#093 May/Jun 1997

Defensible Space

In the Five Oaks community of Dayton, Ohio, during 1991, violent crimes increased by 77 percent, robberies by 77 percent, vandalism by 38 percent, and overall crime by 16 percent. […]

Photo by Flickr user Elyse Horvath, CC BY-SA 2.0


Photo by Flickr user Elyse Horvath, CC BY-SA 2.0

In the Five Oaks community of Dayton, Ohio, during 1991, violent crimes increased by 77 percent, robberies by 77 percent, vandalism by 38 percent, and overall crime by 16 percent. Drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes had taken over the streets with abandon. Gun shots could be heard at all times of the day and night; racing cars and blaring boom-boxes disturbed everyone’s sleep. Children stayed locked up in their homes.

It was then that the city of Dayton invited me to apply the defensible space concept to the Five Oaks Community. Working with the community and city staff, we reorganized Five Oaks into 10 mini neighborhoods: cul-de-sac streets with gates to block the heavy through-traffic that had plagued the area.

Within the next two years, overall crime fell by 25 percent and violent crime by 50 percent, according to the city’s Office of Management and Budget. Traffic was reduced by 67 percent, and traffic accidents by 40 percent. Robbery, burglary, assault, and auto theft were found to be the lowest in five years, while crime had increased 1 percent in Dayton overall. Individual families’ investment in their homes had substantially increased, and for the first time in many years, houses in the neighborhood were attracting families with children.

Over the past 10 years, the Defensible Space principles upon which the Five Oaks reorganization was based has enabled communities across the country to take back control of deteriorating neighborhoods.

Evolution of the Concept

The defensible space concept evolved some 30 years ago, when I witnessed the decline of the newly constructed, 3,000-unit Pruitt-Igoe public housing high-rise development in St. Louis. Its design by one of the country’s preeminent architects followed the planning principles of Le Corbusier and the International Congress of Modern Architects, and was hailed as an example of the new enlightenment. Residents were raised into the air in 11-story buildings to keep the grounds and the first floor free for community activities. The buildings had communal corridors on every third floor to house laundry, storage, garbage, and communal rooms.

Occupied by single-parent welfare families, the design proved a disaster. The common grounds, which were disassociated from all units, were unsafe. They were soon covered with glass and garbage. The mailboxes on the ground floor were vandalized. The corridors, lobbies, elevators, and stairs were dangerous places to walk through and were covered in graffiti and littered with garbage and human waste. The elevators, laundry, and community rooms were vandalized, and garbage was stacked high around the non-working garbage chutes. Women had to get together in groups to take their children to school or go shopping. The project never achieved more that 60 percent occupancy and was torn down some 10 years after its construction. It was a precursor of what was to happen everywhere else in the country.

Across the street from Pruitt-Igoe was an older, smaller, row-house complex occupied by an identical population, Carr Square Village. It remained fully occupied and trouble-free throughout construction, occupancy, and decline of Pruitt-Igoe. With the social variables constant in the two developments, what was the significance of the physical differences that had enabled one to survive while the other fell apart?

Even in Pruitt-Igoe’s heyday of pervasive crime and vandalism, if one could get oneself invited into an apartment, one found it well-maintained – modestly furnished perhaps, but with great pride. One could only conclude that residents maintained, controlled, and identified with those areas that were clearly demarcated as their own. Landings shared by only two families were well maintained, whereas corridors shared by 20 families, and lobbies, elevators, and stairs shared by 150 families were disasters – they evoked no feelings of identity or control. Such anonymous public spaces made it impossible for residents to develop an accord on what was acceptable behavior in these areas, impossible for them to feel or exert proprietary feelings, impossible to tell resident from intruder.

In high-rise apartments occupied by higher-income families, the interior public areas (corridors, stairs, elevators, lobbies) are controlled by management and staff; doormen, porters, resident superintendents, elevator operators. But funds for such staff do not exist in public housing. Given this limitation, the question emerged: Is it possible to design public housing without any interior public areas and to have all the grounds assigned for the exclusive use of individual families?

Also in St. Louis were a series of turn-of-the-century neighborhoods made up of small chateaux. These former homes of robber barons – the rail, beef, and shipping kings – were positioned on privately-held streets, closed to through-traffic. St. Louis in the mid-60s was a city coming apart. It had one of the nation’s highest crime rates. But the private streets appeared oblivious to the chaos; they continued to function as peaceful, crime-free environments – a nice place to raise kids, if you could afford a castle. Even though everyone was free to drive or walk into these streets (they had no guard booths), one knew that one was intruding into a private world, and that one’s actions were under constant observation. I wondered why this model could not be used to stabilize adjacent working- and middle-class neighborhoods that were undergoing massive decline and abandonment. And was private ownership the key, or simply the closing off of streets and the creation of controlled enclaves?

I identified the essential ingredients of this model through research funded by the National Science Foundation and used to stabilize transitional communities throughout St. Louis, in both white and black areas. And in Dayton’s Five Oaks community, Defensible Space modifications have not only reduced crime and stimulated private reinvestment, but have also maintained racial and economic integration and offered an inexpensive way to create housing for the poor, sans central government intervention.

The Five Oaks Community

Five Oaks is a half-square-mile residential area located a few miles north of downtown Dayton. Like most American cities, Dayton experienced rapid suburban expansion following World War II, resulting in a major exodus of its middle-class population, accompanied by the relocation of shopping facilities and office buildings. Five Oaks’ problems are typical of older urban communities near the downtown core: disinvestment; heavy through-traffic; rising crime and the visible presence of drug dealers and prostitutes; the departure of white middle- and working-class property owners with low-income, minority renters; and property conversions to multi-family use. Between 1980 and 1990, the U.S. Census showed, Five Oaks’ population went from mostly white homeowners to 50 percent African-American and 60 percent renters.

Five Oaks’ location between the suburbs and downtown turned its interior streets into a through-traffic network, as commuters avoided the larger, traffic-laden arterials at the periphery of the community. The general effect was to burden the streets of Five Oaks so heavily as to make them unsuitable for the normal, quiet residential uses common to cul-de-sac streets in suburban communities – which was where most of the automobile through-traffic was headed.

Ironically, because of its location and mixed socioeconomic makeup, Five Oaks was seen as an ideal community for drug dealing directed at middle-income outsiders. To the immediate west of Five Oaks is a community that also had drug dealers working its streets but had become predominately African-American, 30 percent vacant, and severely deteriorated. White, middle-class buyers perceived it as too dangerous a place to buy drugs and solicit prostitutes. So the activity moved to Five Oaks.

Unable to sell their homes for prices that would pay off their mortgages, homeowners moved away and rented the homes out – often in subdivided form, and this often illegally. The result of these inexpensive and inadequate conversions was the rapid, and visibly evident, deterioration of the housing stock.

Five Oaks’ approximately 2,000 households are composed of a variety of different types of one- and two-family housing. Some streets have large, stately homes, constructed of brick and stone and situated on large lots. Others have wood frame houses on small lots. Still other streets contain two-story, two-family houses that share a common wall, while others house two- and three-story apartment buildings. Some of the arterial streets have medium high-rise apartment buildings.

This deterioration of rental housing in Five Oaks led to a reluctance on the part of neighboring homeowners to keep up their own properties. The community had entered into a spiral of decline that appeared irreversible. Every owner-occupied house was up for sale, and houses were selling for one-half to one-quarter of their replacement costs. The only buyers were slumlords.

Community and municipal efforts to acquire and refurbish housing had barely any impact. Five times as many houses were being lost as were being regained. Slumlords found that drug dealers were undemanding tenants, and let their properties decline still further – pulling adjacent housing down with them.

The city feared that if Five Oaks fell, there would be a domino effect on surrounding communities. There was an immediate need for a change to the community infrastructure that would visibly alter the entire pattern of use and be evident at the scale of the entire community.

The city decided to embark on a program that would restructure the physical layout of Five Oaks to create ten mini-neighborhoods more closely resembling suburban communities. Streets and alleys would be closed with gates, and most of the internal residential streets in Five Oaks would be converted to cul-de-sacs.

Such a restructuring would accomplish a few important things: it would remove vehicular through-traffic completely; it would completely change the character of the streets (instead of being long, directional avenues laden with traffic, they would become places where children could safely play and neighbors interact); it would define the mini-neighborhood streets as being under the control of the residents, and fewer cars would mean easier recognition of neighbors – and strangers. Access to the newly-defined mini-neighborhoods, composed of from three to six streets, would be limited to one entry portal off an arterial street.

Limiting access and egress to one opening would mean that criminals and their clients would have to enter a small mini-neighborhood to transact their business, and they would have to leave it the same way they came in. There would no longer be a multitude of escape routes. A call to the police by residents would mean that criminals would meet police on their way out. It was reasoned that such a street system would be perceived by criminals and especially their clientele as too risky.

The subdivision of a community into mini-neighborhoods is intended to encourage the interaction of neighbors. Parents watch their children playing in the now quiet streets and get to know each other. They no longer feel locked in their houses, facing the world alone. Tensions between renters and property owners, and the concern over incivilities, diminish as both parties living on the same closed street come to know each other through greater association and are able to develop standards of mutually acceptable behavior.

Community Participation in Designing Mini-Neighborhoods

Altogether, 35 streets and 25 alleys were closed in Five Oaks. The major arterials that defined the periphery of the community were retained intact and allowed east-west and north-south movement past the community.

After the Gates

Along with reductions in crime in the 11 months following the restructuring of Five Oaks, housing sales increased by 55 percent and housing values increased by 15 percent, compared to 4 percent in the region. In addition to the data collected by the city, a survey of residents by the University of Dayton before the changes and afterwards found that 53 percent thought there was less crime, and 61 percent thought the neighborhood was a better place to live in. Drug-dealing, theft from houses and cars, and harassment were each found to be less of a problem than it had been a year previously. Most importantly, there was no difference in the perception of change between whites and blacks or between renters and homeowners.

The usual complaint about such programs, that they displace crime into the surrounding neighborhoods, proved untrue. Crime in the surrounding communities decreased 1.2 percent. The police explain this saying that the perception among criminals is that the residents of Five Oaks have taken control of their streets, and because the criminals and their clients don’t know the neighborhood’s exact boundaries, they have moved out of the surrounding area as well. The positive effects of the Five Oaks section spilled over into the bordering communities – some of whom are now adopting a similar restructuring.

Perhaps the most exciting spin-off benefit in the Five Oaks revitalization is the restored viability of two-family houses. These duplexes typically house the owner-occupant in one unit and the renter in another – and there is often a racial as well as an economic difference between the owner and renter. The units rent for less than HUD’s Section 8 allowance, and certainly less than what it costs to maintain a public housing unit. Thus by stabilizing this community at very low cost we were able to not only preserve a community for working- and middle-class inhabitants, but to create integrated housing for lower-income residents in neighborhoods that are safe, have good schools and municipal services, and are close to jobs.

The entire cost of this project was $693,375 – approximately $10,000 per street. In effect, the increase in value of just one home in one year, on a street of 30 homes, paid for the cost of that street closure.

The City of Dayton paid for the street closures with Community Development Block Grant money. But in other communities with which I have worked, the cities insisted that benefiting residents pay for the improvements themselves – amounting to about $500 per household. This was sometimes raised through a one-time levy, and at other times through a special district tax over 10 years. Resident participation in the financing is a good idea for two reasons: it is a deterrent to the city changing its mind and removing the closures some time later, and it gives residents a stronger stake in the closures.

Five Oaks demonstrates that once people come together within their own mini-neighborhood, they reach out to other neighborhoods and to the larger urban community. In other cities, mini-neighborhood plans have not only arrested decline; they have made people realize they could be effective in intervening to change things. It has also led them to become active in city politics.

Five Oaks is typical of urban communities throughout the country, and this process can be replicated at low cost, with immediate effectiveness, and with the universal support of residents, city staff, and local politicians. The nation is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to create a few new units in areas where people no longer want to live and have no place to work, when we could be spending one-thousandth of that amount to preserve 10 times as much housing. And we could create economically and racially integrated communities in the bargain.

(See also a letter to the editor about this article, article this issue with differing thoughts, and later news on the topic.)

Limits of mini-neighborhoods

The creation of mini-neighborhoods will not survive a cookie-cutter approach; the concept does not lend itself to every situation. Existing homeownership is a critical ingredient to the success of mini-neighborhoods. Certain conditions must be in place and planning must involve the community in a particular way to be successful.

A minimal percentage of homeowners. The presence of 40 percent resident homeowners may prove to be a minimum requirement. This is because in many communities, renters normally have 6-month to one-year leases – not long enough to develop a commitment to their neighborhood or an incentive to maintain their houses or grounds. It might be possible for this 40 percent minimum of homeowners to be reduced if there is a community tradition of renters occupying their units for periods of five years or more, and/or if there is a strong community identity among renters, coupled with strong social organizations. In Baltimore, for instance, some renters have occupied neighborhoods for a few generations and have strong community and religious organizations within them.

A predominance of single-family units. The percentage of single-family houses versus multi-family housing on each street is an important factor because in single-family houses, the front yard belongs to the family. Closing the street makes it easy for that family to extend its realm of concern from its front yard into the street. In streets composed of multi-family dwellings, residents’ adoption of the closed street as an extension of their dwellings is not second nature. The entries to these buildings serve many families and are often located at the side rather than facing the street. The grounds are usually public and not associated with particular families.

High-quality schools. If a mini-neighborhood is meant to attract working- and middle-class families with children, it is necessary to have good schools in the area. Dayton’s public schools are not highly regarded, but Five Oaks had three parochial schools within its boundaries, and 30 percent of the students in these schools came from the community. Residents felt that these schools were a necessary ingredient in the success of the mini-neighborhood effort. In communities without parochial schools, a magnet school of good quality can serve the same purpose. In some gated communities in St. Louis that had neither magnet schools nor parochial schools, parents worked to improve the local public schools’ performance.

Reflecting people’s perceptions. It is critical that residents from every street participate in defining and planning their own mini-neighborhoods. This can be a time-consuming process that many cities would prefer to avoid. In cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, where highway departments designed the street closures without community involvement, the results have often been unsuccessful.

Working with local institutions. In creating mini-neighborhoods, it is important to work closely with the institutions in the area. The schools, hospitals, and universities can be a real resource in many ways. They usually have a stronger commitment to the neighborhood than do individual homeowners. They are also often in a position to subsidize their staff to buy homes in the community.

Race and attitude toward mini-neighborhoods. Where the residents of African-American communities are working- and middle-class, they have proven to be as strong advocates of mini-neighborhoods as whites of similar incomes in predominately white communities. In communities that are about 70 percent African-American and undergoing rapid transition, some African-American residents perceive the proposed gates as a device either for locking them in or locking them out.

To avoid criticism of favoritism from various other neighborhoods throughout a city, it is important for a city to target African-American and Hispanic-American communities as well as predominately white communities for Defensible Space modifications. In Dayton, I prepared plans that called for the modification of a public housing project as well as Five Oaks. In this way it cannot be said that the city’s security programs are being directed only at middle-income families. Five Oaks was selected to be the first test of the mini-neighborhood concept in Dayton just because it was 50/50 African-American and white. City officials feared that if it were a predominately white community, their choice would have been severely criticized and implementing the modifications would have been difficult.


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