Sunday, April 3, 2016

Police box: policing a walkable city

Much is often made in urbanist circles on how denser developments can foster a stronger community by bringing people closer together, but I'd like to make some observations on another crucial element of a community: law enforcement. Though much despised, policing forces are nonetheless an essential part of a community.

In most North American communities, police takes the curious form of clearly identified vehicles basically prowling the streets in search of violations (most often traffic violations). The analogy of police being predators hunting for prey is a bit too easy to make. This doesn't help police-community relations at all, because the isolation of private vehicles means that police will rarely be in contact with the community except when intervening, so police may come to see the community they're policing (especially if they don't live in it) as made up of only two types of people: law violators/criminals and victims begging for help. That's not a great way to develop a great relationship: "that community is full of criminals and people who flout the law all the time and hate us, but when they're in trouble, suddenly it's 'please mr policeman, save us!!!'".

When police are not in their cars, they're at the precinct or headquarters. And then there is another major urban design flaw. Jane Jacobs coined the term "eyes on the streets" to denote how open-designed buildings with plenty of windows can help make people feel safe because of the likelihood of people watching the street at any time, helping to make cities more safe. Well, if that is true, then what eyes would be more effective than police eyes? And yet, the North American design of police buildings is, well, lacking...
A neighborhood precinct in Montréal, with small windows with blinds or curtains, which is ironically one of the best designs of the examples I'll show here...
A precinct in Minneapolis, note the dearth of open windows at the ground level and the setback, but the worst is yet to come...
Behind these trees and parking lot could be any regular suburban office, but this is Arlington's (Texas) Police Department building
And this is the crowning achievement of shame, Glenn Heights' Police Department, in the suburbs of Dallas, no window on the road, which anyway is in the middle of nowhere. Might be useful in a zombie apocalypse, but otherwise...
The reason for this type of policing is easy enough to understand. With people dispersed everywhere over a large area, how can a few dozen policemen provide effective surveillance if they're not constantly on the move, at a speed that allows them to cover enough ground. This is a model that is also needlessly applied to dense neighborhoods which could have an alternative mode of policing.

Another unpleasant result of this is that policemen develop severe windshield perspective syndrome, since they spend their jobs at the wheel, they adopt the point of view of drivers, being more lax towards casual traffic violations by drivers and more likely to enforce jaywalking fines or the like on pedestrians and cyclists (and also, disrespecting bike lanes).

And what alternative mode is there? Well, again, Japan shows an interesting contrast.

The kouban, or police box

Japanese cities are a lot more dense than North American cities, even recent suburban developments often have 30 to 40 houses per hectare (12 to 16 per acre) and business/commercial districts remain many times more dense, and are often concentrated at train stations that connect the entire country, like surface subway lines (though often with 30-60+ minutes headway if not less in rural regions).

The Japanese therefore still use a specific mode of policing inherited from the pre-motorized era, with a focus on the kouban (交番), or police box. Here are a few examples of what they look like:
This is the plaza in front of Gotanda Station in Tokyo, the Kouban is circled in red... is what it looks like, not the small size and the windows making up nearly all of the front, allowing the policeman occupying it to see outside easily
That small red building in the center of this business district is also a kouban
This kouban is at the entry point of Yokohama's chinatown, as you can see a policeman is standing right in front of it
It may be hard to see, but the small building at the center of this image is the Susukino Kouban in Sapporo, right in the middle of an entertainment/red-light district
The small building to the right is a kouban in Iwamizawa, a small suburb of Sapporo, near the train station and the walkable commercial core of the town
A kouban in touristic Matsushima, near the train station, with architecture respecting the traditional context of the town
Koubans stand out for being really small buildings, which allows them to be put nearly everywhere, and for having a really open design allowing people to look into it and for the policemen to look out of it. They are conveniently located in neighborhoods, often near concentrations of people and economic activities, to keep an eye out on the area and provide a greater feeling of safety.

These koubans also help people deal with regulations, koubans are involved in the "proof of parking" system and with the bike registry system. They also provide some certainty, when in trouble, people know where the police is, unlike in North America where you absolutely need to place a call to find the police. I think the location of these koubans in the middle of communities also helps foster a much better attitude in policemen towards the community, as they are less isolated from it, and also makes police part of community rather than a kind of occupying force, helping the community's attitude towards its police force.


There are a lot of tensions in North America between communities and their police forces. Perhaps more walkable, dense communities could open the door to having more policing done in static fashion, in places that maximize effectiveness rather than having police be prowling predators roaming the streets in vehicles. At the very least, North American police forces should perhaps do more patrols on bike and on foot to help bridge some of the gap between police and the community at large. A greater number of small police offices with an open architecture could also be a great idea, copying the success of the kouban model in Japan.


  1. I love the idea but I can understand why police here in Austin, TX would be hesitant. A man fired numerous unprovoked shots at the downtown Austin police headquarters as well as the federal courthouse, Mexican consulate, and a few other buildings. See As far as I know, this was unrelated to anything local police had done, but merely the fact that they were authorities. A few years before that, a man flew an airplane into offices of the federal Internal Revenue Services in Austin.

    1. Yeah, you people can get pretty crazy down there. But then again, being in cars didn't help the cops who were shot in New York last year during the whole Michael Brown thing by a guy who just walked up to them and put bullets in their head while they were sitting in their car. But thinking about it, such police boxes could also be the target of protests.

      That's the really insidious thing about bad police-community relations. Even if you try to bridge the gap, people will scared because closer relationships mean more vulnerability, and if both sides mistrust the other, neither may be willing to take the first step. It's like a trust fall in a way.

  2. To be fair, many in police work do understand these issues. For example, BPD has community service officers who participate in local community meetings regularly, build up relationships, and keep in touch with people. They also train officers on bicycles for patrolling.

    Sadly, BPD HQ is one of the worst designs imaginable. Dead plaza, faraway location, desolate surroundings, fortress, bordered by Southwest corridor and by high speed road. Some of this is due to failed city planning: the location happens to be near geographic center of Boston, but around some of the worst of urban renewal.

    Oh, and the Southwest corridor bike path is technically state land. So you can get mugged in plain sight of the BPD HQ and be out of their jurisdiction. Politics at its worst.

    1. To be fair, big police HQs can certainly be big buildings. Japan also has these, where they house forensic laboratories, cells and the like. Police boxes aren't the only thing they have (except in small rural villages).

  3. I do find it amusing (and sad) that if you have to go to a police station, which as shown is usually rather foreboding, you then get shunted into a nasty little lobby and have to talk to the officer on duty through a window with an intercom and one of those bank teller slots. Even small villages where the police station, town hall, and fire station are all in one place can be like this (I actually had to fish a set of building permit drawings through the round cut-out in the glass once). Not very hospitable to be sure.

    Cincinnati has (had?) a handful of what they call police substations. Aside from sounding like an electric utility transformer location, these are some small facilities usually in storefronts or even shared with other front-desks like you might find at a community center, apartment complex, or theater with just one or two officers helping provide a neighborhood presence. Sadly I think these may have been phased out because I can find no current listing of the locations. Some older ones still show on street view though:

    Even neighboring Fairfax has one as a rare freestanding building in a Wal-Mart outlot

  4. Here's a police station in Brisbane. As you can see, it's a storefront. Big open windows; someone's parked a pram in the window. People can see in, the police can see out; you can see the counter in there and it's not a tiny little window to speak through.