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Addressing crime and violence in informal settlements through environmental design

Isandla Institute | 2021-08-04 | 772 views

Crime and violence in South Africa is an ongoing issue that government, civil society and the private sector are grappling with. We have seen an increase in crime levels, partly due to the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the economy and communities, with many people having lost their livelihoods, been laid off or lost earnings.

The crime statistics for the first three months of 2021 paint a grim picture: nearly 5,000 people were murdered during this period, showing an 8% increase (387 additional murders) compared to the corresponding period in the previous year.
Evidence shows that low-income communities such as informal settlements are not only disproportionately affected by the devastating impact of Covid-19, but also by violence and crime. Many informal settlement residents are excluded from the local economy, and there is little to no basic service delivery and infrastructure to support the socio-economic development of these communities. The density of these settlements and the lack of roads make it difficult for law enforcement to patrol the neighbourhood or respond to calls in these areas. Improving the built environment makes a significant difference, not only for policing, but for the community as well.

In fact, law enforcement is but one part of the solution to violence and crime. A broader developmental approach is needed to respond to the risk factors that underpin violence and crime. This is the stance taken in the White Paper on Safety and Security (2016), which uses the socio-ecological model as a framework for violence prevention. The model, which identifies risk factors at different social levels (Individual, Relationship, Community and Society), can be applied to the context of informal settlements.

The lack of reliable basic services in close proximity to one’s dwelling, inadequate street lights to enable visibility and surveillance and lack of vibrant public spaces and community facilities all contribute to an environment of vulnerability and risk, with women and children disproportionately affected. Similarly, lack of pre-schools and other educational facilities make children more susceptible to crime and violence. And unemployment and economic hardship create conditions for despair, stress and violence and for organised criminal groupings (i.e. gangs) to gain a stronger foothold in the community.

Local government has a constitutional mandate to provide a safe and healthy environment for residents. Given the specific environmental risk factors to violence experienced by people living in informal settlements, informal settlement upgrading needs to be accelerated to advance safety. In designing and implementing informal settlement upgrading projects, there is value in drawing from integrated violence prevention approaches, such as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), which combine social, physical and infrastructural interventions to bring about neighbourhoods that are safe, economically vibrant and culturally inclusive. Moreover, participatory approaches are at the heart of violence and crime prevention interventions – in the same way that community participation should underpin informal settlement upgrading.

There is therefore an obvious synergy between the principles, objectives and approaches for informal settlement upgrading, as outlined in the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme and further specified in the new Informal Settlements Upgrading Partnership Grant (ISUPG), and codified area-based violence prevention approaches. The SaferSpaces website ( provides useful resources for those wanting to learn more.

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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