Re: Violence as a Public Health Issue

Anders Sandberg (
12 Aug 1998 16:48:50 +0200

Hara Ra <> writes:

> What if we looked at violence as a health problem??

An interesting post by Hara Ra.

After visiting Arcosanti during my trip to the states I began to think about the up- and downsides of modern cities. I have noted that many of the problems encountered in city life are to some degree avoidable, if environments, systems and institutions are designed properly. Soleri suggested "legislating by design", and I think he has a point. Instead of coercing people to behave well, make the environment such that they will behave well.

Vandalism is an example. People vandalize property more often if it can be done anonymously and especially if it doesn't seem to belong to anybody in particular - things that clearly belong to someone are less often vandalized (this also holds for cleaning up common rooms; a kind of tragedy of the commons). Vandalism is higher in entranceways and semi-public places, but even a low wall (purely symbolic) can decrease vandalism by making and entrance or building wall private. Newman proposed the idea of defensible space: create areas that are clearly defined and seems to belong to the residents of the area (and not just some impersonal force like "everyone", the remote landlord etc). Since this is someone's territory, people are less likely to vandalize it (both since they might get seen by a resident who might be more likely to react and since it is someone else's territory - never underestimate the old primate signals!). This seems to have been borne out in experiments, where vandalism and crime decreased markedly in areas where the buildings were designed with this in mind.

Newman 1972, Defensible Space, Macmillan, New York

Fowler, McCall and Mangione 1979, Reducing Residential Crime and Fear: The Hartford Neighborhood Crime Prevention Program. Government Printing Officem Washington DC

Wilson 1978, Vandalism and 'defensible space' on London housing estatesm in R. Clarke, Tackling Vandalism. Home Office Research Study No 47. HMSO, London

Another simple way of getting rid of grafitti is to avoid having large, smooth grey concrete surfaces - put up a wooden pallisade or plant trees or bushes in front, and suddenly there is less interest in grafitti. This is a simple design solution, and works without much extra costs (in fact, it has other obvious esthetic benefits).

So I don't see why you can't use similar design solutions against other problems, including violence. Things are more tricky here of course, especially since we are now talking about not just physical environments but social environments and structures.

David Brin and his supporters are essentially proposing making almost everywhere visible through the transparent society; this would certainly limit many forms of criminality (although it may weaken the sense of privacy that makes private and semi-private areas safer too). The libertarian proposal of privatizing much or everything deals with the other side of the visibility-privacy pair of defensible space; this would clearly make it up to the owners to ensure their properties were suitably marked and delineated. Of these, the later seems to be somewhat tricky to implement politically and possibly practically (let's ignore that debate, it is off a tangent), while the former may or may not come to pass depending on IMHO rather uncertain predictions of where gnatbots, privacy counter measures and public policy might go.

But there are likely many other possibilities that can be explored.

What I saw at Arcosanti and read in Soleri's book about the project suggests that a cleverly designed community can become very efficient resource-wise and likely function well socially. However, Soleri's large scale arcologies seem to me to be too large to be stable socially, they seem to be too much undefensible space and diffused responsibility. On the other hand, the more modest Arcosanti mini-arcology seems to be just of the right size psychologically to promote a sense of community and shared space, while getting advantages of scale. Maybe one should work towards developing Arcosanti-like structures to replace ailing parts of our cities? One model already exists, the university campus.

There is a lot to be said for approaching violence and other social problems as health or design problems instead of the usual approaches; this way we can at least find some new solutions that have not got bogged down in political trench warfare.

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
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