How citizens and urban design beat crime

by Howard James

How did Khayelitsha bring down crime in eight years, a problem that has plagued South Africa for decades? It boils down to simple urban design measures and the active banding together of citizens. The Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) Programme launched in 2005 brought down murder rate by 39%. It shows that even one of the world’s gravest challenges can be addressed if governments, organisations and local communities work hand in hand. The VPUU programme was awarded the Special Mention for the 2012 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.

Participation in the planning of a neighbourhood, with the help of a scaled model in Khayelitsha
Participation in the planning of a neighbourhood, with the help of a scaled model.

Crime has been rife in South Africa for decades. A large percentage of these criminal acts occur in informal townships on the peripheries of South Africa’s cities, where unemployment is widespread and public amenities are scarce. These areas are often characterised by poor sanitation, informal road and pavement systems, minimal stormwater management and a lack of street lighting.

The Solution
To try and reduce Khayelitsha’s spiralling crime rates, the City of Cape Town launched the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) programme in 2005. Cape Town’s civic administration turned to multiple local and international partners. The public and private sectors were brought in, as well as provincial and national government bodies, to plan, finance and administrate the project. Stakeholders included: the Federal German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development; the German Development Bank (KfW); the South African National Treasury; the Development Bank of South Africa; the Western Cape government; consultancy firms AHT Group and Sun Development; some 28 NGOs; and local residents of Khayelitsha.

VPUU’s leadership team carried out extensive research, examining the types of crimes committed in Khayelitsha, exactly where and at what time they occurred, their frequency, and the demographics of both crime offenders and victims.

Findings showed that the most common acts of crime in Khayelitsha were robbery, murder, rape, stabbings and domestic violence. Over 55% of crimes occurred between 6pm and 6am and took place in areas deemed derelict by residents. Crime hotspots – such as parks and around secondary schools – were identified and made the focus of turning dangerous areas into safe spaces. However, tackling these complex problems would require a multi-faceted approach.

“Initially, the programme was based on developing a set of infrastructural improvements”, said Michael Krause, team leader at Sun Development. “But it soon became apparent that the massive problems in the township could only be tackled effectively through intelligent urban development planning and neighbourhood management, and the concept of citizenship – meaning residents being proud of their neighbourhoods,” said Krause.

Local craftsmen apply mosaic to a community building in the Harare Urban Park
Local craftsmen apply mosaic to a community building in the Harare Urban Park.

From planning to action
Having established the problem areas, VPUU planners identified six urban upgrading initiatives to significantly reduce crime:

  • Increased surveillance through neighbourhood watch patrols, 24-hour community watch towers (known as ‘Active Boxes’), the use of multi-purpose work-live units, and the introduction of ‘Safe Node Areas’ – each of which caters to around 50,000 people;
  • Clearly defined boundaries between properties to encourage greater responsibility among residents;
  • Safer pedestrian passageways, through use of street lighting and paved walkways;
  • Aesthetically pleasing buildings and facilities to discourage criminal acts;
  • Well-kept buildings that are respected by residents and which deter illegal activities;
  • Higher physical barriers between properties in order to prevent criminal mobility.

The above infrastructural developments account for about half of the project’s undertakings, but the VPUU committee planners placed equal emphasis on the development of Khayelitshas’ people-centric initiatives.

“Linked to the Active Boxes is the Neighbourhood Watch Project and more than 420 volunteers have received training in conflict prevention techniques so far,” said Chris Giles, VPUU project representative for the City of Cape Town. Other social developments include the Anti Rape and Gender Violence Project, which involves around two-dozen NGOs working together to provide support for victims, and the Legal Aid Project, which advises families on legal problems. There is also the Early Childhood Development and School Safety Project, which provides financial support for crèches, among other things.

The project also has its own social development fund, which provides grants of between 500 and 5,000 euros to finance community activities, such as those benefiting women and children. Khayelitsha residents are employed in the management of public amenities, and locals are also involved in VPUU’s monitoring and evaluation processes.

Community buy-in
None of the above could be achieved without public buy-in. “We wanted to develop strategies with the community,” said Krause, “if you start with the small issues first, you can build trust to tackle the big issues.” In this manner, local residents could feel the project was co-owned by them, and not solely the property of the local authorities.

The various VPUU stakeholder groups held frequent meetings with local residents to discuss the project and draw up strategic community action plans. Many of the township’s responsibilities were subsequently divided among Khayelitsha residents and the local council, such as the managing of public facilities, the provision of victim support services, and involvement in neighbourhood watch patrols.

Key to VPUU’s success was the engagement of every stakeholder group, from residents and business owners, to the programme’s financiers, NGOs and the local government. Within the local community, the project also needed to appeal to Khayelitsha’s wide-ranging demographic, which included the youth, single mothers, pensioners, the sick and other groups. This was achieved through transparent, accountable processes and various community outreach and education programmes.

Discussion groups on the design of mosaics in Khayelitsha
Discussion groups on the design of mosaics

Evaluation
The VPUU programme cost ZAR 400 million (US$55.6 million) − a portion of which was supplied by the private sector − and is slated for completion by the end of 2014.

According to police crime statistics, overall crime has fallen by 20% from 2007 to 2009, while the murder rate per 100,000 in Khayelitsha has fallen by 39% from 2003 to 20101. According to Architecture South Africa magazine, the township’s streets are safer, crime victims now have access to counselling and other support services, the youth receive education campaigns aimed at alleviating anti-social behaviour, and the community-at-large have access to an array of anti-drug initiatives.

Sustaining Khayelitsha’s improved social environment may prove challenging in the long-term. However, VPUU aims to achieve just this. It has devoted time to investing in the township’s residents what Krause calls “the spirit of volunteerism”. Around 300 volunteers are assigned to neighbourhood watch patrols in high crime rate areas, and the township employs its residents as caretakers, landscapers and administrative staff, as well as in neighbourhood patrols.

Given its success, other Cape Town townships and South African cities are looking to the VPUU model as a viable template with which to tackle crime. Since its inception, the programme has been nominated for various international urban planning awards.

VPUU has been highly successful on many fronts in Khayelitsha – not least in lowering crime rates and improving quality of life. Fully alleviating crime remains its ultimate goal and doing so will require the continued buy-in of outside agencies and local residents. Most importantly, the programme proved that through simplistic, yet well-researched urban planning and fully engaging local communities, developing world city authorities could tackle society’s gravest challenges. O

For more information on VPUU, please visit: openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects/dlygad2_vpuu. This article was first published in March 2013. All images contained within this page are copyright of and used with permission from Landscape Architect Tarna Klitzner and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.


  1. Cities in Transformation (Editions Didier Millet, 2012), 97

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