What Role can Design Play in Creating Safer Parks?

Dec 31, 2008
May 1, 2024

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.

The design of a park can have a direct impact on people's perceptions of safety and their willingness to use a space. The physical characteristics which park users associate with high-risk environments include:

  • Poor lighting
  • Confusing layout
  • Physical and aural isolation
  • Poor visibility
  • No access to help
  • Areas of concealment
  • Poor maintenance
  • Vandalism
  • Presence of "undesirables"

Designing a park for safety is based on what is generally considered to be good design: it meets the needs of its users; it is diverse and interesting; it connects people with place; and it provides people with a positive image and experience. While good design will not necessarily eliminate perceptions of fear or opportunities for crime to occur, it can create the preconditions for effective control.


The essence of the "eyes on the street" approach to planning and design is to increase the opportunities for informal surveillance and reduce the number of isolated places where crime can take place unseen. But, while people feel safer when they can be seen and heard by others, it would be difficult and possibly undesirable to achieve this at all times, in all types of park settings. For example, naturalized parks can be visually and aurally isolated places yet one study found that a diverse landscape of tall grass meadows, shrub thickets and woodlands was not only the most feared but also the most valued (Burgess et al., 1988) This paradox presents an interesting challenge: How can natural areas be planned in a manner which mitigates the apprehension and isolation associated with them? Experience has shown that no one solution prevails. What is vitally important is to provide choices and information so that users can make informed decisions. Safety should be a primary consideration along main routes through parks and between the park perimeter and the street. In more isolated natural areas, possible dangers should be recognized by means of clear signage and legible layouts which direct people toward more heavily populated areas but do not remove the freedom for users to explore alternative routes if they wish. What to consider:

Supporting Park Activity

  • Has the location and design of the park been selected and planned to take advantage of surrounding land uses?

Informal Surveillance

  • Is the park or areas of the park in the line of sight of nearby houses, apartments, stores or activity areas to assure visibility?
  • Have 'Park Watch' schemes been considered to encourage surveillance by local residents and merchants?

Balancing "Negative" Land Uses

  • Have measures been considered to lessen the impact of vacant, derelict or problematic land uses nearby a park site?

Intensify Activity to Reduce Isolation

  • Are activity areas clustered to provide greater informal surveillance within and between areas?
  • Have washrooms been located beside a major activity area, or park entrance to encourage surveillance?

Access to Assistance

  • Have public telephones been installed in visible locations to reduce feelings of isolation and to improve access to assistance?


Legibility refers to the clarity of the environment. It has been described as, the degree to which a space is understandable; the ease with which its parts can be recognized and organized into a coherent pattern (Lynch, 1960). When a park is legible, users are able to form clear, accurate images of it. An ability to find one's way with ease, contributes to a sense of security and comfort. Conversely, feelings of being unsafe increase as chances for getting oriented are reduced or if familiar landmarks or points of reference are absent. Legibility is also vital for efficient pedestrian circulation as legible pathways convey a sense of easy access, of clear direction and of well-defined boundaries. What to consider:

Enhancing Site Legibility

  • Is the layout of the park easily understood from the point of view of a first-time user?
  • Are the entrances and exits easy to locate from both inside and outside the park?
  • Do pathways connect with destinations?
  • Does the signage direct users to key points of interest?
  • Are focal points clearly visible?
  • Do obstructed sightlines prevent users from moving comfortably into and around the park?
  • Does the lighting help to direct movement between destinations at night?


Visibility is an important factor in enhancing park users' feelings of comfort and security. Perceptions of safety increase markedly if people can see ahead and around them, and if other people are visible. Clear sightlines allows park users to ability to verify the presence of persons which they might find threatening. The ability to see into and out of an area is referred to as visual permeability. The presence of shrubbery, fences, walls, sharp corners, storage sheds or buildings can hinder visibility and thus reduce perceived and actual safety. The degree of visibility that is appropriate has to be evaluated on the basis of the scale, function, context and user group of a park. Small neighbourhood and downtown parks usually feel more comfortable if a considerable degree of openness is provided. In larger parks, clear sightlines along the frequently used pedestrian routes, between activity areas and along park edges are also important.

Regardless of park size, safety begins at the perimeter. If the perimeter is inviting and people can observe pleasing activity from the street, they are more inclined to enter a park (Whyte, 1981). An active and visible edge will encourage use and create a perimeter of surveillance for the park. An active edge can also increase park accessibility to user groups who may feel more vulnerable in the park interior and who are of lower mobility, such as women, children, older adults and people with disabilities. What to consider:

Creating an Active Edge

  • Are the edges of the park open enough so that passersby can see into the park and park users can see out?
  • Has at least one activity or facility been located at the perimeter to create an 'active edge' visible from the street?
  • Have nighttime activity nodes been located to take advantage of existing street lighting?

Legible Entrances

  • Are the entrances highly visible to promote casual use by passersby?

Encouraging Surveillance

  • Have activity areas such as playing fields, tennis courts, playgrounds been located so that there are clear sightlines between areas to encourage surveillance?
  • Are the washrooms highly visible from nearby activity areas?

Improving Sightlines

  • Have solid walls, tool sheds or plantings that reduce visibility been avoided along primary routes?

Future Sightline Barriers

  • Has vegetation been planted close to park edges, along walkways or between activity areas that will block sightlines once mature?


Safety can be enhanced by providing users with a choice of entrances and exits as well as routes to and from areas. The extent to which an environment allows people alternative choices of movement on a site is referred to as physical permeability (Bentley et al., 1985). A choice of direct and attractive routes will maximize legibility and physical accessibility. Alternatively, the absence of a legible and efficient circulation system may discourage use altogether or lead to a number of "dead" areas that are likely to become deserted creating an important precondition for undesirable activities to occur. Alternative routes provide:

An opportunity to bypass areas perceived as threatening: A pathway that forces women to walk through an area dominated by adult men or teenaged boys may create anxiety and unease if no other routes are provided. Users must be aware of the alternative routes if their freedom of choice is to be meaningful.

An opportunity to avoid movement predictors: Channelized routes, also known as "movement predictors", can be problematic because they create an opportunity for a potential attacker to calculate a person's movement pattern and to predict their destination. Movement predictors can be especially hazardous in isolated areas.

An opportunity to avoid entrapment areas: Park users need to know it is possible to move into and out of the park without being trapped. An "entrapment" area is any area enclosed on three sides. What to consider:

Physical Accessibility

  • Does the park circulation system connect and integrate with the circulation patterns of the surrounding community to encourage maximum use?

Design of Primary Routes

  • Are primary access routes clearly identifiable, legible and well maintained?
  • Are access points clearly identifiable from the street and from within the park?

Location of Primary Routes

  • Do major circulation routes follow "desire lines" of park users?
  • Are pedestrian and vehicular routes visually connected to provide informal surveillance?
  • Do park users have to travel through areas dominated by groups that might make them feel uncomfortable?

Evening Use

  • Are pathways designed to concentrate pedestrian movement after dark along properly illuminated and well-used routes?
  • Are nighttime activities clustered?
  • Are pedestrian routes to recreational building entries well lit and unobscured by landform, vegetation, structure, signage, etc.?

Principal routes to nighttime activity nodes should be clearly identified and their use encourage. These nighttime corridors should be properly illuminated with good visibility to increase the chance of informal and formal surveillance.

Channelized Routes/Movement Predictors

  • Is it possible to locate an area of activity adjacent to channelized routes to provide increased surveillance?

Through Circulation

  • Does the park function as a shortcut route between major destination points to increase the sense of activity and informal surveillance?


  • Has a 2-3 metre mown edge or low planting been maintained on either side of pedestrian routes to keep a feeling of openness and clear visibility as well as limit potential entrapment areas?


The single most requested physical design modification to improve safety is usually an increase in lighting. Lighting is a key factor because it can clarify the layout of a park by emphasizing walkways, focal points, gathering places and building entrances. When planned as a coordinated system, lighting improves the night time legibility, use and enjoyment of a site. Lighting, like signage, is best developed as a hierarchy. The top of the hierarchy includes lighting activity areas and primary walkways so that they become the focus of pedestrian activity after dark. At the bottom of this hierarchy is the decision not to light some areas at all because their use at night would be unsafe or inappropriate. While lighting has been shown to reduce people's fear of crime (Middlesex, 1989), lighting alone is not the sole solution to safety-related issues. If increased park use does not result following lighting upgrades, people may feel safe in areas which are potentially unsafe. What to consider:

Hierarchy of Lighting Types and Intensities

  • Has a hierarchy of lighting types and intensities been used to highlight activity areas and primary pedestrian routes so that they become areas of concentrated use after dark?

Enhancing Edge Activities

  • Has pedestrian lighting been provided at the park perimeter to enhance the park's character, encourage use and to build on the existing street lighting?

Placement of Lighting

  • Are lights positioned to respond to problems of surveillance created by vegetation and topography rather than on the basis of arbitrary light pole placement?
  • Does lighting need to be redirected so that it extends beyond the edge of paths to illuminate potential concealment areas and hiding places?

Consistency of Lighting

  • Have lights that cause excessive glare or generate dark shadows been avoided?

Inappropriate Lighting

  • Has a false sense of security been created by lighting areas that are potentially inappropriate for nighttime use?
  • Has the installation of low ground-level lights been avoided where higher-level lighting is not also provided?

Encouraging Evening Use

  • Is it possible to light tennis courts and/or playgrounds to make the park safer by encouraging greater evening use?

Co-ordination with Signage

  • Is the lighting positioned to coordinate with informational and directional signage?

Further discussion: The design of lighting in many urban parks is the responsibility of road engineers and too often it is designed for road traffic instead of for pedestrian movement. The illumination standard set for pedestrian walkways, by the Canadian Standards Association, is 0.4 footcandles. Put another way, at this standard a person's face can be identified from 12 to 15 metres away. In addition to adequate illumination levels, a consistent level of lighting with minimal glare is required. Strong, uneven lighting can create crimes of opportunity because users and police focus on the lit areas, but fail to notice activity in the shadows. As well as enhancing the safety image of a park, lighting can be used to increase the publicness of such places by providing a greater range and choice of time in which the park is accessible for use.


The most successful park spaces offer some degree of diversity in their physical features, activities and users. Such diversity implies interest, pleasure, stimulated senses and varied landscapes (Hough, 1984).

Efforts to improve safety that involve the extensive removal of vegetation of reduction in the diversity of park environments are unlikely to result in safer places. This sterilization of the landscape will more likely result in less frequent use. Instead, diversity should be used to attract and sustain use throughout the seasons. A visual richness that includes variety in the form, colour and texture of landscape elements as well as a mix of user groups is likely to result in attractive environments and frequent use. What to consider:

Diversity in the Physical Environment

  • Does the park offer a varied environment with a range of colour, texture, shape, fragrance and use?
  • Is the park interesting to visit during different times of the day or year?


Signage is a critical component in promoting park safety because people feel safer when they know where they are and how to get to where they want to go. Signs, like lighting, are most effective when developed as a hierarchy: a system of coordinated and complimentary signs will provide a sense of order and clarity as well as improve the perception of safety in a park. Instead of focusing on restrictive messages that begin with "Do Not ...", a more constructive approach is to use signage as a tool to encourage a sense of ownership and pride among user groups. To achieve this, signage should be positive, informative and encourage people to enjoy themselves. Signage can also be used as a tool to educate users about security issues and to encourage them to report suspicious activity. As many crimes are witnessed by people who neither report them nor intervene, signage and information brochures can encourage more direct citizen involvement in keeping parks safe. What to consider:

Location of Signage

  • Are maps located at entry points, activity areas and intersections of paths?
  • Is signage visible from the street to encourage use by passersby and familiarize users with the park's layout and interior facilities?
  • Is there a designated place at the park entrance for special events signage?

Design of Signage

  • Has signage been designed as a group of coordinated elements?
  • Is the signage highly visible?
  • Is directional signage visible from at least twenty metres?
  • Have standard graphic symbols been used to supplement text descriptions to assist people who are functionally illiterate or map illiterate?
  • Is the signage accessible to people in wheelchairs?

Content of Signage and Park Brochures

  • Do signs or brochures provide the following information at regional scale parks: "You Are Here" markers, hours of operation, walking distances between key points, location and hours of operation of washrooms, location of telephones, information on how to access park and police personnel, food concessions, parking and landmarks?
  • Is there information on who to notify to report maintenance problems, vandalism or safety concerns?

Primary Routes

  • Has directional signage been used to identify primary pedestrian routes and the destination points of secondary routes?

Evening Use

  • Has signage and lighting been coordinated so that major signs are lit for nighttime visibility?


  • Have signs been located so that planting will not obscure them from view?
  • Have pick-up and deposit boxes been installed to encourage recycling of park brochures.


Accessible and easily locatable, public telephones are a high priority. Telephones are not only a matter of convenience, but they also act as a symbol of safety and security as do visible police patrols and a high level of maintenance. The presence of parks staff play a similar role by providing a sense that help is available, if required. What to consider:

Telephone Location

  • Have telephones been located in well-lit areas where informal surveillance is likely to occur?

Telephone Design

  • Will the design of the telephone booth discourage loitering and possible vandalism?
  • Is the telephone low enough for use by children or a person in a wheelchair?

Telephone Identification

  • Does the telephone have a code number or area locator feature which the caller can relay to emergency personnel to identify geographic location the telephone booth?

Co-ordination of Telephone, Signage and Lighting

  • Has the location of the telephones been coordinated with information signs and lighting?

Cell Telephones

  • Is it possible to provide parks staff who work in isolated areas with cell telephones?

Formal Surveillance

  • Is there a visible staff presence in a park and can staff be easily identified by their uniform?
  • Are the hours of park staff posted?

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