Paul van Soomeren: “Public safety and security policies are like a clockwork pendulum”

Paul van Soomeren (1952) is founder of the Amsterdam based research and consultancy bureau DSP ( Before he started – with Bram van Dijk – this bureau he worked for several year at the national Bureau of Crime Prevention in the Netherlands. Paul is worldwide expert in Crime prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED). At the moment Paul works on standardization of CPTED and he participates – with the Generalitat de Catalunia – in the EU project for the next three years.

How do you see the current trends in public security policies? Don’t you think they are too focused on punishment? Are we back in the past? Where are environmental approaches in political debates?

Public safety and security policies are like a clockwork pendulum: in the  60 and 70 is was mainly a reactive and repressive approach to crime, in the 80 and 90 it was more crime prevention and it shifted back in the new millennium. I have the impression that prevention is becoming more ‘en vogue’ again. Punishment and reactive approaches are not the most effective nor efficient. It’s an very expensive approach to crime. Of course you need two to tango: reactive approaches based on catching the criminal and punish, but also prevention. From a cost-benefit approach crime prevention is a cheaper and thus certainly a more efficient approach. Since I am Dutch I hate to see good money spoiled. In evaluations we always look at these cost-benefit differences.

Which public actor (local, regional, state, Europe) understands better the importance of urban design in order to prevent crime and build safer cities? Which of them is in a better position to enforce the principles involved in it?

It is not ‘or-or’ but ‘and-and’. Hence it is not ‘European or National or Local’. Crime Prevention through Urban Design, Planning and Management (Secured by Design/CPTED) is possible on each scale level: European, national, regional, local and last but not least the neighbourhood level. The same goes for all crime prevention approaches. The best options is when these levels really work together; support and facilitate each other. While we are used nowadays to talk about concepts like multi-agency and partnership approach, we still define this much too often horizontally at the same geographical scale level; the same governance level. It would be better to look also at this issue in a vertical way: how can for example European regulations and standards help a country? How can national laws and scheme facilitate local crime prevention actions? How can local authorities facilitate neighbourhood crime prevention. In shorts: its horizontal multi agency approaches and vertical governance cooperation. That the big + (plus)

How should the private sector (in a wide sense, not only the private security, but all those who are not public) contribute to an urban design that improves safety?

The private sector already incorporates crime prevention through design and planning. For example by making products crime proof. See the mobile phone with a track and trace function, the automated car immobilizer or in-built security in architecture and design. And of course there is also the pressure from insurance companies to diminish risks. Recent British and Dutch research showed that what they call the ‘security hypotheses’ may explain the drop of crime we are now seeing in most industrialized modern countries. This is a combination of private and public crime prevention. Often design, planning, management and cooperation are key.

Some old neighbourhoods in European cities have turned out to be degraded areas with marginalised population (usually poor migrants). Which policies should be enforced to reverse the situation? Is gentrification a solution?

As a geographer, urban planner and demographer I don’t think gentrification is a solution. Complete gentrification like the one we see in several European capital cities is not a solution it is actually causing huge problems like  segregation and lack of integration. My solution would be to mix people. Mix to the max! Maybe not house by house but groups of houses – like housing blocks – in a kind of chessboard pattern. That way the same type of people could stay together and be of mutual assistance and the whole city could still be a nice mix. Differences and diversity is what makes cities attractive but also effective. Innovation springs from diversity. In the country I live in – The Netherlands – housing associations play an important role. About one third of all houses in the Netherlands is owned by housing associations – in big cities it is even 4 out of every 10. And it is difficult to tell the difference between privately owned/rented houses and social housing. All categories of houses are mixed. That’s a very good and effective way of housing people. This is crime prevention through urban planning at its best. Not done by the police but by housing associations and local authorities.


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