The Force of Sight: Urban Crime Delineation and Prevention Through GIS

by Stefano Serafini

Everyone remembers the lucky slogan featured by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: for the sake of safety, livability, and hence attractiveness of cities “there must be eyes upon the street”. Such a maxim seems to evidently match common sense, but yet some critics have been challenging it during the last 15 years.[1]

Solmaz Amiri, a graduate of Washington State University, has devoted 4.5 years of research to scientifically test the relationship between natural surveillance provided by the sight of passers-by and residents, and the decrease of a specific crime: residential burglaries. Her work (a Doctor of Design dissertation at WSU, under supervision of Kerry Brooks Ph.D.) has been funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The results of her research suggest a positive relationship between the ability of residents to survey non-private areas of their neighborhoods and incidents of residential burglaries.

To harvest the data Amiri generated a detailed 3D model of a neighborhood in the city of Spokane which has been characterized by high crime rates. She then developed a visibility measure, in order to quantify surveillance characteristics of building and building openings. This allowed her to compare her hypothesis about entry points visibility to actual crime data and crime trends. “Data had to be reliable, and I met the cooperation of the City of Spokane Police Department”, says Amiri. “Dealing with such data was not that easy, as this is sensitive information that cannot be spread, nor even stored but under a strict security procedure.”

Indeed the entire study was not easy at all. It required the support of the latest geospatial data and technology in order to model neighborhoods in 3-D, and even with such a support, it required Amiri to acquire skills in statistics and coding. “I am not a criminologist, I am a professional architect dedicated to design and build constructions both in my country, Iran, and in Germany. I knew how to develop plans describing design specifications, building materials and details, but I did not know how to use visual programming languages, or how to calculate the exact incidence of a point of sight via GIS, for example. I just learned it.”

The result is that she became able to use geospatial data and tools to determine if there is a relationship between visibility of entry points and likelihood of burglary commissions. She could prove that being able to see a residence and its doors and windows from a street increased the chance of burglary occurrence, and when that residence and its doors and windows are more visible by neighbors, the likelihood of burglary victimization decreased.

“I would like to test the visibility model I have developed for delineating locations of other crimes with a spatial visibility component,” Amiri said. “This would provide designers, urban planners, and policy makers with more evidence about what urban physical features can be criminogenic. As you know, certain spaces can enhance sociability; others can make you feel at odd with the context, and thus estrange you; others can help prevent crime, or can facilitate it. I think better design means a more aware design.. Therefore my work is not addressing a matter of external control, but of prevention and of social justice. Every people, not only the richest ones, have the right to live in a safe environment.”

Solmaz Amiri would like to thank many people and organizations for making this dissertation possible, including her dissertation committee, the National Institute of Justice, the Spokane Police Department and the County of Spokane. She is also grateful for the support she received from the International Society of Biourbanism.

Solmaz Amiri, D.Des., MArch. Testing a Geospatial Predictive Policing Strategy: Application of ArcGIS 3D Analyst Tools for Forecasting Commission of Residential Burglaries. Washington State University School of Design and Construction. December 2014 (downloadable here: )

Contact: Solmaz Amiri,