UAE builds safer environment

As Abu Dhabi and Dubai construct evermore buildings and housing developments, making sure residents are not a criminal’s easy target is important. Enhancing public security is a fundamental plank in the emirates’ approach.
Gated communities are becoming more popular in the UAE as the population increases and developers become more conscious about preventing crime in their neighbourhoods. Delores Johnson / The National
Gated communities are becoming more popular in the UAE as the population increases and developers become more conscious about preventing crime in their neighbourhoods. Delores Johnson / The National

Can you design a building that prevents crime?

In light of the recent stabbing on Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island the question is one which is a lot higher in the minds of UAE residents than perhaps it would have been a few weeks ago.

Architects around the world have spent a great deal of time looking at ways of reducing crime by improving the design of buildings and public areas.

In the United Kingdom, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) established “Secured by Design” as a national project in 1989 focusing on increasing security by improving architecture.

It found by changing a few simple design features on housing estates in the UK such as increasing the number of people using public places, improving the ease and level of maintenance and increasing security, crime levels could fall dramatically.

Acpo’s research shows properties meeting its guidelines suffer 50 per cent fewer burglaries overall. And just by upgrading the type of doors used reduces burglary rates by as much as 20 per cent. Similarly car-related crime in redesigned areas can fall by about a quarter.

In the UAE, too, local authorities are placing more importance on designing out crime.

In Abu Dhabi last year, the Urban Planning Council (UPC) and the Abu Dhabi Police published their first Safety and Security Manual aimed at maintaining low crime levels and preventing terrorist attacks.

The planning regulations lay down guidance for developers and architects on how crime prevention through environmental design principles should be applied in the emirate, and aims to specifically protect densely populated areas.

They include rules on ensuring that more public spaces are naturally overlooked where possible and attempt to reduce the number of hidden and secluded areas in new developments.

“Before the Safety and Security Planning Manual was developed, security planning in Abu Dhabi was largely self-regulated by developers and building owners, often without the input of a security professional or following an integrated planning approach,” says Amer Al Hammadi, the executive director for planning and infrastructure at the UPC. “As a result, many developments disregarded best practices in the security industry, potentially increasing security risk and jeopardising the stability and growth opportunities in Abu Dhabi.”

He says although the guidelines have only been in place for a year, they have already affected the level of security, and points to amendments to the original plan for a large residential development of 1,500 villas.

“Alterations were made to reduce the vulnerability to crime, including the reorientation of villas on the perimeter to provide better natural surveillance and to create a better transition from public through to private space,” Mr Al Hammadi says. “As a result, these changes created a safer and more sustainable development.”

But local architects say that in the most prestigious developments in the UAE, security designs are already in place.

“In general, a lot of best practices are being used in the Middle East,” says Janus Rostock, a regional design director in Atkins’ Dubai office.

“Cities such as Dubai are competing on a global stage and therefore are looking outside the Middle East in terms of creating high-quality buildings and spaces,” he says. “So, from that point of view, I do believe it’s an integral part of how we design buildings and spaces. It’s not a specific item that is being talked about a lot and that is partially because cities like Dubai are very safe compared to others around the world in terms of crime. Therefore it’s not probably something that’s high on the agenda in terms of mitigation measures – but in terms of making sure we create these good spaces and buildings it is an integral part of what we do.”

Mr Rostock says although the police, municipality rules and master plan guidelines usually guide architects to include security features such as closed-circuit television cameras and security guards, the most fundamental guidelines for making buildings crime free include creating spaces where a lot of people naturally walk past, making people feel safer and deterring would-be criminals.

“Design can be used on a number of levels to prevent crime. We are taught it in architectural school and while threats change the principles remain the same,” says Chris Johnson, the managing principal of Gensler’s EMEA division.

“The first level is getting the layout and basic organisation correct, clear lines of sight in lobbies, solid materials at the base of buildings, good lighting and reduced number of openings/exit, the aim is to reduce the potential for criminals to see a target, remove the opportunity you can lessen the risk of crime. All these moves are not expensive, they are simply using the basic elements in the right way.

“The second level involves technology. This is an open book with regard to cost but if level one is achieved these costs should be reduced. Cameras, motion detectors and security systems do two things, the first is to enhance and monitor the potential areas of risk, the second is to mitigate the poor layouts that criminals may see in buildings that may attract crime,” he says.

“The final level is the people. If occupiers feel ownership and belonging to a place or space then they will help self-police to reduce crime. Again if this ownership is lacking then hired security staff and increase police patrols may be required,” Mr Johnson says.

The idea of using CCTV cameras, gated communities and stronger fences to discourage antisocial behaviour and crime can be controversial. In the West, some civil liberties groups say cameras invade people’s privacy, while others complain they can create a “Big Brother” type environment of suspicion.

In Denmark, for example, where a lot of work was done in the 1980s attempting to address these issues, planners such as the architect John Allpass opted to instead adopt a more inclusive attitude. Their belief was that if you treat people as though they were likely to commit a crime, then they would be more likely to do so.

Nonetheless, architects and urban planners concede that, although better urban design and greater use of technology may help to reduce crime and our susceptibility to terrorism, they cannot totally prevent attacks such as the Reem Island murder.

“There are different ways of preventing crime in general,” Mr Rostock says.

“But at the end of the day it is very difficult to stop individuals who decide to commit a crime.”

Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM


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