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Safety through Environmental Design | #TheGlobalGrid Pre...

Safety through Environmental Design | #TheGlobalGrid Pre-Chat Post

Safety is one of the defining elements of a city’s quality of life. It is often measured by metrics of crime rate, number of reported homicides, acts of vandalism and other violent incidents which objectively quantify and set a scale to compare safety levels in different places. But safety is also a very subjective quality.

by Sarah Essbai March 13, 2018
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Safety is one of the defining elements of a city’s quality of life. It is often measured by metrics of crime rate, number of reported homicides, acts of vandalism and other violent incidents which objectively quantify and set a scale to compare safety levels in different places.

But safety is also a very subjective quality. A city is experienced differently by different individuals, depending on their daily uses, needs, economic situation, physical and mental health conditions, and even their personal history. All of which have a great influence on their judgment and perception of safety. Both perceived and objective safety determines the extent of access each individual has to urban services, cultural and recreational opportunities, in addition to their involvement in shaping and transforming their communities, neighborhoods and public life; also known as “The Right to the City.” Research has shown that a perceived physical threat may have more impact on people’s sense of security than an actual act of violence or vandalism.

The quality of physical spaces plays an important role in enhancing perceived safety and therefore impacts our use of these spaces. Visibility, prospect, and refuge are three elements that we evaluate when choosing a bench to sit on in a park, which side of the street to walk on, and whether to go out at night or not. These elements also have a strong impact on the decision of an individual to commit a crime or not. Criminal behavior researchers found that the likelihood of perpetrating an offense is strongly influenced by the perceived risk of being caught. A well-lit bus stop, a busy street or park, a watched neighborhood are very unlikely to be the scenes of assaults or the backdrops of violent transgressions.  

The impact of the physical environment and urban design on criminal behavior has been explored in more depth through approaches such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) by criminologist C. Ray Jeffery and Defensible Space by architect Oscar Newman in the early 1970s. Their theories were based on the work of urban activists Jane Jacobs and Elizabeth Wood who have, very early on, argued for the role of livable neighborhoods and walkable streets in creating safe environments.

Concepts such as “eyes on the street” - to continuously see and be seen, natural surveillance and neighborhood watch, in which people assume the role of guardians of the public spaces in their neighborhoods, and especially a strong sense of ownership of both private spaces and common areas constitute the base of any CPTED approach. These principles empower communities to exercise self-policing by reporting suspicious criminal and harassment behavior and even apprehending them by intervening when they occur. In return, this sense of empowerment boosts people’s perceived safety and in many cases contributes to lower crime rates.

Hammarby Sjöstad, a mixed-use development in Stockholm, Sweden is considered a model in the application of CPTED principles, boasting the lowest crime rate and the highest levels of the feeling of safety in the city. Bellvitge, a modern high-rise housing estate in L’hospitalet, a town near Barcelona, Spain is an example of how increased accessibility, through public transit, self-policing and an active neighborhood association have transformed a once-blighted neighborhood plagued by high crime rates and unemployment into a safe community.

Some of the design measures that enhance safety include but are not limited to:

  • Planning for mixed uses;
  • Connecting buildings to streets and street life;
  • Use of adapted public lighting;
  • Providing ample space for pedestrian traffic;
  • Ensuring that neighborhood park design does not favor ambiguous hiding spots.

When applied, these measures should be tailored to the characteristics of each place and developed in consultation with local residents to ensure the outcomes success. In fact, design measures alone cannot be effective in preventing criminal behavior. They should be, at all times, supported by management and policing measures. Furthermore, they should be adapted to accommodate the needs of different groups, namely women, children and the elderly. For that, it is important to collect data and develop an understanding of the patterns of use of the public spaces by different groups.

Designing for safety also includes planning services and facilities that enhance the comfort of public space users, such as sports facilities with adequate changing rooms, safe and clean public restrooms, wayfinding and traffic signs, maintained parks, sidewalks and pathways, and adapted urban furniture.  

In addition to CPTED, cities have been adopting other design-based approaches to make their public spaces safer and create a welcoming environment for all users. Gender mainstreaming, for example, was championed by Vienna, Austria where the city integrated a gender perspective into urban design and planning. This approach resulted in improved accessibility and quality of public spaces not only for women and girls, but for everyone. Perceived safety by women is often an accurate measure of whether spaces are safe for other users as well. And investing in a gender approach in urban design ultimately creates a virtuous circle of benefits for everyone. This approach has been widely used in the UN Women program “Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces,” which focuses on developing policies and investing in public infrastructure as a means of preventing violence against women and improving overall public safety in cities.

How can cities improve safety in their public spaces? How can they address safety for all groups, and especially from a woman’s perspective? Is designing public spaces for women an effective approach to planning for safety for all?

To answer these questions and more, join us and panel members: Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman (Think Urban), Kristen Jeffers (The Black Urbanist), Minakshi Das (World is One News) and Mitchell Reardon (Happy City) on Wednesday, March 21st at 12:00 p.m PT.

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Sarah Essbai is an architect, urban planner and independent researcher based in Zaandam, in The Netherlands. As of September 2017, she is leading the communications and marketing efforts of The Global Grid.

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