Story: Security and personal safety

Page 2. Safer cities

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Origins of safer cities

Until the 1980s most urban planners were men. As feminist perspectives on how some women felt unsafe in certain parts of cities began to permeate local councils the design of cities began to change.

In the 1980s Toronto, Canada, was at the forefront of an approach known as safer cities or safer communities. This addressed issues of poor lighting, isolation, lack of sight lines (not being visible to others), no access to help, hiding spots for attackers (trees or bushes) and inadequate security in urban settings.

Safer communities in New Zealand

The government launched four pilot crime-prevention schemes in Manukau, Wairoa, Christchurch and Ashburton in the early 1990s. Central and local government both provided funding and established Safer Community councils chaired by local mayors. Safety audits of residential neighbourhoods were carried out, and design guidelines were developed to create more secure physical environments. Prior to this some communities were already taking action. In Christchurch a police kiosk in Cathedral Square was opened in 1986, mainly funded by public donations.

By 2016, 24 New Zealand communities or cities had been designated ‘Safe Communities’, a status achieved by meeting many different safety criteria and initiatives. Safer cities have evolved way beyond the initial focus of personal safety and security in public spaces and neighbourhoods, to include homes, workplaces, vehicle safety and accident rates. Some councils, such as Christchurch City Council, collect many different indicators including overall crime rates, injury rates, child abuse rates and perceptions of safety after dark, to monitor their progress towards being a safer city.

Crime prevention through environmental design

Instead of the traditional approach of ‘target hardening’ (bars on windows, locks on doors) a new crime prevention approach emerged in the 1970s. Offenders who feel they may be seen are less likely to commit offences. Perception of safety can be increased through good urban design, especially better lighting at night, and by maintaining sight lines. This extends beyond design of public spaces into streets and suburbs. For example, low fences which enable sight lines to the street and to neighbours’ properties are favoured over high fences.

When people are afraid of crime they are more likely to drive rather than walk or take public transport, which can discourage evening street life. For these reasons, and others, town planners have sought to reinvigorate inner cities by encouraging people to live there and by ensuring that their attractions are unique. Planners favour multifunctional developments that include a mixture of different land uses so that a particular area is not busy at one time and virtually deserted at others (during the 1970s New Zealand’s inner city areas were like this).

Many of New Zealand’s education campuses were built or expanded in the 1960s and 1970s. Buildings were spread out with walking paths through green spaces. These lacked adequate lighting at night and were difficult to monitor or limit access to, due to many exit and entry points. This has led to practices such as more regular patrols by security guards, improved lighting and ensuring that night classes are clustered in the same area of campus. Tree trunks are regularly pruned to avoid creating hiding places for lurkers.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Security and personal safety - Safer cities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 11 December 2023)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Aug 2017