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Can a building discourage crime?

Want to know what makes a home or neighborhood vulnerable to crime? Ask police officers; they see it every day.

That's the basic idea behind Safe by Design, a program that will be launched soon by the Lexington Police Department and Eastern Kentucky University's Center for Crime and the Built Environment.

The voluntary program will help Lexington developers, architects, planners and property owners build and renovate safer homes, neighborhoods and commercial buildings by using design principles known to discourage crime.

The program will include standards and certification that could lead to marketing opportunities for builders, and eventually insurance discounts for property owners.

Safe by Design might be the first program of its kind in the nation, but it is based on a successful 20-year-old program in England, said Derek Paulsen, director of the EKU center and a member of Lexington's Planning Commission.

Last March, Paulsen took several Lexington developers and police officials to England to see that program, Secured by Design. It has been credited with sharply reducing crime, especially in public housing projects.

"I thought it was too good to be true," Lexington Police Chief Ronnie Bastin said. "But once I saw it, it was very convincing. The beauty of this is in its simplicity."

The idea behind the program is that police officers and academics who research crime know which design factors in buildings and neighborhoods have been shown to encourage or discourage crime.

Those factors include the design and strength of doors, windows and locks; landscaping considerations, such as shrubbery height; sidewalk, window and garbage can placement; the style, placement and height of fencing; and site plans that maximize visibility.

Some of the guidelines are common sense, but not all are. For example, Bastin said he would have assumed that the more outdoor lighting around a building, the better. But research has shown that it's not necessary to create a lot of light pollution. The key is to put the right amount of light in the right places to discourage criminals and make people feel safe.

Most of these factors don't limit architectural expression or esthetic. It's not about designing fortresses, just avoiding known mistakes.

"A lot of these things we're looking at are things the police have been seeing forever ... but architects or builders may not know about, or naturally think about," Paulsen said. "If you do it up front, you fix these problems with a pencil at little cost."

Common building design issues in Lexington that encourage crime include overgrown shrubs, tall privacy fences and a lack of windows on the sides of houses, Bastin said. They give criminals places to hide and can conceal a burglary or other crime in progress.

"There are areas of town where we wish we had had the opportunity to point out some of these things" before construction, Bastin said. "Once it's built, (police) inherit it, and then we have to pour in resources that could be conserved or used for other things."

Paulsen said he plans to work with manufacturers and use British testing data to create a certification program for burglar-resistant doors and windows.

Paulsen said he and police officers are working with the developers of new pedestrian and bicycle trails to make sure they are designed with crime prevention in mind. Design factors include ensuring good visibility at all points.

A common myth is that trails increase neighborhood crime. Paulsen said studies have shown that homes beside well-designed trails experience less crime than other homes.

Paulsen would like to see the Safe by Design standards made mandatory for future public housing in Lexington.

He also said he thinks most developers of new property, and people renovating older buildings, will be eager to participate in the program voluntarily. Some already have contacted the police department for advice, he said.

"We're not trying to be planners or architects," Paulsen said. "We're just trying to bring some expertise to the table that might avoid problems before they happen."

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