Measure: Ownership

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Ownership is the measure of reducing risk by establishing an environment where there is a clear separation between public and private space.


Research[1] has shown that a lack of ownership can act as a disinhibitor for certain crimes, as "Uncertainty of ownership can reduce responsibility and increase the likelihood of crime and anti-social behaviour going unchallenged". Ownership is described as "Places that promote a sense of ownership, respect, territorial responsibility and community".

The level of ownership is expressed in a clear distinction between public, semi-private/communal and private space:

  1. Will it be clear to users — including potential offenders and capable guardians — which space is public, communal, semi-private and private?
  2. Are the boundaries between public, communal and private space signified in the most appropriate manner, be it a physical barrier or a psychological barrier such as changes in paving, surface texture/colour, landscaping and signage?
  3. Will the place have an identity of its own?
  4. Are all those who should feel ownership involved in defining the place’s identity?
  5. Are barriers of a high quality of design in their detailing and appropriate to their local context?


Wood fence, indicating a clear distinction between public and private space. The open structure does not restrict surveillance,
  • Providing a clear demarcation between public and private territory by fences, paving, surface texture/colour, landscaping, planting and/or signage.
  • Increasing the felt level of responsibility for the environment by involving residents and users. This can be achieved in a number of ways, such as town centre management partnerships, tenant management organisations, community development trusts, regeneration programmes and management trusts[2].
  • Involving the community in the design of (parts of) communal spaces.
  • Increasing a sense of communality by using distinct and common design features, like colours or architecture.
  • Hiring of unemployed youths as subway vandalism inspectors.
  • "Adopt-a-station" antivandalism programs.


Security issues where this measure can be effective and influenced by the urban planner, are:

Financial gain Boredom or compulsive behaviour Impulse Conflict in beliefs
Burglary{{#info:Burglary is the crime of illicitly entering a building with the intent to commit an offence, particularly (but not limited to) theft.}} Physical assault{{#info:Assault, is a crime which involves causing a victim to fear or to experience any type of violence, except for sexual violence}} Destruction by riots{{#info:Destruction by riots is the act of vandalism of property by organised groups for a shared rational or rationalised reason.}} Mass killing{{#info:Mass killing is the crime of purposely causing harm or death to a group of (unknown) people in order to make a statement or to influence the public opinion. This threat is exerted out of wilful action by fanatics: terrorists or criminal activists.}}
Ram-raiding{{#info:Ram raid is a particular technique for burglars to gain access to primarily commercial premises, by means of driving -usually stolen- vehicles into locked or closed entrances, exits or windows.}} Sexual assault{{#info:Sexual assault is assault of a sexual nature on another person, or any sexual act committed without consent}} Destruction of property by fanatics{{#info:Destruction by fanatics is the crime of purposely causing damage in order to make a statement or to influence the public opinion.}}
Pickpocketing{{#info:Pickpocketing is a form of theft that involves the stealing of valuables from a victim without their noticing the theft at the time. }} Vandalism{{#info:Vandalism is the act of wilful or malicious destruction, injury, disfigurement, or defacement of property without the consent of the owner or person having custody or control.}}
Robbery{{#info:Robbery is the crime of taking or attempting to take something of value by force or threat of force or by putting the victim in fear. It is used her exclusively for acts committed to individual persons.}} Graffiti{{#info:Grafitti is the defacement of property by means of writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed on a surface in a public place without the consent of the owner or person having custody or control. }}
Raid{{#info:Raid is the crime of taking or attempting to take something of value from a commercial venue by force or threat of force or by putting the victim in fear.}} Antisocial Behaviour{{#info:Antisocial behaviour is an accumulation category of relatively small crimes that highly influence the security perception of citizens. }}
Vehicle theft{{#info:Vehicle theft is the crime of theft, or attempt of theft of or from a motor vehicle (automobile, truck, bus, motorcycle, etc.).}}


General considerations

The form of measures that are most suited to provide ownership depend on the location and use of the object. High fences and landscape that actively impede access are most appropriate in places that are vulnerable to crime, such as the back of dwellings. Lower barriers, hedges and bushes are also highly useful to signify the public/private divide.

Urban planning considerations

Urban planning has an important role to play in facilitating the delineation of spaces and allowing the clear illustration of ownership, while also preserving the functionality, surveillance and (in some examples) permeability which is required of it. By making the concept of ownership clearly visible, the likelihood of criminal or anti-social behaviour can be reduced. In this way, it will be possible to ensure that such spaces retain a positive role within the overall urban fabric.

'Ownership' from an urban planning perspective may not necessarily mean full legal onwership, but rather it represents a sense of pride or ownership that a person may have with the environment through a care and interest in it.

Safety/security considerations

Wherever an increased sense of ownership leads to an increase in social cohesion, this may lead to an increased social concern to one another. This concern can lead to a decrease in security issues (by for example the public not accepting aggression to an fellow resident), or in safety issues (like people providing first aid to an injured fellow resident after an accident).

Social considerations

Ownership as a concept has several connotations, one is psychological ownership and another is ownership in legal and financial terms. Psychological ownership plays a special role regarding the perception of social security, a role that is central to the defensible space theory of architect and city planner Oscar Newman[3]. Defensible space is defined as “a residential environment whose physical characteristics – building layout and site plan – function to allow inhabitants themselves to become key agents in ensuring their security”. Oscar Newman argued that good design can help the resident feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the area around them, which will encourage them to defend it and that the more space that is under the control and influence of the residents the less there is for the criminal to operate in. It has to be said though that the effectiveness of defensible space depends largely on the willingness and particularly the ability of the people in control of it to self-police it.

An example of citizen participation are initiatives like ‘the neighbourhood governs’ (in Dutch: ‘De buurt bestuurt’). Within Neighbourhood Controls initiatives, the residents determine a top 3 of the problems in the neighbourhood that need to be addressed urgently. The professionals (police, local government, district management) then indicate how these problems are addressed. Also the residents make clear what they can contribute to tackling the problems. In this way ‘ownership’ of a residential area is promoted by extending the realm of their homes and the zone of felt responsibility.

A special place takes the 'gated community'. In its modern form, a gated community is a form of residential community or housing estate containing strictly controlled entrances for pedestrians, bicycles, and automobiles, and often characterized by a closed perimeter of walls and fences. Gated communities usually consist of small residential streets and include various shared amenities. For smaller communities this may be only a park or other common area. For larger communities, it may be possible for residents to stay within the community for most daily activities. Gated communities are a type of common interest development, but are distinct from intentional communities.

Given that gated communities are spatially a type of enclave, the argue against it is that they have a negative effect on the net social capital of the broader community outside the gated community. Some gated communities, usually called guard-gated communities, are staffed by private security guards and are often home to high-value properties, and/or are set up as retirement villages. Some gated communities are secure enough to resemble fortresses and are intended as such.

Economic considerations

Privatising public space for security purposes does not necessarily imply that the involved actors also actually 'own' the specific urban object/environment in legal and financial terms. Increasing the involvement of residents and users with the help of regeneration programmes or "adoption"-programmes, for example, does not make these people the legal owner of the specific urban objects, but does increase the involvement of the members of a community.

The cost of 'ownership' measures contain the relatively straightforward direct expenditures on capital equipment and operational cost (both temporary and permanent) such as investment in design features or hiring unemployed youths. In addition, ownership generate various types of indirect economic effects related to the perceived security in an area (less crime is good for business). Whether the cost are making sense from an economic point of view, depends on many factors, and can be answered by two distinct sets of questions (see also the flow chart of an economic assessment):

  1. Are the envisioned 'ownership' measures cost effective from a socioeconomic point of view, or are there better alternatives?
  2. Which specific agents (individuals, companies, sectors, authorities) are affected by the surveillance measures, and to which extend? How do the envisioned measures alter the behaviour of these agents, and, of course, the behaviour of criminals/terrorists (in economic terms)?

Case example: Cost-effective security programmes for schools

The Department of Education and Training in Western Australia initiated in 1999 a successful security risk management programme helping school principals to evaluate existing security measures and determine cost-effective levels of security to meet the risks faced by their schools [4]. Part of this assessment was the draft of a treatment plan for which the principal provided a description of the school plan, including cost of individual security measures and the applied locations. The programme was very successful in reducing the number of offences (13 - 40%) and cost of crime (30 - 70%)[5] against relatively small investment costs between $27,000 and $49,000 (AUD). One of the suggested security measures was ownership/territorial reinforcement in which not only staff and students are involved, but also the community through the School Watch Programme. Other measures were target hardening, surveillance, landscape management and lighting.

Economic tools can help decision makers to answer these questions and to prevent wasteful expenditures on security (of course in collaboration with insights from criminology, sociology, etc.).

Mobility considerations

Mobility infrastructure is usually public, though private roads may exist, which is usually indicated with signs which prohibit entering for public users. Also companies often own a private parking area which is only accessible to employees and visitors of the company. This is usually regulated with a barrier with intercom at the entrance.

Furthermore there can be made a distinction between public and private means of transport. The difference is usually clear (e.g. public buses and private cars), though in some cases it could be unclear if a taxi is an 'offical' public taxi or some private vehicle pretending to be a taxi. Especially in less developed countries (such as Indonesia), transport is offered by all sorts of vehicles ((mini)buses, taxis, rickshaw/becak, scooters) and many not regulated by offical public transport companies. It may be unclear if a bus is an 'official' bus and prices are not regulated. This will create a less safe environment for using public transport. Often touts will offer transport for very high prices to tourists, drive unsafe and/or use unsafe vehicles. This can be approved by making clear which are the 'official' bus- or taxi companies, e.g. using a uniform colour and published schedule and prices, using fixed bus stop locations, or asking the taxi driver for a taxi permit or taxi with regulated taximeter.

Ethics considerations

Ownership-enhancing measures may incur ethics issues of distributive justice, such as risks of reifying uneven distribution of security in society. Creating sense of ownership may in the final analysis contribute to selective delivery of security, making some groups of citizens more secure, and other groups of citizens more vulnerable. This may be the case in a situation where increase in ownership in one community displaces crime to another community. It may furthermore the case that enhancement of ownership will be – unintendedly – at the expense of other groups of citizens, for example reducing their rights to movement, etc.

In general, pinpointing specific ethics aspects in resilience-enhancing measures needs to consider, among other things, citizen security cultures and citizens' personal concerns. There are no ethics considerations that can be planned or implemented without prior identification and addressing of citizens' perceptions. To support this, VITRUV offers a commented list of methods to determine ethics aspects in relevant urban planning.

Legal considerations

Legal considerations when considering ownership measures are:

  • Development management standards - Measures for establishing ownership may conflict with standards about private, semi-private and public space
  • Appearance - Measures for establishing ownership may conflict with appearance rules in situations where certain design elements are mandatory or forbidden

Footnotes and references

  1. Goldstein, Arnold P., Controlling Vandalism: The Person-Environment Duet, School oriented interventions, pp 290-321
  2. Home Office, Safer Places. The planning system and crime prevention, 2004
  4. OECD (2007): School Security Assessment Programme in Australia. PEB Exchange 2007/3 ISSN 1609-7548
  5. This excepts the result of one particular school which dealt with an isolated crime occurrence of stolen computers during the programme evaluation.