Designing out crime: Creating an environment that keeps criminals away

Hedges that are too high can obscure burglars.
Hedges that are too high can obscure burglars.

When it comes to preventing a burglar from breaking into your home, a little attention to landscape design can go a long way.

That’s a lesson Miami Beach police officer Julio Blanco tries to teach residents, business owners and even other city departments who design public space like parks.

Blanco, who has special certifications that make him an expert on the topic, said the fixes can often be simple and low cost, like keeping hedges no taller than two feet and trimming trees so that they don’t hang below eight feet. This creates sight lines for any witnesses in case someone tries to break into your house.

Lighting, which he called “the number one criminal deterrent,” makes a big difference. Instead of allowing motion sensors to trigger an outdoor light on your home, Blanco suggest leaving it on all night. That way, a potential criminal will likely think twice about trying to break into a house that is well-lit and easily visible from the street.

“It’s basically “designing-out” crime,” he told the Miami Herald. “You can change human behavior through design.”

Much like with low hedges, he also suggests using fences that allows visibility onto your property. So instead of tall slatted wooden fences, use wrought iron or a lower picket fence.

The elements of this philosophy, called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), aim to create an environment where crime is discouraged. From the law enforcement perspective, the concepts in CPTED help reduce crime by deterring it before it even happens.

“Jail can’t be the solution to everything,” Blanco said.

Other CPTED principles include access control. If a condo parking lot has several entrances, it’s easier for someone wanting to break into cars to get in if there was just one way in and out. Proper fencing and good lighting help even more.

A final layer of security includes technological aides, like security cameras. Signs that say cameras are in use help. And in the case of the condo parking lot, a well-placed guard can make the environment much less attractive for potential criminals.

Miami Beach police offer Blanco’s expertise to any resident or business in the city. But these techniques are being used for more than just private properties. New public projects are getting the CPTED treatment. Sometimes you’ll find big drawings for city projects in Blanco’s North Beach office, where he reviews the documents and offers design suggestions based on his training.

In a public park, for example, everything from the placement of pathways to programming shared spaces (like volleyball courts or dog parks) contribute to creating a safer overall environment.

Other law enforcement agencies in Miami-Dade are incorporating these environmental design concepts, as well as other governmental departments.

The use of CPTED design elements will be mandatory in a large upcoming project in Miami: the planned redevelopment of Liberty Square, the county’s oldest public housing project. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez recently endorsed a $307 million plan that will incorporate environmental design ideas.

“The developer will work closely with Miami and Miami-Dade police through the design to incorporate crime prevention through environmental design,” said Michael Liu, the county’s head of public housing. “That’s embedded into the agreement.”

Liu said CPTED is slowly catching on among city planners and public housing officials across the country.

“I think it’s moving in that direction, but don’t think it’s moving as fast as it should,” Liu said.

Blanco echoed Liu, saying he’d like to see both more consideration for CPTED in public projects and by private developers and homeowners.

Miami-Dade police also offer residents design tips to home safety in a pamphlet dubbed Closing the Door on Crime.

Among the suggestions: install sturdy doors, door frames and hardware; have a peephole; secure sliding glass doors with a lock and position outdoor lights carefully.

“Aim lights at garage doors, entryways and ground-level windows,” the pamphlet reads.

Thorny bushes under windows can also help.

Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report.