Public restrooms are often installed in places of peace and recreation – community parks, beaches, or hiking trailheads.  Unfortunately, some of these areas are not free from crime.  Whether it is vandalism or other illegal activity, criminals can have an ongoing negative impact on a restroom and the space it serves.

Thankfully there is already a playbook on passive but effective ways to dissuade criminals from committing crime in a particular area.  This concept is known as CPTED (pronounced “Sep-ted”) – Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.  There are now decades of observations and data to draw from that can help keep public and private spaces safer from crime (and yes, in many cases the addition of a public restroom can boost an area’s crime prevention ability).

The following is a quick guide on strategies to help deter criminal activity from happening around a restroom or other public space.

Rule number one: Eyes on the street make places safer

Very few criminals are willing to commit criminal acts in public view.  This is why most crime happens at night or in places with cover from “the eyes on the street.”  Visibility also hinders criminals from sneaking up on their victims.

Attractive buildings and landscapes will tend to draw the attention of passing pedestrians. The more something is being looked at, the more discouraged a criminal will be to commit a crime near it.  Furthermore, some criminals will feel hesitancy or guilt when vandalizing a nice building in relation to a downtrodden one.  This is particularly true if they themselves live in the area.

For areas that are private property or semi-public (i.e. golf courses) it’s important to weigh the pros and cons between privacy and visibility.  A private place has built in advantages to deter crime because a criminal risks being caught for trespassing even before the intended crime is attempted.  However, more privacy means less natural surveillance.  A busy public place with high visibility is, in some cases, safer than a private place.

Consider for example, an open park with few to no people in it.  Now add a public restroom to this area.  Even if the area lacks prying eyes at the moment, a criminal will be wary that at any time a person could arrive to use the bathroom.  Even when the bathroom is not being frequented, it still signals to criminals that they are in a public area.  Most criminals prefer cover and privacy, so the risk of being seen will often deter them or at least cause them to consider a different target somewhere else.   This is not to say that adding a restroom will ALWAYS be a net positive for crime prevention in ALL public area situations, but in most cases, it helps.

Rule number two:  Landscaping and lighting matter

Well-lit areas tend to be unattractive for criminals while being more attractive for the overall public.  To enhance the effectiveness of the lighting it is recommended to landscape so that hiding places and poorly lit areas are eliminated.  Be careful to light in a way that does not create bright lights, glare, or shadows.  Instead try to have the lighting feel more even.

Landscaping also sends cues as to the privacy level of the area.  Fences, walls, and/or shrubbery typically reinforce the idea that an area is private property and that entering onto the property would be trespassing.  An open area with walkways signals public or semi-public.

Rule number three:  An engaged community will suffer relatively less crime

Constructive social interaction between residents of the area will have long-lasting benefits on the community.  If a community takes pride in itself, it will defend itself.  An active community is more likely to report crimes and to care about the goings on of the area.  Social events and get-togethers in large public spaces (potlucks, games, exercise groups, etc.) is a good way to enhance this dynamic.

Building this dynamic will help protect the people and assets of a public space.  This can be more easily accomplished if a flush restroom is available as people will be more likely to visit the space and stay longer.  One such example of this was a church that held an Easter egg hunt at their local park and was disappointed to find only porta-potties available which were not acceptable for the young families attending the event.  The lack of quality restroom options discouraged the church from using that park for their events.

Criminal activity is not something that can be fully prevented but thankfully much of it can be deterred using these methods.  For more information on how to prevent crime through environmental design, visit cpted.net or one of the many other available online resources including the Public Toilet Advocacy Toolkit.