Crime and urban design: Oscar Newman 36 years later

<p> I recently read Oscar Newman’s 1970s book on crime prevention, “Defensible Space.”  In this book, Newman addressed the question of why some public housing projects are insanely dangerous, and others only moderately so.   Although Newman’s analysis is mostly confined to low-income housing, commentators of all stripes have relied on his work:  new urbanist commentator Laurence Aurbach asserts that Newman’s work supports new urbanists’ emphasis on heavily trafficked, walkable streets (1) while Randall O’Toole considers Newman to be a defender of single-use, cul-de-sac sprawl (2).                                                        <br />

August 13, 2008, 9:18 PM PDT

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn

I recently read Oscar Newman's 1970s book on crime prevention, "Defensible Space."  In this book, Newman addressed the question of why some public housing projects are insanely dangerous, and others only moderately so.   Although Newman's analysis is mostly confined to low-income housing, commentators of all stripes have relied on his work:  new urbanist commentator Laurence Aurbach asserts that Newman's work supports new urbanists' emphasis on heavily trafficked, walkable streets (1) while Randall O'Toole considers Newman to be a defender of single-use, cul-de-sac sprawl (2).                                                        

In Defensible Space, Newman seems to partially endorse the new urbanist theory that heavy pedestrian traffic creates "eyes on the street" and thus enhances security.  He writes that housing project lobbies should should face public streets, because "streets provide security in the form of prominent paths for concentrated pedestrian and vehicular movements; windows and doorways, when facing streets, extend the zone of residents' territorial commitments and allow for the continual casual surveillance by police in passing cars." (3)

In particular, housing projects should be designed so that residents can see bordering streets from their windows; where housing projects look inward on themselves, "these bordering streets have been deprived of continual surveillance by residents and have proven unsafe to walk along". (4)
At a minimum, lobbies should be in a straight line from public streets because "Winding access paths provide many opportunities for muggers to conceal themselves while awaiting the arrival of a victim." (5).  

By contrast,  O'Toole asserts that Newman believed that mixed-use neighborhoods "suffered from higher crime than single-use neighborhoods."(6) Newman wrote that people generally feel safer on "heavily trafficked public streets and arteries combining both intense vehicular and pedestrian movement; commercial retailing areas during shopping hours; institutional areas; and government offices" (7) because "the presence of many people is seen as a possible force in deterring criminals." (8)   Although Newman does not directly address mixed use in this part of his book, the notion that "heavily trafficked" streets are safer appears to be to support mixed use, because mixed use increases pedestrian traffic.

Newman goes on to write that even if a commercial street has a higher crime rate per resident, this may reflect the fact that "the number of pedestrians passing any point on the commercial street is over twenty times the average of surrounding streets and areas." (9) Thus, "the chance of occurrence per [street] user may be lower." (10) Moreover, the type of crime may differ in a more deserted, single-use area: while purse snatchings may occur on heavily trafficked streets, "aggravated assault would not be tolerated by witnesses (shopkeepers and other shoppers) on a well-trafficked commercial street" (11), while crime on deserted streets might be more likely to involve physical harm.

O'Toole cites page 112 of Defensible Space for the proposition that crime is higher in mixed-use areas.(12) On this page, Newman qualifies his prior assertion, stating:

two hamburger joints on the west side of the project, and the teenage play areas to the east, together generate high crime and vandalism rates in the immediately adjacent buildings.  The New York City Housing Authority police has found that those of its projects located adjacent to commercial streets suffer proportionally higher crime rates ... The simple decision to locate commercial or institutional facilities within a project in order to increase activity and so provide the safety which comes with numbers  must be critically evaluated in terms of the nature of the business, the intended users [and other factors]." (13)

English translation: commercial activities that attract teenagers might lead to higher crime rates than, say, a department store, because teenagers are more likely to commit crimes than middle-aged shoppers.(14)

Newman's position on density is less equivocal than his position on mixed use; he writes that  "a correlation between density and crime rate for all New York City projects reveals that there is no evident pattern until one reaches a density of fifty units per acre"(15) - far more dense than most urban neighborhoods outside New York City, let alone suburbs (16).  Thus, Newman appears to reject the notion that any increase in density automatically means more crime.   

In sum, Newman's book hardly champions of low-density, single-use sprawl.   In Defensible Space, he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of having common areas be visible to neighbors, he suggests that mixed use can at least sometimes (though not always) be good for neighborhood safety, and he does not believe density is harmful at the levels most common in even urban neighborhoods. But he is not a consistent an urbanist as Jane Jacobs; he views some uses as crimogenic, and does believe that density can be harmful in unusually high doses.


(1) See Laurence Aurbach, Connectivity Part 5, at
(2) See Randall O'Toole, The Best Laid Plans 144-47 (2008).
(3) Oscar Newman, Defensible Space 25 (1972).
(4) Id. at 80.
(5) Id. at 82.
(6) O'Toole at 145.
(7) Newman at 109.
(8) Id.
(9) Id.
(10) Id.
(11) Id.
(12) O'Toole at 370.
(13) Newman at 112.
(14) Id. at 110-11 (discussing crime by teenagers, and suggesting that such crime more frequent in low-income housing projects where facilities catering to teenagers present).
(15) Id. at 195.
(16) Aurbach, The Density of Traditional Urbanism, at (Comparing density in numerous neighborhoods within Washington, DC metro area; even in walkable urban areas, density below 50 units per acre more often than not).

Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at

A image of the World's Columbian Exposition overlayed with a picture of Keanu Reeves in the rain from the movie Point Break.

Keanu Reeves Set to Play Daniel Burnham in ‘The Devil in the White City’

Planning is going to get a new level of star power as a limited series adaptation of The Devil in the White City gets ready for television screens in 2024.

August 8, 2022 - Reel Chicago


Opinion: Aging Population, Declining Fertility Requires Long-Term Investments

Faced with the dire consequences of a one-two punch of aging populations and declining birthrates, one writer has suggestions for how policy can help ensure a better future.

August 9, 2022 - Financial Times

View from middle of street in downtown Telluride, Colorado with mountains in background

Marrying Urban Identity and Economic Prosperity

A new book posits that truly successful communities have a strong economic base and a firmly rooted sense of place.

August 5, 2022 - Governing

Aerial view of downtown San Antonio with Tower Life Building in foreground

San Antonio Office Tower To Become Residential

With the building more than half vacant, the new owners of the Tower Life Building plan to convert the historic tower into residences that could include affordable housing.

20 minutes ago - San Antonio Report


Freeway Removal Movement Slowly Gains Steam

Although the concept has recently received more national attention thanks in part to the federal Reconnecting Communities Act, cities have shown reluctance to support highway removal projects.

1 hour ago - Governing

Accessible elevator sign with arrow on a New York City subway platform

MTA Uses Density Bonuses to Improve Accessibility

Under a new zoning law, New York City developers can receive density bonuses for building elevators and other accessibility upgrades for the city’s subway system.

2 hours ago - Queens Eagle

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.