Monday, February 23, 2015

Auto Theft and the Built Environment: From the Personal Garage to the Surveillance Society

Auto Theft and the Built Environment: From the Personal Garage to the Surveillance Society

“Terrified by crime and worried about property values, Americans are flocking to gated enclaves in what experts call a fundamental reorganization of community life.”1
            How we create our physical environment--our houses, cityscapes, open areas, streets and sidewalks--says a lot about us as a society. Whether we are orderly or chaotic, inviting or insular, or alternatively, an advanced economy or a developing one are all expressed in the way we organize our space. And when our values change, they are similarly etched in our landscape as a reminder of where we were and what we are becoming. Such is the case with auto theft, particularly in the era after World War II. For a long time, we didn’t design our built environment with deterrence in mind, but now we do, a reflection of an increasingly violent and fragmented urban society.
            In retrospect, Americans could have easily incorporated the deterrence of car theft into the built environment at the time the automobile was introduced and throughout its early years, but that did not happen. As cars gained widespread usage, theft was not a primary concern in either creating the transportation infrastructure or personal spaces. On the contrary, designing out crime through walls, gates, and surveillance was until recently associated with countries plagued by widespread lawlessness, extreme economic disparity, and political upheavals, rather than the US. For much of American history, social stability, perceived or real, was how we viewed ourselves. However times have changed. Since the 1970s, discussions about “defensible space” and “crime prevention through environmental design,” which includes stemming car theft, have become common. This dialogue has also become emotionally charged, as it is often linked to poverty and race. Americans are discovering that the physical and social barriers aimed at fighting crime force a tradeoff between personal security and individual freedom, making this a conflicted choice.
            So what changed to make environmental design a viable approach for enforcing laws and reducing crime including auto theft? First was a rise in offenses during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the overall crime rate in the US soared despite an often-strong economy. Auto theft alone grew by 56 percent from 1970 to 1990. But then, over the next two decades (1990-2010), crime as a whole dropped by a significant 28.6 percent, while auto theft realized a dramatic decrease of 51.4 percent. Even though crime (including auto theft) has been on a steady decline, fundamental changes in our society and economy fueled a lingering and perceived breakdown in order.
            Beginning in the 1960s, people in the US began to feel that their lives were more fragile. Changing urban demographics led to what has been characterized as “white flight.” Immigrants and minorities moved into metropolitan areas as the majority population took to the suburbs. The end of the Cold War and rise of the global economy led to a massive shift in the nation’s industrial landscape throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As jobs were off-shored from the US to other countries, middle-class incomes eroded. Then, in 2001, Americans became victims of the worst terrorist violence on US soil, followed by a financial crisis in the fall of 2008 and collapse of the housing bubble in 2009, and the highest unemployment nationwide since the Great Depression.
            The high crime rate characteristic of earlier periods, a new era of terrorist assaults, and the climate of heightened uncertainty generated an underlying desire for safe environments. New housing developments proudly touted strengthened security, while public spaces were modified to offer increased protection. Americans began the uneasy adjustment to a new normal. The effort to stop thieves from stealing cars was never the main objective of the changes that created “fortress America,”2 but it was a bellwether.

            How the prevention of car theft is reflected in the built environment can be seen in design changes in the home, including personal garages and gated communities, and in public spaces such as streetscapes, parking lots, and structures.

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