Architecture as Crime Control

By Katyal, Neal Kumar | The Yale Law Journal, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Architecture as Crime Control


Katyal, Neal Kumar, The Yale Law Journal


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, one of the most important and underexplored forms of crime control is architecture. Building on work in architectural theory, this Article demonstrates how additional attention to cities, neighborhoods, and individual buildings can reduce criminal activity. In so doing, it considers as "architecture" the full range of activities, from building design to city planning, with which architects are concerned.

Understanding the relationship between crime and architecture is especially important as it becomes increasingly clear that conventional law enforcement methods are, at best, partially effective in the fight against crime. Over the past century, advances in architecture have far outpaced those in law; from cranes to bulldozers, plastics to steel, we have developed sophisticated tools and machines to shape the topography of the land. Rather than following longstanding precedent, architecture has often stressed innovation and has been subject to market forces that promote better and cheaper designs.

This Article seeks to provide an account of effective crime control that focuses more on architecture and less on conventional methods of law enforcement. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." (1) Architectural solutions can prove more practical than the utopian ideas often considered when crime control gets interdisciplinary, e.g., better parenting and families and stronger law enforcement (from the political right), or more jobs and education (from the political left). These projects, though worthwhile, are often difficult to accomplish. Architectural improvements that control crime, in contrast, can be adopted and implemented locally with real effect. The idea is not to spend more money--a major impediment to the solutions described above--but to spend it differently.

Many civilizations have used design to reinforce particular belief systems. (2) Indeed, a standard notion in the emerging field of cyberlaw, associated most directly with Lawrence Lessig, is that the "architecture" of the Internet can prevent crime. A focus on architecture might seem to make unique sense for the Internet: As Lessig observes, the Internet, an artificial environment, is all architecture (or code) and thus infinitely malleable, at least in theory. (3) Yet the real world may be more amenable to architectural constraints than the Internet. Architectural changes are far more enduring than code, which can be hacked instantaneously with potentially permanent effects. Once the code is cracked, information can be disseminated across the globe and becomes infinitely copyable. Thus, while the real world does not consist only of architecture, it can be subject to more lasting architectural solutions than cyberspace. It is time to reverse-engineer cyberlaw's insights, and to assess methodically whether changes to the architecture of our streets and buildings can reduce criminal activity.

Outside of cyberlaw, contemporary legal scholars and government have not given sufficient attention to architecture, instead thinking primarily about the effect of legal sanctions on crime, and only incidentally about how other social institutions affect crime. In recent years, the discussion has evolved to consider the impact of perpetration cost (the monetary price of engaging in a particular crime) and the role of social norms. (4) An examination of architecture can supplement this progress, suggesting, for example, that the high crime rates of inner cities are related to the physical environment and not simply to the conventional explanations (poverty, unemployment, poor schools, and the like).

Yet the instinctive reaction of many lawyers is to focus on legal rules, without thinking about the constraint of physical space. Ironically, even an architectural problem in crime control--" broken windows" --has encouraged legal, not architectural, solutions. James Wilson and George Kelling's classic article argued that physical signs of disorder--typified by the broken window--prompt further crimes. …

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