Preventing Crime in Parking Lots and Structures

“Almost everything you read about parking and CPTED has been known since the 1970s and followed since then to some extent,” said Mary S. Smith, P.E., senior vice president/director of Parking Consulting for Indianapolis-based Walker Parking Consultants. “It hasn’t changed much since then, and the parking consulting world knows about it and most architects know about it.”

Smith is referring to Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), an architectural concept that maintains that facility design can be used to eliminate or reduce criminal behavior and, at the same time, encourage people to "keep an eye out" for each other. CPTED has four pillar strategies: natural surveillance, territorial reinforcement, natural access control, and target hardening. These strategies can be applied to any facility construction or renovation project, including campus parking lots and parking structures.

Natural Surveillance

“In this first design concept, we’re looking at how visible are the activities of the intended users to other intended users, casual observers, or intended observers,” said Robert A. Otterstatter, master trainer and law enforcement liaison with Washington-based National Crime Prevention Council. “We know there is less crime where there is greater visibility.” Natural surveillance in parking is promoted by pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, open stairwells, and adequate nighttime lighting.

Territorial Reinforcement

“Here, we ask how well the university displays its territoriality over that parking garage,” said Otterstatter. “We know that any location that is well marked that it is owned and cared for experiences less crime than locations that aren’t.” In parking, territorial reinforcement is promoted by features that define property lines and distinguish private spaces from public spaces using landscaping, pavement designs, and gateways.

Natural Access Control

“This is controlling access to and egress from the structure or lot,” said Otterstatter. “It often includes target hardening, which is where the structure or lot is made more difficult to get into, like through the use of gates.” Natural access control in parking is achieved by designing sidewalks and entrances to clearly indicate public routes, and discouraging access to private areas with structural elements.

Target Hardening

This last design concept, as mentioned above, uses features that prohibit access. In parking, this might include a security booth and/or arms that raise and lower. “It also means that, when something goes wrong or is broken, we immediately repair it,” said Otterstatter, “because it signals to a would-be offender that the area is receiving attention and, therefore, he is more likely to be caught.

“Replacing a burnt-out light quickly falls into target hardening and natural surveillance,” Otterstatter pointed out. “So there’s lots of crossover in the four principles. I look at them from the perspective of a user and how safe the user feels. My fears as a parent may be different than those of my daughter the student, so it’s important to ask users about their fears.”

Start with the Design

If you want to apply CPTED principles to your next parking project, choose a designer who’s willing to work with you. “There are some hard nuts to crack with the design community until they see the liability issues,” noted Timothy Crowe, criminologist and author of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which gives design strategies.

Crowe also warns that you can’t do a quick study, make some compromises, and finish your project. Rather, be prepared to invest a substantial amount of time into studying your issues and the best way to solve them for maximum safety.

Because CPTED is architecturally based, what is designed into the parking lot or facility is considered passive security. “It makes people feel safer and discourages criminals through visibility,” said Smith. She should know, having authored Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in Parking Facilities in 1996 for the Department of Justice. “Since then, no one has done it better than she,” confirmed Crowe, adding that there were no standards for parking lot safety and security until that point.

Analyzing Existing Facilities

But, what if you want to reduce crime in existing parking areas? It can be accomplished through active security, Smith noted. Active security is anything that provokes a physical response, such as intercoms, security patrols, and video cameras. “An active system is often required because of a CPTED failing,” she pointed out.

Before running out and purchasing video cameras, conduct a safety study. Individually look at each parking area and the problems that occur there, understanding that not every area has the same problems. This involves collecting police reports, criminal data, and documentation of the incidents in each area. “Talk with your crime analyst, if you have one, and find out what was reported that wasn’t criminal, like loitering,” said Otterstatter. Finally, talk with users about what they’ve experienced and how they feel about the area.

Next, apply a problem-solving model to determine what types of security are needed. Otterstatter uses a four-step model called SARA, which stands for Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment. (SARA can also be applied to new construction.)

Scanning is looking at the broad scope of problems that are occurring in the parking area. It includes gathering information and setting baselines. Analysis is looking at the overall problems, like break-ins or users not feeling comfortable. Response is considering limitations to making improvements, like budget. “It’s important to balance what can be done with what makes the biggest difference,” said Otterstatter.

The fourth step of SARA, Assessment, is continually reviewing the first three steps and making additional appropriate responses based upon what is learned in scanning and analysis. “The beauty of SARA is that it’s fluid,” Otterstatter pointed out. “If I uncover information further down the line, like in the response step, I can go back and gather more information before creating a response. If I discover I didn’t make a difference or didn’t make the difference I wanted, I can go back to a previous step to get to the right response.”

Whether new construction or renovation, Smith offers three pieces of advice regarding CPTED principles in terms of campus parking lots and facilities. First, the principles are important and should be given the highest priority: “Pay attention to it and, as a university, state that it’s very important to do it,” she advised. Second, the staff that is directing the parking designers should insist that the police are involved and their advice sought. Finally, if necessary, a security consultant should be hired.

“All things being equal, campus parking areas tend to be a higher risk than office buildings. A person intent on committing a crime knows there’s a better chance of finding someone to attack in a campus parking garage than in an office building.”

— Mary S. Smith

“For crime-reduction, save time and money on the back side by investing time and money on the front side.”

— Robert A. Otterstatter