Earlier this month a law enforcement officer in Saskatchewan, Canada contacted me about how he could help an architecture firm plan a new school that, by design, might prevent crime from occurring in or near the building. Given the seriousness of school safety, designing with security in mind is prudent. And, although there is much environmental psychological research on criminal behavior in relation to territoriality and defense of physical spaces (e.g., defensible space theory), studies applied to schools can be challenging to find and apply.

Most environmental psychologists and design professionals have thought about how to manipulate physical settings to affect certain behaviors. When the behavior in question is criminal in nature, the intersection between social science and architecture falls within the discipline called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Arguments embedded in CPTED theory assume that the way physical environments are designed can change the way people make decisions and behave.

So, how does CPTED work in practice? By what mechanism can architectural features of a space increase feelings of safety and, subsequently, decrease crime? The answer is three-pronged: Access control, surveillance, and territorial reinforcement. For example, Fisher and Nasar (1992) found that fear of crime can be highest in spaces affording refuge for potential offenders and minimal prospect for potential victims. So, in numerous setting types, including schools, design efforts that eliminate spaces about which no one feels vigilant may increase a sense of ownership and transparency among users.

Although I am not describing in detail these three approaches to CPTED, they can be similarly applied to a variety of settings, like neighbourhoods, stores, residences, streets, as well as schools. However, while I was replying to the fellow in Saskatchewan, it occurred to me (as it may have to you) that some assumptions of CPTED could be altered slightly for optimal application to school settings.

For instance, at the neighbourhood level, CPTED theory suggests that crime prevention can be done partly by encouraging residents to communicate ownership of residences and public spaces to create an understanding of neighbourhood pride and territoriality. It seems to me that many schools do this, with or without encouragement, within a community. School exteriors are often decorated with murals or other artworks created by students. School signs, banners, and mascots also serve to communicate students’ and staffs’ sense of ownership and pride in the school.

In addition, Brown and Altman (1978; 1981) found that physical modifications suggesting resident care and watchfulness help to promote safer residential settings. Again, I believe schools already promote these aspects based on the nature of activity that occurs within them. Teachers and other staff members typically accompany students outside during recess and lunch hour; crossing guards are usually on duty during certain after-school hours. CPTED theory also suggests that crime prevention increases when people can distinguish neighbors from strangers. Arguably, most people attending or working in a school are aware of who belongs on the premises and who does not.

My point is that CPTED principles, as applied to schools, may require adjustment because of the unfortunate probability that someone who is planning a crime toward a school building or its users belongs there as a student, parent, or staff member. This means that CPTED’s suggestions for design alterations to prevent crime may not be as successful when a perpetrator already knows their way around a school and may not be perceived as an unfamiliar person by others in or around the building, or would not be as deterred by markers of upkeep, legibility, territory, or ownership.

Of course, there is more to CPTED than what I’ve laid out here, and individual differences in motivation and interpretations of architectural features will always impact outcomes of CPTED research. As Taylor (2002) notes, design is not the strongest predictor of crime compared to social, cultural, economic, or mental health factors. But CPTED has much to offer designers, environmental psychologists, and people in positions considering public safety – and I’m pleased someone returned it to my attention.


Brown, B. B., & Altman, I. (1978). Territoriality and residential burglary: A conceptual framework. In Crime prevention through environmental design theory compendium. Arlington, VA: Westinghouse.

Brown, B. B., & Altman, I. (1981). Territoriality and residential crime: A conceptual framework. In P. L. Brantingham, & P. J. Brantingham (Eds.), Environmental criminology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Fisher, B, & Nasar, J. (1992). Fear of crime in relation to three exterior site features: Prospect, refuge, and escape. Environment and Behavior, 24, 35-65.

Taylor, R. B., (2002). Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED): Yes, no, maybe, unknowable, and all of the above. In R. B., Bechtel (Ed.), Handbook of environmental psychology. New York: John Wiley, pp. 413-426.

About the Author

Lindsay J. McCunn

Lindsay J. McCunn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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