Unintended Consequences of the Neo-Traditional City Planning Model


Since the early 20th century, the almost universal adoption of the automobile by US residents has had a profound impact on how we plan and design communities. The widespread use of the auto not only spurred development outside of traditional urban centers, it minimized the need to blend multiple land uses into compact areas.

In contrast, traditional neighborhood design, especially in the northern Midwest and Northeast, accommodated a microcosm of commerce including grocery, butcher, hardware, tavern, cafe and dining establishments to serve relatively small markets living and working within walking distance of the neighborhood.

The advent of the automotive age has spurred the development of suburbs outside the urban core that are characterized by carefully separated land uses, especially between residential and non-residential uses. Most cities developed zoning ordinances which created barriers to ‘protect’ residential sanctity. In contrast to this style of development, a new school of thought began to evolve in the early 90s, which followed the principles used to guide urban development prior to the dominance of the automobile.

Neo-traditional is the favored label for this new school of planning thought; however, the terms Transit Oriented Design (TOD), New Urbanism, Walkable Communities, Smart Growth and Sustainable Communities are also used to identify subcomponents of this form of urban growth. The basic principles behind the neo-traditional movement include:

  • enhanced walkability
  • mixed land uses
  • ease of access to public transit
  • sustainability
  • high density residential
  • defined town/commerce center
  • mixture of housing types

Each of these principles has merit and plays a valid role in the development decision making process. However, in the dash to adopt the neo-traditional model for suburban development, planners have attempted to create a formula of inflexible planning techniques that establishes a one-size-fits-all model with the goal of curing all of the ills attributed to suburban growth.

This tactical criteria of the Neo-traditional model, however, can create unintended negative consequences. The criteria to which I refer includes:

  • grid street patterns
  • connectivity to adjacent neighborhoods
  • mixed, non-residential land uses
  • alley access/rear loaded house

The inflexible application of these tactical criteria enhances opportunities for criminal activities to occur.

Predictable Criminal Behavior
To understand how a space can facilitate criminal activity, it is important to understand the relative opportunities and risks perceived in the criminal mind. 

There are many factors which contribute to criminal activity; however there are four factors a “thinking” criminal evaluates prior to engaging in crimes against property, especially home burglary. The first factor is anonymity; more specifically the ability to engage in a criminal act without being easily identified by potential witnesses. The second factor is the ability to study and evaluate a potential target prior to initiating the specific act. By integrating themselves and their vehicles into a neighborhood’s daily routine, criminals can identify potential targets by determining the occupancy of residences or operating patterns of commercial establishments. The third factor is the ability for a quick, inconspicuous departure which is enhanced by the ability to easily flee the scene via multiple exit routes. The fourth factor is accessibility by car. Certainly some crimes are committed on foot, however a vehicle is predominately used to facilitate a hasty retreat and remove stolen goods from a burglary site.

Grid Street Patterns
As early as the 12th century urban design was used to discourage patterns of criminal activity in London. In the 1970s, studies began to document criminal activities and how they were facilitated by the design decisions that shape our everyday environment. The practice of utilizing design decisions to minimize criminal activity became known as “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design” (CPTED).  The CPTED Guidelines were developed through extensive study of criminal activities. I want to stress that environmental design decisions do not cause the criminal activity, but they can facilitate a more accommodating environment for it to occur. Oscar Newman explains in Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space how thoughtful design of the places in which we live, work, play and learn as well as the routes which connects them can significantly reduce the occurrence of crime against property. Google lists over 13 million sites on the topic “street design and crime”. Simply stated, communities with greater street complexity (fewer exit routes) and fewer common destinations (land uses which attract non-residents) have lower rates of crime as noted in a study by Daniel Beaverton for the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. The grid street pattern combined with high level of connection to adjacent neighborhoods provides maximum opportunities for non-residents to enter and leave a neighborhood with minimal notice.

Advocates for highly connected neighborhoods contend that dispersing driving patterns over a greater number of neighborhood streets minimizes traffic congestion. However, it also creates a means for non-residents to traverse neighborhoods without undue notice. These dispersed travel patterns also allow potential criminals easy access and familiarization with neighborhoods in which they have little first hand knowledge.

In Newman’s study for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Defensible Space – Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, he notes that criminals seldom conduct their activity in areas not familiar to them.  Newman’s theory concurs with the study prepared by C. Bevis and J. B. Nutter, Changing Street Layouts to Reduce Residential Burglary that burglars tend to victimize areas with which they are familiar.

Simply put, increased criminal activity is enhanced in communities where transient traffic is encouraged and increased street connectivity allows for ease of access, observation and escape. The practice of merging homes and businesses into a single community to reduce the reliance on the automobile has validity.  However, it also provides anonymity for criminals as they become cloaked within the community. The neo-traditional design relies on straight streets, rectangular blocks and interlinking grids to connect adjacent neighborhoods and provide numerous access and departure points for residents and non-residents. The grid system also provides criminals a means to anonymously cruise their target without detection.

The consequences of the neo-traditional community design are underscored by the National Crime Prevention Council’s research that shows a correlation between the increase in accessibility for any street segment and the increase in the crime rate. 

To better illustrate the point, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area is generally designed on the grid system. The network of streets allows traffic to leave congested roadways and traverse neighborhoods as an alternate route of movement. In 1996, the Los Angeles Police Department studied the effects of roadways on criminal activity, establishing barricades to stop thru traffic in high crime areas. The study concluded “closing thru streets makes offenders escape more problematic”. For the two years after the barriers were put in place drug activity, residential break-ins, drive-by shootings and homicides were reduced by 65%. Many other inner cities’ designs are based on grid patterns, New York City, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, et al. This design increases the susceptibility to criminal activities in areas where poor maintenance, vacant buildings and low street traffic compound the pattern of crime.

Common Destinations Attracting Non-Residents
The principle of multi-use communities may provide a reduction of vehicular traffic, however multi-family and commercial uses draw non-residents into the neighborhood. Convenience stores, clubs and taverns operating well into the night provide a convenient venue for potential criminals to congregate and hang out.

Land uses which attract individuals from outside the community provide a neutral location to observe the adjacent neighborhoods as well as a cloak of activity for criminals to remain unnoticed.

Alley Access
Many neo-traditional communities require alley access behind all single-family dwellings. Although this creates a more aesthetically pleasing streetscape and enhances walkability, it also increases the street permeability and opportunity to observe all sides of the house as a potential target for burglary. Alleys also provide an additional means of escape as well as a venue for criminal activity as its utilitarian design discourages social interaction providing a welcome area to foster and avoid detection for criminal enterprise.

The current status of neo-traditional community planning is entering a crucial stage. The imposition of planning techniques to shape our future communities is forcing suburban growth into a dictated one-size-fits-all planning model endorsed and promoted at the federal level and enthusiastically supported by many states, local governments and most of academia. Without the flexibility to incorporate factors such as local values, market preferences and geographic character; future communities may result in higher housing costs, limit the selection of housing types while simultaneously enhancing the opportunity for criminal activity.

Obviously, the negative consequences identified can be mitigated.  However, the key here lies in planning flexibility. Many communities enamored with neo-traditional concepts seek to impose absolute formulaic solutions which offer little flexibility in compliance with the technical standards rather than focusing on achieving the guiding principles which form the basis of the neo-traditional movement.

Joe Verdoorn, a Principal at SEC Planning, LLC, has over 40 years land planning and development experience working with clients such as Pulte/Del Webb, Motorola, Apple and Hunt Investments.  He is a pioneer in the field of active adult community design who continues to research the retiree market to understand their evolving wants and needs. 

Photo courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.

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Neo-Traditional Design

A thought-provoking article addressing subjects that I am certain municipal planners and elected officials do not consider when approving or, in many cases, requiring this type of development.

On a more practical level, however, are a number of additional factors that need to be considered including the impracticality of neo-traditional design for many more remote suburban locations, the additional cost of infrastructure in TND development, the usually higher prices of homes in TND communities due to many factors (design restrictions, development cost, etc.) and, perhaps most important, the limited market preference for and acceptance of this type of community.

TND developments can be successful but they are not the universal answer for future residential community design.

Daniel R. Levitan
President, Levitan & Associates

need better evidence

I think the article is thought provoking, but not sure if one can prove the correlation between street design and crime rates.

I live in an older suburb, built-out 50 years ago, with most streets in a grid pattern, and very low crime.

Most crime is property related, and is shoplifting inside stores, and burglary at residences and business. Most burglary is committed by young males that live in the local neighborhood. Most crime is committed by males, but female's favorite crime is shoplifting.

new development incorporating one or more neo-traditional planning elements can offer a nicer choice set to consumers making location decisions; certainly subject to critique but I think ridicule is unwarranted.

Interesting article. I have

Interesting article. I have a few concerns with the reality of this argument, however.

1) Are neo-traditional developments inflexible? Studying them has led me to believe that they are highly variable in nature, making generalizations like this very difficult. Some may adhere to the grid-network, rear garage model, but many don't. Additionally, some will have a different type of neighborhood mix (with some even separating residential from commercial areas to an extent). There are no studies, that I'm aware of, that test variability between design elements, so making these generalizations should be avoided.

2) Is there any empirical work that identifies neo-traditional developments with increased crime? Without that this is just a theory, and one that I would argue wouldn't hold up in analysis. I could be wrong, though, and I'd be very interested in seeing a study that investigates this supposed relationship. To me, however, casual observations have led me to believe that these developments are a) frequented by the upper-middle class (who do not generally engage in the kinds of criminal activity discussed in this article) [work on new urban exclusivity bears this out] and b) generally low on crime (the developments I've visited had no security concerns that I was/am aware of). I realize that last sentence is a bit tedious, but don't let it detract from the overall point I'm making.

Essentially, without a way to quantify this argument I'd have to argue that it is not-true. I'm not familiar with the "crime prevention and urban design" literature, so I'm making a semi-blind argument. However, your argument singles out a sole development style as being problematic. I think the design aspect could play a part, but socio-economic factors are surely more important in determining the likelihood of crime in an area...maybe I'm wrong there, though.

Sounds logical, but these ideas aren't supported by reality

Crime rates tend to be higher in areas with large concentrations of low-income residents that don't have easy access to jobs for their skill level. Areas that have large concentrations of low-income residents tend to be the older working class neighborhoods and early, inner ring trolley-line suburbs of post-industrial cities, which happen to have straight and gridded streets typically. The documented correlation between crime and street design is coincidental, not causal. An exception can be found in Memphis, TN where many low-income residents have moved from older urban neighborhoods near the center into the outlying suburban areas thanks to the availability of Adjustable Rate Mortgages in the 2000s, redevelopment and HOPE VI projects within the city of Memphis, and Section 8 vouchers that de-concentrated housing projects. The curving and informal pattern of the streets in these suburban areas that were becoming home to lower-income residents did not prevent enormous increases in crime. In fact, the street layouts made it very difficult for police to patrol and get to reported incidents and the streets enabled suspects to flee through backyards to nearby streets that were not easily accessible by vehicle because of the irregular road layout.
Additionally, the social segregation of conventional, auto-oriented suburban subdivision development leads to isolation and cultural degradation for lower-income folks, whereas mixed-use neighborhoods that draw in outside influences of different income groups, provide a framework for a richer social experience and a greater diversity of opportunities, which greatly offsets any potential impact on increased crime.

You make some very interesting common sense remarks in this piece, unfortunately, the research on this topic does not support your opinion. It does seem that some design elements of "neo-traditional" planning (by the way, that photo isn't a traditional development pattern, it is an example of conventional auto-oriented development: notice the road facing garages) might facilitate crime, but when actually studied, that isn't the case at all. In most cases, the mid-tier suburbs of the 1950s-80s that typically have irregular street patterns located between the older trolley-line suburbs and new exurbs have higher crime rates than the straight gridded patterned inner city neighborhoods had prior to the urban exodus of Post-WW2. That fact doesn't prove that suburban road design causes or facilitates crime, it only disproves that "neo-traditional" streets do. Again, crime is related to where low-income residents live, what kind of access to jobs for their skill level they have, and the access to different income groups and cultural differences that they experience. Since low-income folks tend to live in segregated older inner-city neighborhoods that happen to have straight streets because they were developed in the late 19th Century, crime is higher in those places. Additionally, as is the case in Memphis, since many low-income folks live in sprawling suburban areas without access to jobs or diverse demographics, crime flourishes and in many cases is facilitated and aided by the irregular street layout, moreso than was the case when these same people lived in the inner-city neighborhoods of Memphis.
Also, the drop in crime in Los Angeles in 1996 was part of a national trend in the mid-to-late 1990s in which crime dropped dramatically in virtually every American city.
Any development will fail if the economics and demographics aren't right regardless of the street layout.

Old Narrow Streets

Driving thru the neighborhood where my grandparents lived (laid out in 1918) I noticed the streets are parked full of cars even in the middle of a workday. As a result one lane of traffic is all that can go thru. In fact its hard in some cases to squeeze a pickup thru the single lane. It is an interesting comment on the increasing wealth of our society in the width of streets, where modern streets will handle cars parked on both sides of the street. Of course even with alleys there is not enough off street parking for the number of cars per house today. This of course also makes the job of the police harder as its harder to get a car thru (perhaps they use motorcycles in older neighborhoods instead)