others. It is also clear that the criminaland victims of criminal activities spend time in specific places orspaces where crime rates are high. If some surroundings, spaces orenvironments are considered as threatening, it is therefore possibleto manipulate our environments, surroundings or spaces to reducecrime (Adler &amp Laufer, 2012). Spatial approach to the explanationof crime seeks to find out why some places record high crime ratesthan others and also where the criminals and victims reside, as wellas how the environment can be manipulated to reduce occurrence ofcrime in particular places. Crime mapping enables law enforcementofficers to identify specific areas where crime rates are higher thanother areas and can also come up with spatial patterns of crime.

Division of urban centers into zones (for purposes of crime)

Researchers divided major cities in the United States such asChicago into five major areas. They are the non-residential area, thecentral business district and the transition zone which is composedof cheap rental houses and attracts people from all walks of lifeincluding the immigrants. The other two areas in major cities areaffluent residential areas. According to research, the zone intransition if prevalent with crime activities since most of the youngpeople engaging in crime are raised up in these neighborhoods(Encyclopedia of Geographical Information Sciences, 2007). Theteenagers from the zone in transition were exposed socialdisorganization and disorder hence adopted crime. These areas of thecity are imminent with poverty and lack of moral values, as well aslack of community cohesion and therefore teenagers are easilyinfluenced to adopt crime. Earlier studies on crime focused largelyon the criminals and where they lived but later the studies shiftedtowards the victims and the offences committed (Brantingham &ampBrantingham, 2012). It is evident from research that criminals hardlycommit crime in their neighborhood but rather commit crime in an areathat they are familiar with. For instance, criminals from the zone oftransition would hardly commit a crime in their area of residence butwould commit a crime in other areas.

Poverty and crime in neighborhoods

The design of an urban area determines the kind of people that arelikely to settle there. Poverty and crime have been linked togetherby criminologists and they assert that the places inhabited by poorpeople are more likely to have high levels of crime. The communitiesin some areas are also largely blamed for the escalation of criminalactivities. The community must be in a position to control theirneighborhood and stop the escalation of crime. In poverty strickenneighborhoods, people have little concern for social disorganizationand therefore they end up promoting the development of criminalactivities (Sampson et al., 2009). Although research has indicatedthat criminals hardly commit crime in their neighborhoods, it isevident that they commit crimes in the areas that have poorenvironmental designs that enable crime to thrive properly. Thecommunity must be responsible for their neighborhood and ensure thatcrime does not thrive in their area.

Application of environmental or spatial approach by lawenforcement officers

Environmental and spatial approach to the explanation of crime inthe urban centers and also across the country links certain placeswith crime activities. The approach has been largely used by lawenforcement officers to map out specific locations which have beenidentified as hot spots for crime. It is evident that certain placesthat have been identified as hot spots by the law enforcementofficers have recorded tremendous reduction in the rates of crime(White &amp Sutton, 2011). This is a clear indication that theconcept works and that certain areas or spaces are imminent withcrime. Whereas other approaches to crime concentrate on other causesof crime, environmental and spatial approaches focus on the elementof space as having a huge impact on the occurrence of a crime(Mukherjee, 2013). The solutions to crime reduction that areassociated with environmental or spatial approach to crime are aimedat modifying the space to deter criminals from conducting theiractivities in the neighborhood.

Mapping enables law enforcement officers to point various crime hotspots and concentrate on them to deal with the crime. Research hasindicated that when such research has been done, it has indicatedthat there has been a consistent pattern in the spatial distributionof crime. According to the research, distribution of people’scharacteristics in various locations determines the level of crime insuch a location. The types of crimes committed also vary from placeto another (White &amp Sutton, 2011). For instance, pick pocketingis a petty crime that the law enforcement officers have found out tobe extremely common in the central business district and also in thepoor neighborhoods where there is poverty and majority of the peopleare immigrants. On the other hand, crimes associated with robbery andcarjacking are highly recorded in the affluent residential homes. Thenature of the environment, such as the presence of law enforcementofficers, has the effect of changing the number of crime in a placesignificantly. For instance, the introduction of guards at theWal-Mart parking lot reduced the rates of crimes by over 96%.

Spatial and environmental approach to crime provides variousstrategies through which law enforcement officers can try and dealwith crime effectively. To start with, it is essential for the lawenforcement officers to concentrate on the specific crime (White &ampSutton, 2011). When a crime has been identified to occur in aparticular place, it is vital for the law enforcement officers tocritically analyze the situation and the form of crime in order todeal with the crime effectively. Sufficient resources and personnelmust be allocated to the specific identified crime in order toeffectively deal with it (Shaw, 2010). This is based on the brokenwindow theory where the failure to repair the first broken windowwill send a message that there is no one are and ultimately all thewindows will be broken. It is critical for the law enforcementofficers to rectify any deviant behavior that is reported immediatelyto prevent further escalation of such a behavior into a criminalactivity. This is what is called a problem oriented policing whereproblem is identified, analyzed and a response implemented (White &ampSutton, 2011). Additionally, there are strategies put in place formeasuring the effectiveness of the response to the problem.

Aspect of time and place of crime

The spatial approach to crime also asserts that opportunities forcommitting a crime by offenders occur at different times, indifferent spaces and at varying capacities. Besides a crime beingconcentrated in specific places, this approach also asserts that acrime can occur at specific times of the day, month or even year. Forinstance, domestic violence crimes have been known to occur duringthe summer months of the year, while commercial crimes and robberiesoccur during the winter months of the year (Pease, 2007).Additionally, car thefts have been known to occur at night in theresidential houses and occur during the day in the non-residentialplaces such as parking lots in the cities. This distribution of crimeon the basis of time is as a result of various policies that thegovernment through the law enforcement officers has put in place todeter the criminals. This may include natural and artificialsurveillance, street lights and increased police patrols.

Computer comparison statistics (Compstat)

Computer comparison statistics or Compstat is yet another aspectthat police officers apply with regard to spatial or environmentalapproach to crime to deal with crime. According to this aspect, thepolice chair has weekly meetings with the officers and data andstatistics of various districts regarding crime is presented.Specific details of a crime are given such as the time, place, natureof crime and the offender. Each district has a commander who isresponsible for implementing the crime reduction strategies arrivedat in the weekly meeting (White &amp Sutton, 2011). It is clearlyevident that the element of environmental criminology is at use andthe tenets of the approach are vital. Compstat is an extremelyeffective tool to crime reduction since the nature of the crime, timeof committing it and the offender, as well as the space is wellknown.

Role of private sector to reduce crime in their areas

The private sector applications also play an essential role incombating crime in specific areas. The process of reducing crime isnot the role of the police alone, but it is a role of all thestakeholders who include the public and the private owners ofproperties. For instance, it is duty of the owner of a shopping mallto install CCTV cameras that will deter and keep away offenders. Itis also the duty and the responsibility of a private property such asa shopping mall to ensure there are sufficient police officerspatrolling the parking lot. This would reduce the occurrence of crimesignificantly (In Stimson, 2014). It is clear that this is tied tothe environmental approach to crime where the private ownersmanipulate the environment to deter criminals. The design of thebuilding and the outside space such as the parking lot paths havingbumps are measures to reduce criminal activities within the premise.


The spatial and the environmental approaches to crime have beenextremely successful. Numerous police departments in the UnitedStates, as well as across the world have adopted this approach in abid to deal with crime. Once the law enforcement officers single outcertain places as hot spots for criminal activities, they embark onefforts and strategies to combat the crime. It is clear that theapproach focuses on the element of space and the environment as theprimary factors affecting crime. The approach does not consider thesociological context and the behaviors in a certain place with regardto crime. This has made the approach to face enormous criticism fromscholars and academicians who argue that the approach is vague andcannot be subjected to scientific test (Trickett et al., 2008).However, the approach has been tested numerous times by the Americangovernment and proven successful and useful. This implies that theapproach portrays a true picture of how crime can be concentrated incertain places when there are favorable conditions or opportunitiesfor the offenders to commit a crime. For instance, an offender whosteals from a bank has seen an opportunity since the bank is thecustodian of money. Law enforcement officers have used the approachnumerous times and have managed to control the crime levels andreduced them in various cities significantly.

The approach has also pointed to the design of the urban centersespecially the residential areas in such a way that crime levels willbe reduced. According to the spatial or the environmental approach tocrime, the physical design of a place determines the safety and thecrime levels of such a place. For instance, the design of residentialhouses that are facing each other has been associated with reducedcrime levels due to the presence of natural surveillance.Additionally, with the advent of technology, it is essential to haveCCTV cameras in numerous places such as the shopping malls orresidential places to deter criminals.


Adler, F., &amp Laufer, W. S. (2012).&nbspNew directions incriminological theory. New Brunswick, N.J: TransactionPublishers.

Brantingham, P. J., &amp Brantingham, P. L. (2012).&nbspEnvironmentalcriminology. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland.

dynamics of collective efficacy for children, AmericanSociological Review, 633- 660.

Encyclopedia of Geographical Information Sciences. (2007). NewYork Berlin: Springer.

Geographic Approaches to Crime Reduction, Criminal JusticePress, Monsey, NY.

Greene, H. T., Gabbidon, S. L., &amp Project Muse. (2009).&nbspAfricanAmerican criminological thought. Albany: StateUniversity of New York Press.

In Stimson, R. J. (2014).&nbspHandbook of research methods andapplications in spatially integrated social science.

Mayes, L. C., &amp Lewis, M. (2012).&nbspThe Cambridge handbookof environment in human development. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Mukherjee, D. (2013).&nbspWomen and urban crimes. Delhi:Kalpaz Publications.

Pease, K. (2007). Repeat victimization: taking stock. Police ResGroup: Crime Detect Prev Ser Pap 90 1–48

Piquero, A. R., &amp Weisburd, D. (2010).&nbspHandbook ofquantitative criminology. New York: Springer.

Ratcliffe, J. (2005) Detecting spatial movement of intra-region crimepatterns over time. J. Quant Criminal 21(1):103–123.

Rengert, G. F., J. Ratcliffe and S. Chakravorty (2010), PolicingIllegal Drug Markets:

Sampson, R. J., J. D. Morenoff and F. Earls (2009), Beyond socialcapital: Spatial

Shaw, C. (2010). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas.Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Trickett, A. Ellingworth, D. &amp Hope, T. Pease K (2008). Crimevictimization in the eighties – changes in area and regionalinequality. Br J Criminal 35(3):343–359.

White, R. &amp Sutton, A. (2011). Crime prevention, urban space andsocial exclusion. Aust N Z J Social 31(1):82–99.