Room of One's Own

Defensible Space By Oscar Newman Macmillan, 255 pp., $8.95

VAN DYKE HOUSES, a lower-income housing project in New York City, had a crime rate in 1968 twice that of Brownsville Houses, a similar development across the street. Police and public housing officials assumed the difference showed that Van Dyke housed more "problem" families -- broken homes, mothers on welfare and so on. A comparison of tenant characteristics indicated that, on the contrary, the two groups were virtually identical. The answer, Oscar Newman contends in Defensible Space, can be found in the contrasting designs of the two projects, between Van Dyke's high-rise slabs and Brownsville's low, walk-up and elevator buildings.

Newman argues that urban design does not merely suffer from the decay of the social structure, but has contributed to it. The three-year study of major American cities focuses on Urban Renewal's post-World War II "solution" to the problem of lower-income housing, not upon older urban slums. Newman calls that solution "possibly the most cogent ally the criminal has in his victimization of society." Uncoordinated government decisions, combined with the whims of architects bound by little more than limited funds, have produced a motley assortment of often "inadequate and irrational" buildings.

Newman's thesis, elucidated in a study of the more successful projects, is that the anonymity of enormous high-rise complexes leads to unmanageable and disastrous situations. "In a high-rise, double-loaded corridor apartment tower, the only defensible space is the interior of the apartment itself; everything else is neither public nor private... a nether world of fear and crime." His alternative ("defensible space") returns autonomy to the tenant by making intruders conspicuously out of place. For example, he argues that families sharing a single entry in a low-rise building can control intruders more successfully than many families strung along a corridor on the tenth floor of a superblock.

NEWMAN MOST SEVERELY criticizes projects designed according to aesthetic and "compositional" considerations. "Beauty" predominated over both the functional demands of the urban framework and the lifestyle of tenants. In attacking this approach, Newman combines functional considerations with sociological analysis. However sound his design theories may be, he is no sociologist. A few undeveloped digressions into the "root causes" of social ills do more to detract from than to strengthen his theories of defensible space.

Defensible Space was meant originally for a professional audience. Newman apparently came to see his work as a manifesto of radical, innovative principles. And the suggestions he makes are, considering much recent architecture, often both radical and innovative. (A typical suggestion is the segregation of age groups.) Unfortunately, the grand ambitions of Defensible Space result in potential excesses which tend to submerge reasonable arguments.


A defensive concern for the reception of his theories occasionally prevents Newman from fully pursuing their implications. Paradoxically, many of his proposals are to be found in older buildings, such as row houses, or semi-detached houses. Information on how these areas have fared would have been a useful addition to the book. Defensible Space often corrects the worst in current architecture simply by a return to older designs.

The decay of the city as a whole remains. The scope of Newman's solution is clearly limited. Ironically, one of the drawbacks of "defensible space," which Newman recognizes, is its tendency to displace crime to other areas. "Defensible space" is a solution to a solution -- the problem remains.