Breaking Down Walls

Breaking Down Walls – Be inspired

In a nutshell

This project advocates the removal of high walls and a takes a critical look at conventional suburban safety measures as a way of making communities safer and contributing to social cohesion. It spans two communities in Durban.

What we do

New imaginations for more effective urban crime prevention in South African cities

The Breaking Down Walls project brings together a range of stakeholders to work with households in two communities (one middle class and one working class) to understand the role of high boundary walls and to test whether community and household safety can be enhanced through innovative design and other approaches. 

Towards the end of the apartheid era South African suburbs began to change dramatically in the way they looked and the way in which they were designed. Essentially, housing was designed to keep “intruders” out. This meant higher walls, electrified fences and laser beams. Alongside these “investments” and design innovations came the massive growth of the private security industry. A new mentality emerged which focused on the fortification of home and office space. This, at least initially, was strongly supported and bolstered by the private security industry which has a vested interest in monitoring space and hardening security. 

Whether or not high walls and electrified fences do in fact reduce the experiences of crime victimisation for individual home owners and residents is under-researched. The private security industry, once certain that these technologies of security governance were the best solution, seems now to be suggesting that high walls create greater insecurity. 

Walls prevent visibility and dilute social cohesion. A marginal new discourse is emerging that suggests that visibility plays a major role in crime prevention as it allows neighbours to connect more easily with each other’s lives and safety. 

The public police also seem to be uncertain about the value that fortification adds to making spaces safer. What the private and public police do know is that when crime occurs in heavily fortified spaces it is difficult to penetrate these spaces and intervene. 

Yet fortification in the suburbs continues unabated. Houses without walls are viewed as vulnerable, although evidence may indicate the contrary. In South African suburbia there is little discussion about “breaking down walls”, both physical and literal. 

How we do it

Research being undertaken at the DUT and by the eThekwini Municipality’s Safer Cities programme is exploring whether walls, electric fences and beams really do reduce victimisation, or whether this is just another form of social engineering geared toward keeping the “other” out while increasing anxiety. 

The research is exploring how both the public and private security forces make sense of walls and fortification in the areas of Umbilo and Westville. Houses in Umbilo tend to have low walls and minimal fortification while the wealthier suburb of Westville is highly fortified. 

The research aims to achieve a paradigm shift in the way South Africans think about the securitisation of urban spaces. Old approaches have not proven successful in securing suburban spaces in South Africa. For a paradigm shift to occur among citizens, new ways of thinking are needed on the part of those who do the “policing”. 

Shifting paradigms about high walls as “good defence” is being achieved through public seminars and panel discussions at the DUT, and are open to the public. These bring together the police, the private security industry, researchers and other stakeholders. At the same time, Dala Architects is designing a “safe house” to stimulate discussion and challenge dominant ideas about what makes a house safer. 

The project is also challenging the eThekwini Municipality to fund a literal breaking down of walls in a designated suburban space. If this breaking down of walls leads to greater feelings of safety and reduced victimisation, then this process will be rolled out to other areas. Should the breaking down of walls lead to adverse experiences and feelings, the walls will be rebuilt at the municipality’s expense. 

What we have achieved

The project has been well received by a range of role players in the SAPS, the private security industry and councillors and staff at the eThekwini Municipality.