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Making public housing safer in France: the gentle rise of Situational Crime Prevention?

Véronique Levan
Cet article est une traduction de :
Sécurisation des quartiers « sensibles » : l’inéluctable ascension de la prévention situationnelle ? []


Dès le milieu des années 1990, le recours pragmatique, par les bailleurs sociaux, à l’approche situationnelle, pour résorber les dysfonctionnements propices à la diffusion des incivilités et des actes délinquants, devient légion dans de nombreux quartiers d’habitat social dits « sensibles » sur le territoire français. Comment évaluer ce choix ? Quels possibles accompagnements sociaux envisager pour tenter de concilier la banalisation de ces systèmes abstraits de sécurisation avec l’exigence d’urbanité?

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1Criminological theories grounded on a behavioral approach to crime prevention have surfaced for the last decade in a growing number of urban regeneration programmes targeted on crime-ridden French deprived public housing neighbourhoods, along once-predominant paradigms of crime causation. Emerging modes of prioritizing and of labeling urban risks, as defined by new “experts”, inexorably call for the engineering of new responses to urban disorders (Giddens, 1991). The profound remoulding of the structural landscapes of public housing projects has been brought about by a set of social and societal mutations that have unfolded at higher levels of spatial aggregation – unregulated flux of globalization, the rise of terrorist threats with no clear outlines, processes of “detraditionalization” (Giddens, 1998), the expansion of individualism. Unlike its Anglo-American counterparts, this is a comparatively new experiment in France.

  • 2 This work was conducted within the framework of my ongoing doctoral research at the Sorbonne Univer (...)

2The aim of this study2 is twofold. Of primary interest is to investigate some of the dynamics underpinning the patent resort to the situational approach in public housing rehabilitative schemes. The current cognitive deficit, as related to the lack of knowledge of the latest theoretical developments in environmental criminology notably, does not allow for an updated and comprehensive apprehension of the opportunity reduction preventative approach in France. It can also preclude elaborate discussions on this approach as a crime prevention paradigm. Situational crime prevention should henceforth be envisioned as encompassing several features not merely restricted to defensible spaces (Newman, 1972), access control or target hardening techniques (Clarke, 1992), or even to the tenet of “place manager” (Cohen and Felson, 1979). As applied to the realm of public housing, it also includes, among other things, issues as varied as the management of residents’ transfers (Bottoms and Wiles, 1988), quality of life policing when dealing with incivilities (Wilson and Kelling, 1982), and proactive interventions by community policing ( Clarke and Sorensen, 1997; Body-Gendrot and Duprez, 2001).

3Second, as design devised for the purpose of deterrence takes shape and becomes normalized, it is ordinarily assumed to occur with a subsequent process of anchoring of distrust (Crawford, 2000) towards the strangers to the neighbourhood – the “dangerous outsiders”. Another charge which is often brought to the fore against deterrent design is that it is believed to produce homogeneous and barren places of living, disregarding established social practices. How then and to which extent would it be possible to reconcile somewhat conflicting goals in at-risk low-income neighbourhoods – on the one hand, enhancing community building and social cohesion; on the other hand, promoting a new governance of urban risks underlying the deployment of technical and abstract situational systems.

Responses to insecurity in ‘difficult-to-let’ public housing projects (1995 – the present) – a resort to evidence-driven policies?

From « nothing works » … to « what works? »

  • 3 The issue of the lack of congruence of the question « what works? » at an international scale was r (...)

4It seems to be highly common for extremely politicized sociological and criminological concepts to make their way to new promised lands, where they eventually end up evolving new crime prevention paradigms (Donnison, 1998; Hope and Sparks, 2000). This assuredly paves the way for the questioning of the relevance of the concern about « what works? » in the French context3. Was there ever a shift from primary prevention (Brantingham and Faust, 1976) focussing on socio-cultural programmes, of which ineffectiveness was actually proved, to approaches targeting urban physical environments and – to a much lesser extent in France – residential defense (Hope, 1995), with a circumstantial evidence of success? Or rather did perceptions on what is to be done fluctuate depending on cultural and political contexts, on the popular inclination towards particular modes of governance of security, and on new social constructions of urban problems?

5Indeed, in the mid-1970s in the UK, with Ron Clarke and Ian Sinclair (1974) at the Home Office, and in the United States, with Robert Martinson and James Wilson (1975), the « nothing works » argument was used as a paradigm for change (Sullivan, 2000:83). The effectiveness of rehabilitative treatments, and with them, the positivistic model focussed on individual pathology, were increasingly called into question. As a sign of the adjustment of the use of the new paradigm, slightly more than two decades later, when Lawrence Sherman and his colleagues (1997) reintroduced the question of « what works » in the public debate, they actually meant to warn against any ideological resort to symbolic politics. Hence for the French situation, would it be legitimate to put forward the averred limitations of the social approach in dealing with urban delinquency? The sheer scarcity of criminal justice public policy evaluations in France (Robert, 1994) – not to mention strong research design ones – precludes any attempt to adopt any firm position on that matter, despite soaring urban disorder rates. Some researchers have argued in favour of implementation failure as opposed to theory failure. They would notably point to the compartmentalization of implementing agencies, to the multi-layered administrative procedures, to the diffusion of financial aids, etc. (Body-Gendrot, 1993). As a result, the impact of social policies can hardly be gauged by an absence of crime and disorder.

The rise of a performance culture

6No doubt, the situational approach seems to be a better way to promote rationalities heralding a managerial culture. A great number of local crime and disorder observatory tools – not all of them very elaborate though – have growingly been employed by local stakeholders, like the social landlords, who had not hitherto incorporated safety concerns into the everyday management of public housing. New devices for measuring what previously constituted missing values are now made available. The capacity to produce figures can also be seen as the golden way to gain the consideration from other partners in local safety partnerships. Since more attention is drawn to opportunity reduction through environmental design, adaptation must ensue, and hence the issue of the social inclusion of potential offenders is purposefully left aside for some time. Urban planning is therefore to be more responsive to opportunist crime by making it situationally and perceptively more difficult and risky, by reducing the rewards, provocations, and by removing excuses ( Clarke, 2003).

  • 4 Local management offices were created in « distressed » areas as part of a broader mouvement of dec (...)

7As supposedly project-based, with expected attainable objectives and measurable outcomes, a short-term vision paradoxically coexists with the desire to supply sustainable and cost-effective systems that are resistant to malevolent use and easily removable in case of defect. The main purpose is in fact to define good practice, ensure dissemination and subsequent replication (Wyvekens, 2003). Indeed, most conventional regeneration programmes were not successful in reducing urban disorders. Thus, the new highly visible, commonsensical responses are designed to mirror the institutional handling of civilian demands for increased safety. Meantime, housing estate-based management4 emerge in these neighbourhoods in order to be able to monitor most closely their customers’ requests.

Pragmatism as a given

  • 5 Section 11 of the 1995 Bill on Security and Section 52 of the 2001 Bill on Daily Security are legis (...)

8Premised upon the pioneer work on defensible spaces in public housing in New York City by American architect Oscar Newman (1972), followed by the study of council estates in London by Alice Coleman (1985), the tenet of the privatization of common areas in multiple housing has influenced French urban planners and architects only lately. The obvious lack of scientific footing of these evaluative researches does not seem to have hindered the integration of public safety considerations into the design of rehabilitative schemes in low-income neighbourhoods. Several factors might actually account for this: the widespread resort to pragmatism by practitioners, incentives provided by the national government in order to advocate innovative means of assessing and of analysing crime risks underlying a new governance of urban risks5, the bounded influence of non-French-speaking literature in this particular criminological field.

  • 6 It was held in 1997 (October 24-25) and the concept of coproduction of security was advocated once (...)

9Furthermore, this pragmatic movement is itself rooted in a drive for granting an egalitarian access to safety to deprived areas – a crusade undertaken in many western countries for a few decades already (Roché, 2002a) –, and this aim has been restated on many occasions since the Villepinte Meeting in 19976. If it certainly appears legitimate to target interventions to ‘difficult-to-let’ disadvantaged neighbourhoods, this goal should not be divorced from the joint implicit aims of taking back « forbidden areas » and of suppressing predefined latent threats emanating from religious fanaticism in particular (Bousquet, 1998). Enhanced formal surveillance exerted by public housing caretakers and by community policing officers is expected to contribute to alleviate these dysfunctions. The latter are also solicited to bear a part to the conception of crime risk assessments and accordingly they advocate specific design recommendations related notably to the escape routes that need to be walled to facilitate their routine interventions. For some researchers, this might be a Foucaldian manifestation of ‘government-at-distance’.

10The French adaptation of the notion of defensible spaces thus aims to redefine modes of spatial organization, of motion, and of interactions between users in communal spaces. The suggestive and symbolic functions conveyed by urban design are used as means of regulating the flux of residents and passers-by going to and fro, of reducing opportunities for encounters, and of generating orderly environments, undisturbed spaces where social screening (Berman, 1982) is at work.

11However, how do the main recipients welcome these changes that affect them most directly on a permanent basis – are they active or passive beneficiaries? How then to rejuvenate deserted public spaces?

How to reconcile community building and urban safety?

Of costs and benefits? The inside views of users

12Bringing both urban safety and hence upgraded quality of life back to disadvantaged neighbourhoods are objectives based upon joint assumptions about the users of these spaces, may they be law-abiders or unlawful intruders. On the one hand, the normalization of target hardening systems, reflected noticeably in protected door-entryphones, in higher iron fences, etc., should deter potential offenders and restrain them from engaging in harmful activities. On the other hand, the social connotation attached to the concept of « residential units » (Tabet, 1999) should convey to residents the feeling that they have moved upwardly, at least in the urbanistic trajectory. In return, they are tacitly required to bear some responsibility for taking care of communal areas and for maintaining improved quality of life for the collective interest. However, there does not seem to have been much consideration for the issue of the ‘social costs’ (Skogan, 1981) that the « intrusion » of such abstract systems into the everyday lives of residents brings about. Focussed intervention is assuredly justified given the ecological concentration of crime in particular residential neighbourhoods. Nonetheless, this type of governance of urban risks often fails to take into consideration residents’ specific grievances. Hence, either by lack of motivation or of awareness by the latter of the real stakes implicit with the installing of situational techniques – a situation further exacerbated by the absence of an educating process – the operation of these situational systems inevitably turn out to be a mere failure. This is precisely where a possible weak link might lie in the whole safety structure. The ethical question deserves more attention, at the very time of an unquestioned expansion of situational schemes in France.

13As part of the doctoral research, a longitudinal survey with public housing tenants, prior to and following the incremental implementation of some situational measures, has been conducted for the Parisian case study. Besides, a comparative work with both London and New York City has sought to investigate reception of the safety schemes by local stakeholders and residents and should therefore – when released – shed new light on the interactive interrelated mechanisms at work.

The road towards participative planning?

  • 7 A law enacted in 1986 establishes the duty for the public housing management to implement consultat (...)

14In reaction to criticism pertaining to physical determinism, First-Generation CPTED concepts have been recently growingly given a helping hand by Second-Generation CPTED, the latter being arguably a more pragmatic approach, developed mainly in the United States, in Canada, and in Australia. Derived from a combination of a set of social components and of community-wide consultative strategies, Second-Generation CPTED seeks to embrace local social and physical ecologies. The new approach comprises more traditional occupational schemes for the youth, conflict mediation to ease intergenerational interactions, socio-economic interveaving into the urban fabric, fostering of local identity (Cleveland and Saville, 2003). It is hoped that having a real say concerning key decisions affecting their proximate living environments, residents will be more inclined to take back public spaces. Despite the fact that it was not formerly labeled as such, participative planning in France has been promoted from the mid-1980s by a series of legislative developments7. However, in practice, the myriad of inclusive strategies does not necessarily presume a regular resort to them. Deeply anchored catholicist paternalism also supports this fact. However, such experiments are deemed worth paying attention to, as illustrated by the following story which was related elsewhere (Levan, 2004). A fieldwork methodology grounded on participant observation indeed helped to uncover it.

15In order to appease rather tense relations between the public housing management and the main tenant association – in my Parisian case study –, the former, via the initiative of the new manager, formally agreed to promote a better communication scheme with the latter. It entailed the engineering of a problem-solving approach featuring the very specific priorities voiced by the residents and related, for example, to the inconvenience generated by some design arrangements which had resulted from concerns about safety. As a consequence, a responsibilization process was set up, and it involved a small number of residents who informally willingly took up the role of place managers afterwards. During a tour of the housing project in December 2003, one of the residents who took part in it scolded a group of youth gathering in one of the lobbies: unless they stayed quiet and they would not smoke or make a mess on the premises, they had no right to be there. And the crowd went away. The causal link between enhanced resident participation to local management decision-making and the development of « pieces » of informal surveillance is far from being unmediated. In a long term perspective nevertheless, the aggregation of these – however frail – individual efforts should contribute to promote the social framework instrumental in fostering sustainable residential defence. Again, this novel participative approach does not allow for a rigourous scientific evaluation. It would nonetheless be more accurate to take into account the unfolding of informal social control practices as a possible way – non-exclusive of others though – to fill the cognitive void as regards the real, actual social impacts of these preventative measures.

16To democratize access to safety and to upgraded quality of life in « at-risk » deprived neighbourhoods, should no doubt go hand in hand with focussing on the social and human dimensions of civilian demands for enhanced urban safety. Henceforth, this endeavour is more likely to engender a common urban culture (Audoin and Bossavit, 2000), shared by both the safety service providers and the recipients. It is indeed all about a holistic approach that should carefully consider local cultural and social idiosyncracies.

17Evaluations of public policies in France have usually remained in the hands of a few experts and they have not been legion, given also political and administrative resistance to monitoring. The incorporation of strong social science research designs into evaluative methodologies should allow for the justification of the – otherwise undebatable – widespread resort to situational schemes, beyond mere anecdotal success. The issue of the opportunistic rise of situational crime prevention would hence no longer seem relevant at all.

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2 This work was conducted within the framework of my ongoing doctoral research at the Sorbonne University and at the CESDIP-CNRS, which pertains to a cross-national work on situational crime prevention in public housing. It was supported by a Tocqueville scholarship granted by the French Committee of the French American Foundation.

3 The issue of the lack of congruence of the question « what works? » at an international scale was raised at various points during the 1st Key Issues Conference of the Societies of Criminology on « What works in reducing crime », which was held in Paris from May 13-15, 2004. This article is the improved draft of an earlier version prepared for this conference.

4 Local management offices were created in « distressed » areas as part of a broader mouvement of decentralisation of public housing companies in France, which was inaugurated from the 1970s in large public housing agencies in charge of more than 10,000 housing units (Allen and Bonetti, 1998). The decentralized units helped to foster greater efficiency through deep restructuration of internal organization, rearrangement of management priorities, etc.

5 Section 11 of the 1995 Bill on Security and Section 52 of the 2001 Bill on Daily Security are legislative illustrations.

6 It was held in 1997 (October 24-25) and the concept of coproduction of security was advocated once again. Novel forms of local partnerships on safety and the Police de Proximité – the French model of community policing – were inaugurated on that occasion.

7 A law enacted in 1986 establishes the duty for the public housing management to implement consultation programmes whenever a rise in rents is planned. In 1993, another piece of legislation provides such consultation spaces for any rehabilitative scheme that necessitates a PALULOS special grant. More recent statutory legislation (Loi Solidarité et Renouvellement Urbain, 2000) re-emphasizes these requirements, especially in sensitive areas.

1 In France, there are mainly two types of companies in charge of the management of public housing: public bodies (OPHLM; OPAC ) and private law companies for low-income housing (SA ).

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Véronique Levan, « Making public housing safer in France: the gentle rise of Situational Crime Prevention? »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. I | 2004, mis en ligne le 06 juin 2005, consulté le 07 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Véronique Levan

Ph.D. student, Sorbonne University and CESDIP-CNRS, Immeuble Edison, 43 boulevard Vauban, F-78280, Guyancourt. Contact:

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