Changing the Crime Timeline through Environmental Design

Police Officer taking a photo near a bush

The Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) has recently partnered with Dr. Randy Atlas, America’s only architect and criminologist, to deliver a new course, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). CPTED teaches participants to assess the safety of built environments in order to reduce accidents and opportunistic crime. Dr. Atlas is a Fellow at the American Institute of Architecture (FAIA), a Certified Protection Professional (CPP), and a Certified CPTED trainer and practitioner with the International CPTED Association. He recently sat down with us to talk about CPTED and his partnership with TEEX.  

Q: What is CPTED?  

A: The principle behind CPTED, or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, is that you can reduce the opportunity for crime through the design of the physical environment. As a result, you can improve the quality of life in that area. If you don’t feel safe in your neighborhood or park, it makes a difference to the quality of life.  

Q: How does CPTED work?  

Practicing CPTED involves reviewing plans and specifications from architects or developers to see if we can identify potential problem areas ahead of time. Different professionals like architects, contractors, and interior designers interact with how buildings are designed and used. The goal is to train these people that develop the built environment. If that space doesn’t feel, look and act safe, people aren’t going to use it – or they are going to use it for the wrong reasons.  

CPTED is a course about consequences, and it makes you realize there are no accidents. When cars are stolen, why is it happening there? When people are assaulted in a garage, why is it happening there? If we understand that, we can change the outcome by consulting architects, developers and security. 

Q: Can you talk about the idea that there are no accidents a bit more?  

A: When I teach CPTED, I say, “I submit for your consideration that there are no accidents.” The environment creates, promotes or allows crimes to happen. There’s a reason those kids skateboard on that wall. There are no bumps, no cameras and no one’s watching.  

Consider a parking lot that is not well-defined with fencing and good lighting. It’s no wonder cars are broken into, and purses are snatched. It’s like going into the kitchen in an old apartment building in New York City. You turn on the lights, and a thousand cockroaches scatter on the tabletop. Why are they there? Because they have a thousand different points under the counter to rest and relax until the lights go out and they go on a feeding frenzy.  

CPTED’s role is to shine a light on the cockroaches of the universe. We design the kitchen to be resistant to bug infestations by cleaning the counters, caulking crevices so they can’t get in and spraying pesticides. It’s the same philosophy with criminals. CPTED makes it more difficult for people who engage in opportunistic crime.  

Q: What is the role of technology in CPTED?  

Let me explain by going over the basic strategies of CPTED, and each of these strategies has natural circulation, mechanical and organizational components. 

The first strategy is access control. Natural access control is when you walk down a sidewalk to the door. Mechanical access control involves a device controlling access, such as an access card or pin code. The organizational aspect of access control is someone at the door allowing entry.  

The second strategy is surveillance. Natural surveillance is clear visibility and good lighting, and mechanical surveillance is cameras or video surveillance. The organizational aspect is having capable guardians who watch what’s going on.  

Our third strategy is territoriality or boundary definition, which involves a natural boundary with hedges, rocks or creeks. Mechanical or technological barriers are fencing, security-bollards or infrared beams that trigger an alarm. Then, of course, organizational boundary definition is a human patrol to ensure people aren’t trespassing.  

So CPTED is like baking a seven-layer cake. You want to bake a CPTED cake, and it involves a process. First, what kind of cake and what ingredients do you need? You have to buy eggs, flour, vanilla, sugar and salt. You put it all in the bowl and mix it. Then you put it in the oven and bake it. If you’re impatient, you keep opening the oven door, and the cake falls. You cannot rush the process. And you finally take the cake out, and you have to let it cool. Then you frost it, and then you can cut it. You don’t have cake by saying the word, just like you don’t have security by saying the word.  

Q: How did your partnership with TEEX come about, and why is this important?  

We are offering the CPTED course through TEEX’s Law Enforcement division because we need to involve security personnel and law enforcement in the decision-making process about what we are building and how, where and when we use it. TEEX has already delivered the course several times at different sites around the United States.  

One level of value is that the course is credentialed through the International CPTED Association (ICA) and provides CEUs for architects and law enforcement. The other level is that you can qualify to become a certified practitioner of CPTED through the ICA after you attend this 40-hour course and pass the graded security survey of a building.  

Q: Can you talk a bit about CPTED in the real world?  

A: The course is one of the most relevant, current and timely courses you can take. It is just dripping with timely reality, and when I teach the class, I encourage students to look at current events in light of what they are learning.  

It deals with right now, but it also deals with future planning. For example, you can watch kids playing around the pool, but if they’re running with wet feet and the paint doesn’t have the right grip, sooner or later, someone is going to fall. No matter how often you say, “Stop running,” if the paint is not suitable, someone will get hurt. It’s just a matter of time. Our job is to change the timeline and look at potential situations with insight and foresight to prevent bad things from happening.  

CPTED has the most significant impact in that it changes the rules of the universe of creating, promoting, and allowing bad things to happen in schools, houses, neighborhoods, parks, shopping malls, etc.  

For more information, or to contact Dr. Atlas, please see his website: For more information on TEEX’s CPTED courses, please see