Public Life and Public Safety

Gehl Institute studies how public spaces can be made more dignified, welcoming, and active as a means of promoting public safety.

We know that design can play a role in making public spaces safer. However, spaces designed to be defensive and uncomfortable to certain groups can, ironically, become unwelcoming to everyone. What’s more, questions of what types of behavior are celebrated, and who is considered unwelcome, often serve to reinforce racial, economic, and gendered exclusion in public space.

Over the past five decades, the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) approach has been adopted by cities across the world. In so doing, city agencies seek to reduce opportunities for illegal activity through the shaping and surveillance of the built environment. But in practice, too much effort is often placed on making spaces defensible, and too little on making them worth spending time in.

In our report, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design: A Public Life Approach, we outline an updated strategy for enhancing neighborhood safety through quality design that encourages more people to participate in public life together–based on local context and working with community members at every stage.

Our report takes the three key design approaches of the CPTED framework–territorial definition, access control, and surveillance–and shows how physical improvements that advance inclusive public life can address each of them. We created a matrix that compares these design approaches with the 12 Quality Criteria tool, demonstrating the connection between public safety and designing for comfort, protection, and enjoyment.

The second half of the report outlines a five-stage process for implementing changes to the built environment, beginning with researching local context (Measure), engaging and collaborating with residents and stakeholders (Invite), testing low-cost, temporary interventions (Do), assessing the impact of the interventions with residents and stakeholders, and making changes as necessary (Evolve), and institutionalizing processes to ensure long-term participation, maintenance, and improvements to the space (Formalize).

A thoughtfully illuminated public square in Jihlava, Czech Republic. Courtesy of Marcin Szala.

Put simply, design and engagement strategies for creating safer public spaces must also address issues related to inclusion and enjoyment. Investments that result in dignified, vibrant public spaces can lead to community members looking out for one another, building trust through casual contact, and seeing their visions reflected in the built environment. Our hope with CPTED: A Public Life Approach is that it can play a small role in guiding this process.

Have you used the framework in your public space project? We would love to hear from you! Contact us at