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August 28, 2015 | Last Updated 10:20 PM
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Jun 20 2011 10:08AM
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Shaun Benton

Crime can be reduced with a strategy of “situational crime prevention” by using neglected open spaces and applying urban planning more effectively.

Even the national treasury has been taking tips from the city of Cape Town on a cutting-edge anti-crime strategy that uses holistic measures, including urban upgrading, to reduce violence and encourage socioeconomic progress.

The City’s Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) project is not the easy “low-hanging fruit” of crime reduction strategies, says the city’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith. Rather, it combines a number of complex factors from the analysis of crime trends on a micro-urban level to architectural interventions to the boosting of economic opportunities and, especially, an enhanced sense of “community ownership” of VPUU projects.

A key element is “passive surveillance”, says Alastair Graham, an urban planner with the city and the point man for the city’s VPUU projects, along with the VPUU team leader, Michael Krause, an independent consultant and urban designer who trained at Germany’s famous Bauhaus Institute and is described by Graham as the “main brain” behind the VPUU concept.

Put simply, the surveillance involves members of communities keeping an eye on public spaces, with the deterrence this provides to criminals who know that any acts of violence they perpetrate will have a number of witnesses.

Enhancing this means making several adjustments at the level of urban planning, with Graham pointing out that many houses in, for example, Khayelitsha – whose Harare, or Site C location, was the initial kick-off focus of the VPPU at its inception in 2006 – face away from public spaces, rather than on to them.

“The broad objectives of the programme at the time were to improve safety, to improve quality of life and to improve the socioeconomic situation,” says Graham, with Smith pointing out that the VPUU initiative was a variation of crime prevention through environmental design, which is internationally practised.

One part of the strategy – which is not simply a “safety” initiative – is to “commercialise” hot spots around which a lot of crime occurs, such as near taxi ranks, a bus terminus or a train station, by providing spaces for residents to run businesses from, thus raising the level of surveillance.

This has been done in Khayelitsha by providing shipping containers linked to the electricity and water grid, and arose after residents themselves suggested these busy nodes as desirable places from which to trade – despite their reputation for crime.

Known in the jargon of the urban planners as “active boxes”, these can also provide community facilities and spaces for social engagement, from housing an NGO or a community recreational facility.

Combined, including high rises with one on top of another, these form instant shopping malls, which are seen as a major way forward for the VPUU programme.

These can then also provide non-commercial spaces for early childhood development centres, offices for NGOs and others, which altogether can provide an income stream to pay for the maintenance of public spaces.

Other interventions appear simple but make a difference: providing good street lighting on previously poorly lit pedestrian walkways, to using empty spaces for an urban park and a sporting facility.

The VPUU programme is being rolled out with the support of Cape Town, the national treasury, the German Development Bank and the Federal German Ministry for Economic Development and Co–operation, and the residents of the sprawling township.

Four years later the successes of the programme – with its myriad of highly targeted interventions – drew the attention of the UN, with recognition at the 5th UN Habitat World Urban Forum of 2010 held in Rio de Janeiro.

Now, the murder rate in the Harare section of Khayelitsha has dropped by about 40% – more than the national average, insists Smith, who points to the rise of neighbourhood watches in the area, where batches of 40 to 50 people patrol the streets accompanied by one or two metro police or police members.

While unpaid, residents are encouraged to see their participation as part of a civic duty, although there can be direct benefits in the form of “credits” that people can earn that can be put towards more specific training, which will give rise to later opportunities.

And Smith is clear that when recruiting for metro police and city law enforcement staff, individuals with a background in neighbourhood watches will be high on the list for jobs – thus providing a personal incentive for people to get involved.

Central to the success of VPUU is its intense level of refinement as an urban renewal project, says Smith. This began with the presidential urban renewal projects during the Mbeki presidency, when large amounts of money – R1.2bn in the case of Khayelitsha and R720m in Mitchells Plain – were thrown at these urban nodes.

Now, it’s about spending “the least possible to target the most valuable levers to tilt the fastest possible tipping point to achieve urban renewal”, he says, adding that R120m has so far been spent on VPUU in Khayelitsha.

One major spatial initiative is Harare Square in Khayelitsha, which was a neglected, poorly lit and open piece of land that formed part of the route to people’s homes from Mew Way, an area known for serious crime.

Now, much of it has been terraced, with an informal market, children’s play area and a place for socialising and events, along with a new libr

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