The first sociological theory regarding crime and the built city environment was defensible space theory. Defensible space theory was developed in 1972, by Oscar Newman, a renowned architect and urban sociologist. In his book, titled “Creating Defensible Space,” Newman found direct correlation between high-crime areas and the physical layout of a community. The more complex and anonymous the housing environment, the more difficult it is for a code of behavior following societal norms is to establish among residents (Newman 26). Defensible space theory contends that residential and commercial environments with large public areas that are accessible from many different paths increase the risk of criminal activity. Furthermore, the large environmental layout breaks down the community’s sense of control and personal responsibility over their surroundings, making it less likely they will question intruders or intervene in criminal activity.
As a solution to this problem, Newman suggests the need to create, or reconstruct, residential and commercial environments with physical characteristics that promote a sense of ownership and responsibility for their community. Defensible space theory is based on what Newman calls territoriality. Territoriality is the promotion of a sense of ownership, community and territory created through buffer zones. Buffer zones can be achieved both physically and psychologically to create a common community design. By using universal paving, landscaping and signage, both community members and intruders can distinguish between public and private areas. Once community members sense ownership and responsibility over an area they are more likely to question intruders. If intruders sense a watchful community, they are less likely to commit a crime for fear of being questioned or caught. This theory creates a strong argument for the need of urban planners to understand how communities are affected through city design.