Center for Problem-Oriented Policing


The Place, Sense of Place, and Place-Making

To understand the urban park, one should start with the concept of place. At its most basic, place refers just to a location. In crime analysis,2 place is defined as "a very small area, such as an address, street corner, or block face." A hot spot is simply a place with a "geographic concentration of crime." The recent advent of geographic information systems has made it possible to be quite precise in locating concentrations of crime and disorder, even in public open space such as an urban park. Thus place becomes a very small area with a precise geographical location and boundary.

But place is much more than just a location. Places can acquire meaning. People develop their own sense of place.3 Potential users can see a park as either a place of safety or a risk to be avoided. A potential offender can see the park as an attractive place of criminal opportunity. It is critical to understand both the local community's and the offender's perceptions, because that will determine their use of the park.

Any place has a myriad of meanings attached to it - some widely shared and some idiosyncratic…When these different senses of place are both public and (to some degree) shared, there often is conflict over what the appropriate meaning of a place may be.4

Without such a personal sense of place, there is little investment in a location; instead, people see it as just a space, with no meaning or value. Without personal meaning there is little motivation to get involved in crime prevention or to cooperate with the police. In response, organizations such as the Project for Public Spaces in the United States, and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in the United Kingdom, have been developing a model of place-making.5 This is a community-organizing process that involves local people in the design and planning of the environment, to develop a positive sense of place. Policing the urban park is in many ways a "battle for the hearts and minds" over the particular park's meaning to potential users (whether social or antisocial).

When police involve the local community in the reduction of crime and disorder in a park, they are engaged in a problem-solving process at a very specific time and place; they are also promoting community safety and strengthening the local community's sense of place. Thus there can be both an immediate crime reduction and also a more general and lasting community benefit. There is even evidence that, if people can access a safe green space such as an urban park, then there will be less crime and disorder in the local area.6

The Urban Park

The first modern urban park was designed in the United Kingdom in the 1890s as a solution to the social problems generated by mass urbanization. Today the park serves a wide variety of social purposes. An urban park is defined here as follows:

A bounded area of public open space that is maintained in a "natural" or semi-natural (landscaped) state and set aside for a designated purpose, usually to do with recreation. Parks are often enclosed by a boundary barrier, which may be permeable or semi-permeable (a hedge, fence, or wall). An urban park is as much a designed space as an urban shopping mall or a recreational complex such as Disneyland.

In understanding an urban park, it is important to look at the following:

  • The original design and planned purpose for the park, and present maintenance
  • How the park is now being used, and by what groups
  • Any issues of crime and disorder
  • Whether the local community sees the park as risky, or as a safe and desirable place.

The local community is defined here as people who live within 10 minutes' walk of a park, since this population is most likely to use the park regularly and to act as the park's natural guardians. Users from farther away are less likely to develop a strong place identity with the park.

The "Safe" Park

A "safe" urban park is defined here as follows:

A dynamic place where the design, maintenance, and policing of the park work together so that the general public perceives the park as a safe place, wants to go to the park regularly, and spends their optional time in the park engaged in valued activities. Crime and disorder is limited, and diverse usage of the park by different groups is tolerated. Legal activities are the dominant activities in the park. Because the local community values the park, it has a sense of "ownership" of it, and there are sufficient numbers of users who act as "natural guardians" to ensure informal social control. They also support formal interventions by park management and police when such interventions are necessary.

These are signs that people consider a park safe:

  • Parents take children there
  • Females go there as often as males
  • Elderly people regularly visit the park
  • Workers have lunch or take breaks there.

The "Risky" Park

A "risky" urban park is defined here as follows:

A place where crime and disorder has become the norm to the degree that local users consider the park unsafe, try to avoid being in the park, and limit their time in the park to necessary activities. Crime and public disorder such as vandalism, littering, dog-fouling, alcohol and drug abuse, and public sex have become the dominant activities in the park.

† The term "dog fouling" is used in the United Kingdom. Leaving your dog’s solid waste is more than just littering; it’s a health issue.

It is important to remember that most parks don't become problematic places. As an example, the following chart shows the concentration of crime risk in 28 parks in Chula Vista (California). Most of the parks have a low number of violence/disorder calls. Only a few parks have become "risky facilities"7 or are seen by the public as being "bad" or unsafe. Though all could be classified as parks, only a few places were risky. These few were very different places.

Crime Risk in 28 Chula Vista Parks (Over Two Acres)

Crime Risk in 28
Chula Vista Parks (Over Two Acres)

The concept of risky facilities is a new theory of crime concentration that further develops the idea of a hot spot. Bars, drugstores, convenience stores, certain neighborhoods, and parks are examples of places that people have often seen as likely hot spots. But the reality is that only a small proportion of any specific type of facility will account for the majority of crime and disorder problems experienced or produced by the group of facilities as a whole, as shown in the Chula Vista park system.

What makes some facilities more risky than others? The following factors can help explain the differences between safe and risky parks:

Size: The park is large and attracts many users, some of whom become victims.

Suitable targets: The park contains a lot of things particularly vulnerable to theft or vandalism.

Location: The park is close to an area with a high crime rate.

Repeat victims: The park attracts a few victims involved in a large proportion of crimes.

Crime attractor: The park attracts many offenders or a few high-rate offenders.

Poor design: The park's physical layout makes offending easy, rewarding, or risk-free.

Poor management: Management practices or processes enable or encourage offending.

The park will affect the local community. The park's crime attractors and generators can elevate the perceived neighborhood crime and incivilities, and thereby increase the local community's fear of crime. An exploratory analysis of parks and crime in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania)8 suggests the following:

  • Parks can be crime generators. Crime, especially violence and disorder, clusters in parks and on immediately surrounding streets.
  • Parks with more activity generators, especially sport fields, experience less crime. This may result from higher guardianship levels and natural surveillance. This relationship is stronger for larger parks, perhaps because their size draws in even more people for more guardianship.
  • Parks in residential neighborhoods experience higher crime levels than in other neighborhoods. This may result from a retreat from informal control or from lower surveillance.

Parks, like other public open spaces, have a much greater positive or negative impact than previously recognized. The "risky" park should be a high policing priority.

If the "risky" park is large enough, then there may even be several distinct hot spots or unsafe places within the park as a whole. Several different crime problems may exist at each location, requiring a separate problem-solving process. However, it is also possible that diffusion will spread a successful intervention into other parts of the park. ††

†† See Problem-Solving Tools Guide #10 Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

A "bad" place or risky facility sends out cues inviting crime and disorder. An important part of place-level problem-solving is to identify these cues and then change the message to one that invites civility and order. The messages in a public space tell how people are actually using it. These are signs that indicate whether people see the park as risky:

  • People go through the park as quickly as possible
  • Drunken people hang out there
  • Young males dominate the setting
  • It is littered with syringes and beer bottles
  • Younger children don't play there.

Successful policing of parks is a deliberate combination of community policing and problem- oriented policing. Successful prevention in a park will usually involve (1) experimenting with different design, maintenance, and policing strategies until the right combination for that specific park and its crime and disorder problems is found, while (2) working with the different groups that use the public space to promote the active community participation necessary for long-term crime prevention and community safety.