Cover Image: A Burglar's Guide to the City

A Burglar's Guide to the City

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For a burglar, private space is public space. A building with a doorman can be broken into just as easily as a suburban house with an open window; it’s just a matter of casing out the design. Architecture blogger Geoff Manaugh’s fascinating book A Burglar’s Guide to The City posits that our living and working spaces, no matter how seemingly secure, are proving grounds for small-time crooks and sophisticated criminals alike; a smart thief will calibrate his routine based on the way a specific structure is designed. Manaugh’s book locates the spot where architecture and crime intersect. It’s the dark side of urbanist Jane Jacobs’s 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, depicting the city and its environs as incubator for uncivil activity.

For burglars, the city itself has been a petri dish of trial-and-error experimentation for hundreds of years. Manaugh cites as an example George Leonidas Leslie, a New York-based architect who, in the late 19th century, would solicit blueprints from credulous bank owners with the flimsiest of conceits: he was intrigued by the design of the building, and could he see the floor plan? Armed thus, he embarked on one of the most prolific crime sprees of the era, robbing $3m from the Manhattan Savings Institution in 1878.

As Manaugh sees it, our major cities are an urban palimpsest: the topmost layer of buildings, roads and streets exist to serve its citizenry, but baked right into the most efficient cities are what Manaugh calls the “dark matter” of urban life – the quiet fire escapes, the loading docks that sit dormant on weekends, the sewage system as a conduit to an interior space – in short, the “forgotten” architecture of daily life that thieves study and of which they take advantage.

Los Angeles as seen from the Hollywood Hills, where it’s not easy to make a quick getaway.
 Los Angeles as seen from the Hollywood Hills, where it’s not easy to make a quick getaway. Photograph: Alamy
Manaugh is uniquely qualified to tackle the subject. His BLDGBLOG is one of the most respected design sites on the web, and he has spent years thinking about the ways in which architecture can lend itself to both good and evil intent. “What’s interesting about burglary is it can’t happen without buildings,” he says. “It seemed like a no-brainer to see how criminals use the urban environment.”


Savvy crooks, according to Manaugh, will view a city like an urban planner; they will pay a great deal of attention to ingress and egress in public spaces, as well as the daily rhythms of a specific neighborhood or place of business. A highly efficient business will yield the richest rewards due to its predictable schedule. Manaugh cites the case of Roofman, who cased out McDonald’s franchises to figure out exactly when the workers changed shifts, and when the manager might cash out for the day. He quickly realized that not only do all McDonald’s serve the same Happy Meals – they conducted their business identically, as well. So Roofman struck multiple McDonald’s, all at the same appointed hour, all over the country. “Smart criminals,” says Manaugh, “love centralized planning.”

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The suburbs in some ways are even more perilous than cities; there are any number of creative ways to smash and grab in America’s cookie-cooker hamlets. “Neighborhoods in which each house is identical, with the same floor plan, makes things easy for a potential thief,” Manaugh says. “They can get in and out very quickly, because they know where everything is laid out.” If you live on a corner, you’re vulnerable: it’s easier to spot cars coming from either side of the street. If you have a house that’s set back on a street, with thick vegetation, you’re a target.

It works both ways, though. “If you want to rob a house up high on a twisty street in the Hollywood Hills, say, you might want to give it a second thought, as it’s hard to know exactly how to plan a quick escape route.” Manaugh says. “At the same time, cops don’t bother to patrol these neighborhoods as rigorously as others, so there’s a greater chance you won’t get caught.”

Manaugh cites another loophole that thieves in LA are exploiting. Now that police helicopters have become an effective deterrent against crime in the city, crooks are using the area around the Los Angeles International Airport as a staging ground. Choppers can’t interfere with air traffic, so they can’t patrol the region: “If you go near the airport, cops lose track of you.”

We have romanticized the rakish and witty cat burglar who is always one step ahead of the clueless cops; Manaugh admits that the mythology is what initially drew him to the subject. “There’s a romance behind the burglar,” he says. “We’d preferably like them all to look like George Clooney.” But in cities such as New York, law enforcement is using big data and the controversial “broken windows” approach of apprehending minor offenders to contain theft. “Petty crime is down nearly 87% in New York,” Manaugh says. “But there’s a constantly shifting battle, because now there are new techniques, new ways to target.”

The irony is that, as cities increasingly use technology to monitor its neighborhoods, old-school criminals are appropriating that same technology to elude detection. Just as surveillance cameras can create headaches for burglars, so websites like Zillow and Google Earth provide surveillance for thieves looking for a house with sliding glass doors (very quiet and easy to pry open) or mature trees in the front yard (excellent cover).

There’s another reason why brick-and-mortar theft is down nationwide: the allure of cybercrime, with its unlimited potential for grand-scale pilferage under the cloak of anonymity, has rendered physical burglary somewhat anachronistic. Identity theft is bigger business than petty theft. Still, the old guard continues to harness whatever tools are at their disposal. Manaugh has seen the future: jamming online traffic apps like Waze to clear a path for larceny, or hacking GPS systems. But then again, there’s always a crowbar.

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