After the devastating terrorist attacks in France this past November, something wonderful happened: rather than staying home, people returned to the public spaces that had so recently been the site of mass murder, using their very presence in the streets and cafés as an act of rebellion against attempts to keep them afraid and inside.
PPS wrote about safety, fear, and security in public spaces a few years back, and while many cities across the U.S. have made great progress towards creating more open and accessible public spaces for all, it seems that the public’s concern about safety and protection within the public realm continues to mount. With random life-threatening attacks on the general public becoming increasingly common, and our exposure to them through the media—whether incidents take place in school classrooms, halfway through a film in a movie theater, or while dining on the streets of Paris—the sheer number and variety of threats and attacks of this nature have taken an understandable toll on the human psyche.
A recent poll in the New York Times asked more than 5,000 readers: “How often, if ever, do you think about the possibility of a shooting in your daily life?” The responses underscored the anxiety people experience when performing a range of public activities such as using mass transportation, shopping, and attending religious services. The results also showed that this fear isn’t limited to terrorism or major attacks, but includes the possibility of more small-scale attacks taking place in local areas and communities. A young Brooklyn resident revealed, for instance, that she thinks about potential shootings twice a day, and frequently imagines how she might react if gunfire erupted on the New York City subway.
However, in light of this understandable fear in a range of public and semi-public places, there is little evidence to suggest that people have actually stopped using them.
For Jane Jacobs, one of the main characteristics of a thriving urban center is that people feel safe and secure in public spaces, despite being amongst complete strangers. Her idea of “eyes on the street” suggests that when more people are spending time on a street—chatting on a stoop, having dinner in an outdoor café, or gardening in a front yard—by default, there are more people to witness a potential crime, which therefore makes them less likely to occur in the first place. In theory, then, “eyes on the street” creates a natural surveillance system. In practice, however, “eyes on the street” can only go so far in cushioning fear or protecting the public from those types of major attacks that too often plague our imaginations. Paris, a city whose vibrant outdoor café culture and remarkable public spaces make it a model of this system of “eyes on the street,” came under attack twice in 2015—at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January, and the November attacks which took place in multiple locations throughout throughout the city. In light of these tragic events, which were meant to threaten and disrupt the very kind of freedom that public spaces provide, we are forced once again to consider whether or not “eyes on the street” is really enough.
In his early work in New York City, PPS mentor William “Holly” Whyte suggested that the lack of daily users in the city’s parks and squares was a “threat to urban civility.” With this in mind, it might seem that any action or protection that keeps people participating in public spaces would help hold this “urban civility” in place. With mounting public anxiety, and the fact that the distinction between public and private space is becoming increasingly blurred, there is greater likelihood that places will be more intensely monitored, surveyed, even militarized, in order to evoke a sense of safety. Creating a feeling of “security”—even if this means increasing police and surveillance, creating more rules, or raising higher “gates” that surround public places—might seem like a way to keep people from avoiding public spaces altogether. Yet at some point, security and surveillance can make a public space too uncomfortable or inconvenient for people to even bother using it. It is clear that given the complexity of enforcing public safety, designers must think through security measures very carefully so that public spaces feel safe, but still usable and enjoyable.
Often, when we speak of public spaces, we are referring to the open spaces around a city that have been designed to encourage common social use—parks, plazas, squares, and even streets. Many of the recent attacks have forced us to also consider the more enclosed, or privatized, spaces that are also considered “public.” Maybe these places are not free of cost, or as physically open and accessible as central parks or plazas, but they are still open to and used by large groups of people at a given time—concert venues, beaches, markets, places of worship, and sporting events. Therefore, the fear of being within a public space is not just limited to the usual suspects, but has extended to places where people have historically expressed less of a sense of concern. In other words, privatized spaces cannot ensure safety either.
However even in the face of fear, it seems that the range of threats and attacks on our civil liberties has worked to remind us of the crucial importance of public spaces and places, further showing their tremendous capacity to bring people together and provide a stage for social interaction and shared purpose. Though the perception of fear may have increased, observation of behavior shows us that people will not stop living their lives, and enjoying what public life has to offer.
After both attacks in Paris this year, people took to the cafés and streets to express their belief in a free and democratic society—eating in cafes, participating in memorials, and marching together to show solidarity. We saw a similar movement take place after 9/11 here in New York, where public spaces such as Union Square and Washington Square became locations for people to come together and offer support. In cities around the world such as Seattle and London late last year, thousands of people came out for the Global Climate March in support of the COP21 UN talks on climate change in Paris, just two weeks after the city witnessed the largest terror attack since World War II. On the 2015 New Year’s Eve celebration in New York’s Times Square, the usual 1 million people joined together to participate in this favorite pastime despite terror threats and increased security across the city. And most recently, we witnessed this past weekend in NYC that life lives on in our streets and parks after a record breaking snow storm. Despite any existing fear, people have not stopped performing their daily activities, participating in their favorite public celebrations, stepping out with their fellow citizens to show solidarity for important issues, or, having fun.
While a push for greater safety in public spaces is understandable given the perception of fear, in many ways drastic security and surveillance measures go against the goals of placemaking and the desire for more connected and vibrant public spaces. Understanding that continued participation is essential to the success of public spaces, there must be a balance to strike, where safety and protection is appropriately addressed for this new era, but while keeping in tact the point of participating in public spaces in the first place.