Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Design and Maintenance

Until now, this guide has discussed the part that police and natural guardians play in efforts to rehabilitate a park. This section deals with design and maintenance, two other critical factors in restoring a park for community use.

The Park's Physical Design

Physical design will either be a risk or a protective factor. In fact, it may be difficult to do much about some of the risk factors, which can result from decisions made many decades ago when the park was originally laid out. Until recently, designers and planners didn't consider crime prevention as part of the design or planning process. But that is no longer true. In the United Kingdom, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) has prepared several detailed reports on park design and maintenance to reduce crime and disorder. Much of the crime prevention and planning literature, and the U.K. police experience with programs such as the Design Against Crime and Secured by Design, can also apply to parks.13 The planning department in the U.K.'s City of Nottingham14 has two graphics in its Design Guide for Community Safety in Residential Areas that illustrate the problematic and good design of two hypothetical parks occupying the same public open space. Here are some problematic design features the graphics identify:

  • Narrow, unobserved footpaths hemmed in between high solid fences and dense planting
  • Dense tree and shrub planting that obscures the view of open spaces from adjacent houses
  • Footpaths that converge in hidden spaces, leaving no option to avoid the secluded areas
  • Secluded areas that encourage misuse, posing threats to pedestrians using footpaths and adjoining property
  • Children's play areas hidden from view
  • Footpath alignments and dense planting that obstruct sight lines along routes to the exit
  • Houses whose backs face the park and don't allow useful surveillance of the area
  • Pedestrian routes that include unobserved areas blocked by high fences.

† CABE (http://www.cabe.org.uk/) is a very good resource for anyone seeking a better understanding of urban design and parks.

Dense tree and shrub planting that obscures the view from open spaces
may encourage misuse and pose threats to pedestrians using footpaths.

Dense tree and shrub planting that obscures the view from open spaces may encourage misuse and pose threats to pedestrians using footpaths. (Credit: Nancy Leach)

In contrast, here are some good design features the Nottingham graphic identify:

  • Railings around the park that prevent vehicle access and keep children away from roads;
  • No secluded spaces on key footpath routes or against house boundaries
  • Traffic-calming measures on residential distributor roads or through-routes, including speed control bumps, surfacing changes, etc.
  • Trees planted on the perimeters, selected and spread out to allow views across the park
  • Perimeter roads that provide increased visibility and alternative safer routes for pedestrians at night
  • Adjacent housing fronted onto the park that provides good surveillance, a sense of ownership, and benefits from the view
  • All pedestrian routes feeding into the park being located on well-observed streets.
Gates preventing
vehicle access to the park after hours can help to reduce crime and disorder.

Gates preventing vehicle access to the park after hours can help to reduce crime and disorder. (Credit: Nancy Leach)

Park Maintenance

Good maintenance and adequate staffing protect the park over time. In Decent Parks? Decent Behavior? CABE asserts the following:

The case studies in this publication link the decline in the condition of the park and the loss of facilities, with a decline in use and an increase in vandalism. This is no chicken-and-egg conundrum; it appears quite clear which came first. The parks were in decline and failing to meet customer expectations long before antisocial behavior started to become the dominant characteristic (2005:24).

The research clearly shows that a decline in a park's condition creates the opportunity for antisocial behavior to become dominant. Therefore CABE's first answer to crime and disorder in parks is to prioritize the staffing and maintenance of these important public spaces.

According to CABE, the decline in the condition of many urban parks was basically the result of a series of cutbacks made over several decades. Park budgets became vulnerable to cutbacks during times of fiscal crisis and often weren't a high-priority item for either local government or the police. Closing buildings and eliminating staff positions resulted in immediate savings. The long-term negative results were unintended but also very predictable. Police and park personnel couldn't respond to problems of vandalism, graffiti, and littering as quickly as in the past. The decline in park maintenance and staffing conveyed the message that no one really cared about the park and such "soft crimes." Negative park experiences led to reduced legitimate use, and increased crime and disorder filled the gap. As a result, by the early 1980s, people perceived many parks as dangerous, "no go" areas. The perception became the reality.

Then, usually because of serious crime and residents' complaints, park conditions became a political issue. Sustainability, smart growth, and urban livability were also becoming important on the political agenda. Research had started to document the social, health, economic, and even crime-prevention benefits of safe parks and other "green spaces."

In response to public pressure, local governments started to reinvest in park maintenance and staffing.  New private-public partnerships such as New York's Central Park Conservancy became a critical source of additional funding, grassroots energy, and innovative ideas. In New York more than 20 large park partnerships and dozens of smaller ones help to fill the gaps between public needs and park budgets. Even cities with generous park budgets embraced the concept of private groups' supporting the parks.

Today, local advocacy groups who argue that some recent private-public agreements don't adequately represent the local community's interests are challenging those agreements. Some agreements have given special interests too great a control over the park and have restricted the local community's use of the park. The solution should be a compromise between the competing interests. As mentioned before, the park is a contested space.

There are several excellent guides on how to deal with park problems.15 The key questions about park maintenance and staffing include the following:

  • Do the city management and the police now see the importance of early detection and intervention?
  • Will the city ensure that there are sufficient resources and staffing?
  • Will the police allocate the necessary resources to policing the park?