Understanding Personal Safety
Excerpted from Planning, Designing and Maintaining Safer Parks, produced by Toronto Parks & Recreation. This guide is not intended to be a definitive statement on creating safer parks and open spaces, nor is it intended to serve as a template for the design, operation and use of parks. See the Introduction for more information.
Awareness of personal safety in urban environments is a relatively new phenomena. The objective of creating safer environments has traditionally been limited to accident prevention and the reduction of property crimes. Personal safety is different in that it focuses on how comfortable or safe an individual feels in any given situation in relation to the threat of assault or intimidation by other people.
Increasing numbers of people are expressing concern for their personal safety in urban settings. People feel afraid to use public spaces and public facilities. This fear of violence and the perception that an environment is unsafe is, in effect, a barrier to many people’s use and enjoyment of public space.
How is park judged to be safe? Many look to crime statistics, but these can be misleading. Many crimes, particularly sexual assault, go unreported; and low crime statistics may in fact be influenced by people’s avoidance of areas they perceive to be high risk. Thus, when evaluating whether a space is safe or not, perceptions are more important than crime statistics.
The issue of perceived risk is particularly prevalent in women’s use of public space. Women generally express much greater levels of concern for personal safety than men do and these concerns influence their behaviour in relation to parks. For example, women, more than men, have reported that they avoid parks in general due to concerns for their safety; feel unsafe alone in parks; avoid isolated areas of parks due to safety; and use parks less after dark.
In order to avoid a cycle of withdrawal, it is important that the image of a park be considered. A generally positive image will generate greater use, which in turn will increase natural surveillance and perceptions that the area is safe to use. Women are very cognizant of the presence of other women users and are apt to use this as a barometer as to whether this area is a “high risk” or “low risk” environment. Previous research indicates that attracting and creating greater opportunities for park use by women, children and seniors in particular, is an important first step for enhancing safety. Generally speaking the demographics of park use should reflect the demographics of the larger urban context.
Safety in Parks and Open Spaces
In 1981, the late Kevin Lynch argued in Good City Form that open space is open when it is accessible. According to Lynch, a fenced waterfront or a mall locked at night is not open space. Following from this definition, one could ask whether a landscape avoided because of concern about personal safety is accessible, and thereby open space.
The psychological barrier of fear is something which affects both park users and park staff. The range of concerns include: poorly lit areas; passage through areas where someone may be hiding; and lack of information about park layout, location of telephones, or to whom problems can be reported. Frequently these concerns can be addressed through design, maintenance, programming, citizen involvement, or through a combination of the above.