Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Gathering Needed Information About Your Park

Every problem-oriented policing project is unique, and you should adapt this guide to address the specific problems your park poses. You should answer questions about its design and maintenance, as well as the "who," "what," "when," "where," "why," and "how" regarding its current use.

Walking in the Park

Understanding the park's physical design and layout as a whole helps to identify its risk and protective factors. For larger parks, there are maps and aerial photos, but it is usually necessary to walk around the area, looking at it from potential users' and abusers' perspectives. It is important to understand people's reactions. There is no good substitute for literally being in the park. "Walking the beat" is how police officers get to know their local community; the same applies to parks.

In doing so, it is necessary to ask a series of "what if I was" questions to explore the park's potential impact on diversity issues such as gender, culture, age, race, etc. As an example, a male police officer may need to consider how a female or older person might perceive the park both during the day and at night. Different users have different opinions about the park and its appropriate use. Identifying these differences is critical to finding and involving natural guardians from the local community. It is important to talk with offenders, victims, users, and local nonusers to determine what the park means to them.

The Physical Environment's Risk and Protective Features

You should audit the park's crime-prevention-through-environmental–design (CPTED) features to identify those factors that increase the probability of crime and disorder. These can be static (such as the geographic location, or offenders' age and sex) or dynamic (such as the maintenance quality or the offenders' attitudes). The audit can help to identify the factors you can change, as well as those that you should protect. The factors that can promote crime include those below.

† Some useful guides include Edmonton, Canada's Design Guide for a Safer City (1995) and its Safety Audit Guide for Crime Prevention (2000); The City of Nottingham's Design Guide for Community Safety in Residential Areas (1998); and material from the city of Toronto, available from the Project for Public Spaces. Also see Wekerle and Whitzman (1995).

Lighting

  • Is lighting adequate enough for a person to get a good look at someone else from a reasonable distance (12 to 15 feet away)?
  • Are landscaping elements chosen and maintained so that they don't block the light?
  • Are lights placed in areas where nighttime activity is appropriate, and not placed in inherently unsafe areas not intended to be used at night?
  • If the park is intended for night use, then how well does the lighting illuminate pedestrian walkways? Is it __very poor, __ poor, __ satisfactory, __ good, or __ very good?
  • Are there scheduled nighttime activities (e.g., baseball games or evening nature walks) that bring people into the park after dark?
  • In parks where nighttime activities such as tennis or evening walks are scheduled, are the activities clustered and properly lit?
  • Are nighttime activity areas near restaurants, movie theaters or other buildings used by the public?
  • Are principal access routes to nighttime activity areas properly identified, and is their use encouraged? Are they properly lit so that potential hiding areas are visible?
  • Are nighttime routes made more visible by improving sight lines to them and by giving priority to patrols?
  • Is there a buddy system or jogging club to ensure nighttime joggers' safety? This depends on the number of users, which may be greater in larger parks.

Sight Lines

Clear sight lines are important as they let people see, without interference, what lies ahead.

  • Is it possible to see most of a small park or play area from the street?
  • Do housing or commercial establishments overlook small parks or the edges of larger parks?
  • Do paths have unimpeded sight lines, especially where they curve or change grade, so that people can see into and out of an area?
  • Are landscape materials chosen and maintained so that they don't block sight lines from the street or along paths?

Movement Predictors

Movement predictors are those lanes, paths, or tracks that follow a predictable pattern. People can easily be trapped on movement predictors if there aren't clearly visible escape routes.

  • Do people have a choice of routes to and from areas of the park?
  • Is there more than one entrance or exit, especially when there is a fence around a play area or a small park?
  • Are there activity anchors located near movement predictors, where appropriate?

Entrapments

Entrapments are spaces usually concealed from view that offenders can use to hide, trap unwary people, and/or conceal crimes.

  • Do paths have a border of low-lying or high-branching vegetation, as opposed to trees and bushes that offenders can easily use as entrapment spots?
  • Are children's play structures designed to minimize entrapment spots in the play equipment or within a fenced area?
  • Are toilets designed to eliminate hidden corners or entrapment areas?

Signs

  • Do park entrance signs provide clear directions to major points of interest?
  • Do signs clearly indicate—using words, international symbols, and maps—the location of telephones, toilets, isolated trails, heavily used routes, and park activities?
  • Are signs located at decision points, such as the intersection of two major paths?
  • Do area locators have a map with an enlargement of the immediate area to indicate where people are in the park and where the closest park headquarters and exit routes are?
  • Do signs indicate where and how people can get help and report maintenance problems?
  • Are the park's hours of operation clearly posted?
  • Do park telephones have prominently displayed identification numbers known to police and park personnel?

Activity Generators

Activity generators are features that tend to create (or generate) activity. The activity may be positive or have negative consequences if it is inappropriate or a nuisance to others.

  • Are activities either located along park edges or clustered together?
  • Are children's playgrounds located near other activity generators such as refreshment stands?
  • In smaller parks or miniparks, does the design allow space for refreshment stands?
  • Does the park have flexible seating to give people choices?
  • Are restrooms and/or portable toilets located near telephones? People tend to use either one or both.
  • Do park planners site new toilet facilities near existing activities?
  • Can park personnel easily move isolated portable toilets?

Maintenance

  • Is there a clear party responsible for park maintenance?
  • Are there signs of physical disorder (e.g., garbage or graffiti)?
  • Do mown edges of three to four feet along paths or near plants and trees indicate that these areas are naturalized through intent rather than neglect?
  • Where an area has deteriorated because its capacity has been exceeded, can planners design the environment to be more resistant to deterioration, or can they move activities to other sites to allow regeneration?
  • Are there signs and garbage cans to encourage community responsibility?

Usage Diversity

  • Do larger parks provide recreational opportunities beyond team sports and children's play—e.g., community gardens, small zoos or farms, puppet shows and plays, and seniors' activities—to encourage a diversity of users?
  • Do park activities and design encourage a diversity of users, or do some users take over the park and drive out other users?
  • Are downtown parks designed to accommodate a range of activities (e.g., space for street vendors, street entertainers, concerts, picnics, food services, and green markets), even if they are intended primarily for passive use?
  • Do scheduled park activities accommodate a range of interests and park users?

Formal Surveillance

  • Do either the police or park personnel provide formal park surveillance?
  • Do park personnel know how to respond to various types of emergencies?
  • Do park personnel receive security training?
  • Is there a park safety plan that incorporates printed matter, signs, and interpretive programming?
  • Does the parks department have an officer responsible for safety throughout the parks system?

Isolation

People often decide to go to the more "wild" areas of the park to be alone with nature,  seeing only trees and shrubs and hearing only birds chirping. But isolation and reduced visibility also increase the risk of crime.

In Safe Cities: Guidelines for Planning, Design, and Management,, Wekele and Whitzman (1995) argued that planners should site activity areas near park perimeters, to enhance street surveillance. An active edge encourages use and creates a park surveillance perimeter. Instead of creating an active edge, planners often site major park activity nodes in the park's interior, not visible from the outside, and thus with little natural surveillance from the street.

There are more aspects to isolation that you should investigate while walking through the park:

  • Could anyone hear you if you shouted for help?
  • Do shrubs and fences enclose the park so that passersby cannot see into it?
  • Is the park above or below grade and hidden from the street?
  • Is there a visible "active edge" that attracts activity and allows use without penetrating the park's interior?
  • How far away is the nearest person to hear a call for help?
  • How far away is the nearest emergency aid, such as an alarm, security personnel, or crisis telephone?
  • Are there emergency telephones in isolated areas, including along trails?
  • Can you see a telephone or sign directing you to emergency assistance
  • Does anyone patrol the area? If so, how often?

Park Users

In formulating interventions, police and park staff need detailed information about who is and isn't using the park. The ability to give a number rather than saying "some" or "many" is critical for program design. If possible, you should gather the information in active collaboration with the park management and other interested stakeholders.

You should obtain the information through interviews, focus groups, or surveys. You should also try to include offenders in the interviews.16 Since the park is a public space intended to be accessible to all, identified offenders should always be welcome back if they are going to behave appropriately and be considerate of others. In one park CABE studied, by involving youths in the park's redesign and renovation, they committed less vandalism, they contained (legal) graffiti to designated areas, and less conflict occurred between them and the older users, since each group now had its own distinct activity area.17

In conducting an on-site survey of park users,†† here are some key points to remember:

(1) A survey should take only 10 to 12 minutes, at the most.  Pretest the survey to be sure it works within this time frame. At first, the interviewers may take 15 minutes to finish administering the survey, but after several days, they should take only 10 to 12 minutes. If not, then revise the survey.

(2) Begin with demographics.

Interviewers may be tempted to fill in many demographic points, such as age, race, and disability, but for accurate record keeping, they should ask respondents to provide this information. They will need to ask respondents where they live.

(3) Each survey should contain only a few questions related to a key theme.

Typical safety questions include the following:

  • What are your favorite areas of the park?
  • Are there places you don't feel comfortable going to, and if so, why?
  • Does the park have any special meaning to you?
  • Has the park changed since you first started going there?
  • Would you like to change anything about the park?

(4) Do exit rather than entrance surveys.

As they leave, people may be willing to reflect on what they did, and you can ascertain both what they were planning when they came to the park, and then their feedback about what they actually did.  Ask them where they went, and have them point out the locations on a precoded map.

(5) Ask everyone what they did at least three times to determine the full array of their activities.

When interviewees tell you what they did, ask, "What else did you do?" Be sure to probe, especially so you hear about so-called passive uses. To "I played ball," ask, "What else did you do?" and you might hear, "Well, I took a walk."

(6) Look at local versus regional use.

People who live near a park use it the most. They are used to the park, and have a sense of which areas are safe and how to handle themselves. So when they hear that a bad incident happened in the park, they tend to think of it as unusual rather than routine, and they keep going there. People who live farther away aren't as familiar with the park, and vote with their feet by not going there after its safety is put into question.

(7) Consider asking people how they find out about park activities. From fliers? From posters? From the media?

The responses will help you gear your communication strategies to the appropriate audience(s).

†† See guides such as Conducting Community Surveys: A Practical Guide for Law Enforcement Agencies (Weisel 1999), or Surveying Communities: A Resource for Community Justice Planners (Paik 1995) for suggestions.

About 35 percent of the interviewees in a 1995 New York City Central Park survey had such deep, positive feelings about the park that they said they were willing to volunteer for it, and gave the interviewer their name, address, and phone number.18 Such motivated people will become the core of the community involvement necessary for long-term park safety.