The 5 Pillars of CPTED: Natural Access Control

by | Apr 20, 2022

Crime is an unfortunate part of life.

And property crime—including larceny/theft and burglary—is 5x more common than violent crime in the United States. It happens once every 3 seconds according to the available data, although experts believe that only a third of property crimes are actually reported.

Both property and violent crime have been trending steadily down since 1990, and that is good news.

The number of reported burglaries in the US was 3.16 million in 1991, for example, but dropped to an all-time low of 1.12 million in 2019.

That’s a reason for optimism, but not complacency. We must all take steps to keep ourselves, our families, and our property safe.

One methodology that has become increasingly popular over the years is crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED).

CPTED is a set of deliberate design strategies to discourage crime before it happens. By increasing the risk of being seen or caught, it’s often enough to make would-be offenders give up without committing a crime.

The Pillars of CPTED

CPTED accomplishes this via a wide variety of rules, guidelines, and tactics in one of its five core pillars:

  1. Natural Surveillance
  2. Natural Access Control
  3. Territorial Reinforcement
  4. Activity Support
  5. Maintenance

Few things stick out as much as someone standing in an area they’re not supposed to be. Go behind the yellow caution tape or velvet rope, and everyone in the vicinity will suddenly be very interested in you and your activity.

And that’s the idea behind the second pillar of CPTED, natural access control.

Natural Access Control

Natural access control uses a series of design principles to reduce the number of opportunities for crime to take place.

There is public space and there is private space, but sometimes the lines between them get blurry. Natural access control fixes that by guiding people in and out of a space using signs, barriers, and other cues.

When it is very clear where people should be, it becomes glaringly obvious when someone crosses that boundary into a place they should not be. And that attracts a lot of unwanted attention for a would-be criminal.

“There must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.” ~Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Natural Access Control in the Real World

Most of us follow the cues that guide us from one place to the next: we walk on the sidewalk or pathway, we obey signs that say “No Trespassing” or “Parking Prohibited,” and we respect barriers, walls, locked doors, and fences designed to keep us out of a particular space.

Ignore those “rules,” and you stick out to others. You’ve broken that silent agreement. Few things say “I don’t belong here” more than stepping off the marked path, lingering in a no-parking zone, or hopping over a fence.

And that’s natural access control doing its thing.

Pathways, signage, lighting, and borders—hedges, other plants, fences, and so on—let us direct the flow of foot traffic, which allows us to differentiate immediately between where people should and should not be.

Public space: good. Private space: suspicious.

Someone in an area that required them to step over a small border wall and ignore a “No Trespassing” sign or security cameras is already acting suspiciously, which means increased scrutiny and more eyes on them before they’ve done anything else.

Criminals want to avoid this. They want to blend in and disappear. Natural access control reduces if not eliminates their ability to do so.

A well-lit walkway from the road to the front door makes the individual lurking at the side of a house at greater risk of scrutiny. Likewise, any individual on property that’s surrounded by a fence—even one that they can easily step over—or behind a gate, even an unlocked one, draws attention.

They simply shouldn’t be there, and others can immediately recognize that they shouldn’t be there. Natural access control provides convenient guidance for the rest of us while simultaneously shining a spotlight on anyone who ignores the existing cues.

Other design elements include:

  • Single point of entry
  • Restricted access to private, internal spaces with barriers, doors, and signage
  • Sidewalks, roads, and pathways that funnel traffic into appropriate public spaces
  • Barriers to prevent unauthorized use of spaces
  • Low, open-type fencing that indicates private space, but does not prevent natural surveillance
  • Eliminating design features that grant access to roofs or higher windows
  • Locking windows and doors
  • Thorny plants around first-floor windows and other potential points of access

We encounter natural access control all around us, just living our day-to-day lives. Most respect the cues they provide and take heed of the simple message.

And when we don’t, that’s a giant red flag to others that something isn’t right. Combined with natural surveillance, natural access control makes it easy for everyone to identify suspicious behavior and note the individual doing it.

It’s good for you and your home or business. It is bad for those looking for an easy target.

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