Designing out crime

"It turns out that people are many, many more times likely to be helpful in the way of giving you change for a dollar if they're somewhere where the air smells good...

"Actually what determines what people do is at least as much their circumstances as their character - perhaps surprisingly, more their circumstances than their character.

"And what that suggests... is that it's terrifically important to shape the world in the way that gives people the context in which they'll behave well."

Professor Anthony Appiah,
Analysis, Radio 4, June 29th

A few weeks ago, Radio 4 broadcast a fascinating programme, which looked at how humans make moral choices. The implication of Anthony Appiah's comments is that we can reduce crime and anti-social behaviour through environmental design.

We were reminded of these comments the other day, when walking past the bottom of Cranfield Road. A group of three lads was parked up in their car, eating their fairly-disgusting looking burgers. The one in the passenger seat, furthest from the kerb opened his window and lobbed a mass of greasy paper and food over the roof of the car, on to the pavement.

We are not particularly brave, but writing this blog means we sometimes feel an obligation to put our money where out mouth is... We picked up the rubbish and spoke to the guy through the window, asking him not to chuck stuff on the ground. People with such a strong disregard for civil behaviour are often those with the strongest sense of personal honour, so we were fairly worried about being stabbed. Instead, we just got incredulous looks: what business was it of ours and why did we care?

Anyway, it's not a new observation that environment and behaviour are strongly linked, but it further underlines the need to take design and enforcement seriously when it comes to our streets. Create the right environment and people will behave better. Allow rubbish to pile up, cars to park on pavements and shops to use security shutters and people will treat the place disrespectfully. Hem pedestrians in behind ugly fences and cars speed up.

So problems like parking enforcement in Brockley Cross and fly tipping aren't just superficial or aesthetic issues, they are fundamental to the way our local community works. Fix the pavements in Brockley Road and the rest will follow.

By the way, the rest of the Radio 4 programme went on to argue that humans have a tendency to decide what is right based on moral impulses that are hard-wired in to us courtesy of natural selection and that we try to retrofit rational argument in order to justify our instincts even when there is little rational basis for our feelings. We're sure no-one using this website would recognise that kind of behaviour.