Defensible Space in Urban Design

Susie Kahlich
11 min readMay 2, 2022

This is a story about how one man’s vision has changed the way the world perceives safety, the dangers of gender-biased data, and the surprising history of car alarms.

Photo by Dominik Martin on Unsplash

In the early 1970s, American architect and city planner Oscar Newman published his book, Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space. A thesis addressing crime in America’s urban centers, it focused specifically on the high rise. Newman hated high rises, and he loved design. He passionately believed that the way an environment was designed could influence human behavior, for better or worse; especially the people who lived and worked and interacted with it on a daily basis.

His theories were initially not well-received, coming at a time when urban blight and crime was on the rise, and high-crime high rises were mostly housing projects in predominantly black, latino and asian neighborhoods in larger cities. Newman’s position went against the long-standing, racist practices of urban renewal and slum clearance, arguing that crime and vandalism were not the inevitable way of life among marginalized groups, but were due to no or poor design.

Prevailing minds of the time believed in racism; Newman believed in defensible space.

At roughly the same time Newman was publishing his book, the American automotive industry was undergoing a major, after-sale innovation: the car alarm. Although versions of car alarms had been around for decades, they had been redesigned and now were all the rage: the idea of interrupting the theft of a car with a loud alarm was affordably simple and immediately gratifying, in that once installed, the car owner could breathe a sigh of relief: they did something. The alarms sold like hot cakes, and by the 1980s were so ubiquitous they became a staple, if unwelcome, note of every urban symphony.

But the funny thing was, they didn’t work. They’ve never worked.

Newman’s Defensible Space theory was expanded up on by C. Ray Jeffery, who used Newman’s research to develop Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, the evolutionary difference between the two theses being an incorporation of psychology into the foundations of the CPTED approach, thanks to Jeffery’s background as a criminologist…

Susie Kahlich

CEO of SINGE | Founder of Pretty Deadly Self Defense @ | Former producer of art podcast Artipoeus: art you can hear @