The terrorist attacks in Paris, Lebanon, Kenya, Nigeria and Tunisia, and the frequency of mass shootings across the United States (including the San Bernardino event) are events where harm to civilians, and not hostage taking. appears to be the modus operandi of many perpetrators.

The apparent framework and objective of the Paris attackers, suicide bombers in other jurisdictions and those who perpetrate mass shootings (and similar events) challenge the first concept of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED).

That first concept states that crimes against people and property are less likely to occur if other people are around. For the perpetrators of mass shootings and acts of terror, large groups of people (often in confined spaces) make for ideal targets. Security services acknowledged traditional situation containment practices were not appropriate or adequate in Paris. The Martin Place siege enquiry, which  will examine whether police acted correctly by trying to negotiate and which will hear from hostages, will begin in March next year.

Events in Paris and Sydney have resulted in many police forces here in Australia and overseas reconsidering their tactics in response to such events. “Shoot First” is now one modus operandi of the NSW police force and similar frameworks appear to be becoming prevalent  in other jurisdictions. An obvious issue of concern with this shift in policy is the need to protect victims in such volatile situations.

Do these policy and practice shifts by security services create the need to rethink and refine how CPTED is articulated and applied by planning and development authorities to adequately address the need to protect large gatherings of people against terrorism events?

The focus of the CPTED framework, adopted in various jurisdictions in Australia, is to prevent crime against people and property within built environments, framed around the following concepts:

  • Crimes against people and property are less likely to occur if other people are around. This concept is based on the premise that the presence of large numbers of people discourages offenders of crime and increases people’s sense of security. This, in turn, encourages people to use public spaces.
  • Casual observation opportunities of public spaces are designed within the built environment (and are frequently defined as design requirements in planning schemes.) This is premised on the principle that people can choose whether or not to intervene when they see a crime occurring, but even if they do not, at least through observation and recording/reporting, they can assist authorities to respond to the crime.
  • By providing  people safe choices about where to be and how to anticipate and respond to problems, there is an ability to chose an alternative location or route to achieve the same outcome.

CPTED could be described as the process of design, and effective use, of the built environment to reduce the fear of crime and the incidence of crime, and to improve the quality of life through the promotion of active, mixed-use developments. Subsequently,  CPTED is not a static concept. It is frequently incorporated into planning schemes (implicitly through design and safety-focussed codes, or explicitly through specific CPTED reference).

The Queensland CPTED (2007; chapter 2, page 1) clearly acknowledges that is an “evolving body of knowledge, both informing its practice on the ground and, in turn, learning from it.”

The successful implementation of CPTED concepts and principles in developing the built environment requires designing and planning at different scales. Scale will range from how and where a new development is located within the context of the suburb/ town/ city, to the overall broad design of the development itself, through to the documentation of finer detail. Therefore, CPTED needs to create a “balance” between these competing concepts and between private, corporate and community interests. Privacy and security are the tensions.

By its very focus, CPTED must be incorporated into the design and management of sustainable cities, as crime minimization is, in itself, one element in the health of the city. Cities can only truly define themselves as sustainable if their citizens do not fear for their personal safety and the safety of their localities.

CPTED also aims to influence and inform decisions about designing and managing the built environment to minimise the opportunity for harm to residents and occupiers of public spaces and public infrastructure – commercial buildings, museums and art galleries, malls, resorts, airports and, at the larger scale, roadways, trains, and reticulation infrastructure such as power stations and dams. Each place is unique. Each place poses its own security, safety and opportunity for community engagement challenges.

CPTED concepts and principles, in and of themselves, are valid and acceptable. However, the recent high-profile, international news events drive the need to rethink (or at least re-frame) the underlying concepts and principles, the CPTED guidelines, and importantly, the planning and design responses to these new challenges.

For example, while the owners of infrastructure (governments, private operators) and security services (police and private security entities) generally have access to quality CCTV and other real-time feeds that allow these entities to potentially monitor events and respond accordingly, the general public does not. The general public has to rely on casual surveillance methodologies, informal social media, and possibly alert messages from authorities to safely remove themselves from these sites and avoid these sites as events occur.

From the accounts of some of the people directly affected by the Paris attacks (i.e. patrons of the events that were targeted), and family members interviewed at the San Bernardino attack site, there appears to have been:

  • A dearth of safe and secure places within buildings to which people could evacuate
  • Physical barriers that prevented people from escaping in a safe manner (for instance, people were reportedly being pinned against barriers by others trying to escape)
  • A lack of spaces to which people could evacuate to after escaping individual attack sites

The detailed investigation of the events in Paris will likely consider these matters for future security service responses to similar events, and planning and development authorities would do well to consider updating their regulatory frameworks.

In consideration of some of the anecdotal evidence from these events, the accounts of people affected by them, and the available news feeds and private footage available on social media, there is a valid basis for authorities to consider:

  • Updating building codes for commercial/retail/infrastructure systems to provide for adequate “internal safe places” for occupiers to escape to in cases of terrorism/mass shootings and similar events.
  • Assessing current evacuation systems for fire and similar events to ensure they meet the needs of the community and security/emergency services for these types of events.
  • Updating emergency communications systems used for natural disasters and child-related amber alerts to help keep the community informed about terrorism/mass shooting events.

Thankfully, acts of terrorism and mass shootings have not become a significant issue for Australia. However, Australia does have a high security alert currently in place.

We are also a nation of shoppers, patrons at major cultural and sporting events, people who enjoy high-quality health care and education service systems, and similar built-form and cultural norms that result in very large groups of people congregating in relatively confined spaces and/or spaces that have not been designed to respond to these new social dynamics.

Combined, these factors are likely to place Australia at a higher risk of attack. New hospitals and some other infrastructure in major centres have places into which occupiers could escape, such as ward/theatre corridors. However, these opportunities are the exception rather than the norm. Retrofitting key infrastructure to address these new dynamics would be both impractical and very costly. Encouraging authorities and corporations to conduct risk assessments on their vulnerability to terrorism/mass shootings and similar events should be a priority for all levels of government.

As a nation, we need to learn from the challenges that are currently brought to the fore for security services, governments, asset managers, planners and urban designers. CPTED concept one has clearly been challenged by events of the recent past. Actioning CPTED concept three is certainly challenged by recent events. The ability of terrorism/ mass shooting victims to safely escape, and for those outside these events to safely avoid them, will become increasingly of concern for security services and other authorities.

The underlying concepts of CPTED need to be revisited  by authorities. This is not to say that wholesale changes are required, but the new reality of these events should force some rethink on how to plan, design, and respond to events.