CPTED: Benefits and Limitations

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The maxim: prevention is better than cure; aptly applies to crime against persons and property- crime events could lead to fatalities and irreparable loss respectively. In this regard, crime experts and researchers propose and apply several crime prevention models. Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) has been gaining currency among criminologists for the last four decades. Gibson and Johnson (2013) observes that CPTED is recognized internationally for its principles that are useful in designing built interior and exterior environment as far as taking safety measures and discouraging criminal and anti-social behavior are concerned. This paper reviews literature on CPTED so as to critically examine its approaches, theoretical grounding, strengths or benefits, and weaknesses or criticism.


A systematic analysis will be used as a method for interrogating conceptual and empirical evidence available on CPTED. For the purposes of this discussion, the systematic analysis adopts directed content analysis to search, select and analyse literature. The sources of literature for this review include academic texts, journal articles, magazine articles, conference papers and government reports. The articles search was limited to literature written in English and dated 1970 to date. Directed literary search targeted materials from journal websites, electronic databases, and institutional websites. The CPED content searched include definitions, theory, principles, application, benefits, and criticisms. The findings are then organized and presented thematically.

Theoretical basis of CPTED

CPTED is located within the theories of environmental criminology. The National Institute of Justice (2009) identifies some of these theories: Situational Crime Prevention Theory, Routine Activity Theory, Broken Windows Theory, Social Disorganization Theory, Crime opportunity Theory and Broken Windows Theory. Various concepts in these theories find expression in CPTED’s principles. Situational Crime Prevention Theory (SCPT), for instance, posits that employing discrete environmental and managerial changes reduces opportunities for crime occurrence by making criminal activity less attractive (Clarke, 1997). The theory proposes that public disorder and crime are preventable by reducing the environmental and situational opportunities existing before criminal or disorderly activity occurs. Thus, the focus of SCPT like CPTED is on the settings predisposing crime and not on the criminal.

The CPTED Approach

Ray Jeffery published Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) in 1971 (Crowe, 2000). According to Gibson and Johnson (2014), the most widely cited definition of CPTED in the recent past presents it as the proper design of the built environment and its effective use in a manner that reduces fear and occurrence of crime, and improves the quality of life (Crowe, 2000). This definition emphasizes the goal of CPTED as that of eliminating or reducing opportunities for crime which could be inherent in the design of buildings or surroundings. A more recent redefinition of CPTED adds new concepts like the reduction of “the possibility, probability and harm” emanating from crime and related events through planning and designing processes that result into safe and contextually fitting facilities (Ekblom, 2013). The focus of CPTED from this perspective lies on maintaining a balance between producing designs fit for intended purposes and achieving efficacy of avoiding crime opportunities whilst adapting the structures and sites for subsequent sustenance and management upon construction. Letch et al (2011) locate CPTED within the domain of problem-oriented policing. In this context, the CPTED process addresses a range of problems and it is not limited to crime. Secondly, it systematically analyses crime events, crime conditions and factors responsible for creating opportunities for crime. Thirdly, CPTED results in proactive strategies and programmes that are specific to the location and problem(s) in focus. Lastly, it is designed to engage relevant individual and institutional stakeholders from local to national levels in problem definition, solution finding and system maintenance and sustenance. Earlier studies point out ways in which CPTED differs from traditional policing, and security and crime prevention mechanisms (Cornish & Clarke, 1980; Brantingham & Brantingham, 1984; Newman, 1972).

CPTED mainly focuses on the built environment design unlike the other measures whose main purpose is target hardening; for example, using bars and locks to deny access to targets, or cameras, sensors and guards to detect potential offenders (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1981). CPTED is a preventive intervention through design as opposed to traditional policing that prioritizes efficient and effective response to alarm, as well as identifying and apprehending offenders. Furthermore, it has been noted that CPTED, though a crime-prevention strategy, mainly emphasizes productive use, not safety or security (Zahm, 1997). Alarms, locks and guards are considered as (secondary) elements that support (primary) design features. It is, therefore, prudent to view CPTED as a master plan whose jurisdiction extends beyond the purview of safety and policing mechanisms.

Principles and Concepts

CPTED’s principles establish it as a place-based proactive intervention seeking to preemptively reduce opportunities for committing crime. Cozens (2014) identify six broad interrelated CPTED concepts: surveillance, access control, territoriality, target hardening, image management and activity support. Zahm (1997), however, categorizes CPTED principles into three key strategies namely controlling access, providing opportunities for seeing and being seen and defining ownership and encouraging territorial maintenance. The other CPTED concepts itemized by Cozens (2014) and other scholars coalesce around these three main pillars.

Clarke (1992) reports research findings that support CPTED principles. They have established that crime is both situational and specific. Crime has also been found to be distributed in relation to land use and movement networks. Crimes are committed by offenders who are opportunistic in places they are well conversant with. Mastered daily routines and activities could create opportunities for crime. Lastly, places without guardians or observers are more prone to crime activities than guarded places. Preventing crime through environmental design considers how crime opportunities can be reduced or removed by altering some elements of the location, site, building, and how it is used.

Benefits of CPTED Principles

These will be discussed under three subheadings: access control, surveillance and territoriality. The three are the most recurrent in the studies reviewed. Other concepts mentioned earlier are more or less related to these three.

Access control

This is done by restricting entry and movement through the creation of real and perceptual barriers (Cozens, 2011). According to CPTED, the built environment must give clues on who belongs there, when they are required to be in the place, exact points they should be while there, what they are supposed to be doing and for how long. To complement the built environment, guardians and users can serve to control access if they observe other users and their activities, and report to the concerned authorities.

According to Zahm (1997) cites examples of environmental features that CPTED pay attention to in access control which include well defined boundaries of a site, its fences, hedges, or tree lines. Gardens, sidewalks, driveways and pavements are also designed such that they guide movement. Similarly gates and doors for both entry and exit are considered with regard to both use and crime prevention. In addition, to direct users’ movements, give information, identify appropriate activities and their schedules, and define the intended users, appropriate signs and directions (such as “Ladies “) are designed. Consistent use of colours, materials or shapes in buildings, pavements, lighting, and landscaping also provide cues for use and users.

These design features for access control could be reinforced with target hardening features like locks, alarms and guards as situations may require.


Designs of built environment should provide deliberate opportunities for users and guardians to see and be seen (Armitage, 2014). To be enhanced in the design, is surveillance from nearby properties and site perimeter as well as that of the parking lot, walkways, corridors and large portions of buildings. The concept is that users/guardians are accorded adequate opportunities, by the built environment, to see each other (as well as actions) from different locations within and without a building. The built design features should be complemented by potential observers who will note and report suspicious behavior. Relevant procedures and policies, for example, on landscape maintenance are also critical in supporting the built environment design.

Aspects of the built environment CPTED target for surveillance purposes include lighting systems that enhance ability to identify individuals and observe activities, windows for outside-to-inside and inside-to-outside views, location and orientation of buildings creating views or removing obstructions, and selection of plant species that minimizes conflicts between landscaping and lighting, and ensures preservation of views within and without the site in the long-term. Observation and guardianship can also be enhanced through interior designs, wall treatments (such as mirrors or reflectors), window treatments and furniture arrangements that facilitate surveillance. Like the case of access control, surveillance design features can be complemented with target hardening, CCTV and guardians as circumstances dictate.


CPTED focuses on features that define ownership and support territorial maintenance of built environments. With regard to the cues about legitimate users and use of a place, administrative rules and policies about these and maintenance are critical for achievement and sustenance of the other design applications. Proactively identifying legitimate users effectively discourages illegitimate users and consequently reduces criminal opportunities (Cozens, 2014).

In practice, territoriality is achieved through the use of symbolic barriers like signage, for example, subtle changes in ambience, road texture, and furniture quality, and real barriers like designs or fences that clearly delineate and demarcate public, semi-private and private or exclusive spaces (Burt, 1992). Related to territoriality is the concept of image management which comprises activities that built environments display a positive image to users (Cozens, 2011). This is realized by routine maintenance to ensure that the physical environment is functioning efficiently and effectively. Poorly maintained spaces and unoccupied or uncompleted structures and premises have been found to deter legitimate users and provide opportunities or act as magnets for criminal and deviant activities (Brantingham and Brantingham, 1998).

The model identifies elements that may potentially attract or deter crime commercial and residential precincts. CPTED principles are ostensibly applied reducing criminal activity as well as promoting peaceful coexistence of people from diverse economic and cultural background.

Criticism and Weaknesses

In spite of its successful application in some instances some of which are described in the previous section, studies find limitations, criticisms and contradictions with CPTED. Top ranking criticisms revolve around ineffective collaboration and communication among CPTED stakeholders, the assumption that one design fits all, and the top-down approach associated with CPTED (Ebklom, 2013).

Armitage (2014) argues that CPTED lacks flexibility in its principles, application and guidance. Its standards presuppose rigid application and offers limited room for contextual adaptation. Researchers are also critical of the non-standardized and inconsistent manner of CPTED’s application within and across countries relating to who and how it is implemented (Cozens, 2014). Questions arise about contradicting definitions and interpretations of CPTED given by crime experts (Johnson, Gibson & McCabe , 2014; Ekblom, 2013). This is an indication of ambiguous and an unspecified scope of CPTED which makes it open to indefinite interpretation. An example is a large concrete wall around a residential property which controls access but also reduces surveillance opportunities.

According to Cozens (2014), CPTED, though valuable in crime prevention, fails to align its objectives with other agenda of social welfare like public health and socialization. Crime prevention should balanced with other social concerns. Another limitation of CPTED deals with the contradictory evidence ror the effectiveness of territoriality (Conzens, Hillier & Prescott 2011). This can be attributed to the confusion and ambiguity at both conceptual and theoretical levels. The assumption, for instance, that guardianship exists wherever surveillance opportunities exist is neither automatic nor universal.

Abuse of CPTED can have negative outcomes. Firstly, too much access control leads to fortressed surroundings that deprive them of livability. Secondly, the spaces CPTED provides may result into “offensible space” and displacement as opposed to “defensible space” (Newman, 1996). Thirdly, criminal gangs can use CPTED to defend their territories, preempt arrest and commit offences. Surveillance can, for instance, be used to identify and monitor targets for criminal activities.

Other criticism address different bottlenecks and grey areas occasioned by CPTED. The approach does not cognize that the capacity of people to offer guardianship depends on a range of conditions. Assessment of the environmental conditions may yield inaccurate measurements and evaluation. CPTED ignores social aspects of committing a crime (Kruger, Landman & Liebermann (2001).

Zahm (1997) outlines ways in which environmental opportunities and conditions that favour occurrence of criminal as well as other unintended undesirable activities can be eliminated or reduced through CPTED approach: controlling access, providing opportunities for seeing or being seen, and defining ownership and encouraging maintenance of territory. CPTED has been seen to be creating a fortress society. It also emphasizes on “offensible space” and displacement as opposed to “defensible space”. Methodologically, CPTED is faulted for relying on weak empirical evidence, conflicting principles, and narrow range of tested scales.


CPTED is a relatively new terminology but not the use of built environment for security and safety. Some of the historical parallels to CPTED include castles and moats, and caves and cliffs dwellings (Zahm, 1997). Other examples like bush clearing for homesteads and paths are precursors to modern territoriality and surveillance systems that help distinguish between legitimate users and outlaws. As a modern crime prevention strategy, CPTED has been demonstrated to be grounded on relatively clear conceptual and theoretical principles. However, evidential literature points to its weaknesses, contradictions and inconsistencies. Further research to address these challenges would help clear some of these misunderstandings.


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