Urban safety is as much about social relations as it is about technical fixes

New York City, 2005. Image: Getty.

Creating safe and secure urban spaces is a core concern for city managers, urban planners and policy workers. Safety is a slippery concept to pin down, not least because it is a subjective experience. It incorporates our perceptions of places and memories, but also norms in society about who is expected to use spaces in the city, and who is considered to be out of place.

The experiences of people with disabilities offer important insights into the complexities of urban safety, because of the varied encounters with space that impairment can bring. Their experiences show that safety is a fluid concept. Places city planners may consider safe can actually make some people feel unsafe, and what is safe for one person might not be for another.

Over the past two years, we have been carrying out research to understand how people with disabilities in Ireland – including people with visual, hearing and mobility impairments - experience urban safety and the impact it has on their everyday use of different spaces. We have found that issues of inclusion and the idea of who “belongs” in particular spaces are important and should be considered alongside more traditional approaches to urban safety.

Reducing crime by design

City planners have often been criticised for prioritising “situational responses” to urban safety. These focus on a technical understanding of urban safety as a problem to be solved. Greater police visibility, more lighting and CCTV and the idea that we can design out crime from our cities are all examples of situational responses.

While these initiatives may have a place, they often focus on the public realm at the expense of the smaller spaces of people’s lives. They also do not reflect how safety, or a lack of safety, is understood by different groups of city dwellers. There is no neat match between what crime statistics might say about the safety of an area, and how people actually feel fear and safety in that area.

Our study, conducted across three cities in Ireland, revealed that feelings about fear and safety very much shape disabled people’s experience of their urban environment. In some cases, they can prevent them from using different spaces. People identified a range of spaces and places in the city that felt unsafe. These included public spaces such as transport hubs, bars and nightclubs, shopping centres and deserted spaces.

The presence of people they didn’t know or trust, crowds and the inaccessibility of the built environment could make people feel vulnerable in these spaces. In some cases, the absence of people contributed to feelings of insecurity. Others described feeling more unsafe in their homes. This was due to isolation, poor housing design and location and, in some cases, domestic violence.

Changing perceptions

What is key here is how people interpreted spaces in terms of fear and safety. Spaces were not fixed as safe or unsafe. One person’s unsafe space could be another’s refuge. Neither can we say that people with disabilities are a group who feel inherently unsafe. The people we spoke to described fear and safety as a result of a range of different of factors coming together at specific times and places.

One man with a visual impairment, for example, described feeling fear in spaces which others might consider to be safe. He recalled an incident when, crossing the road in an urban space in the middle of the day, his concentration was distracted by a group of young people who repeatedly teased and shouted out to him that he shouldn’t cross when he stepped out using a white cane.

Many people had developed strategies and routines to ensure they felt safe in different spaces. This included using learnt transport routes, going out at certain times of day, and only visiting places that they felt were welcoming. These places included restaurants and specific shops where staff knew them, or made an effort to accommodate their needs. Other people only went out accompanied by someone, or used specific technologies when out and about. This included mobile phones, but also – in cases where people had been subject to hostility – the wearing of bodycams as a deterrent.

Thinking about safety in urban planning and policy is more complex than situational responses give credit for. Providing a wheelchair ramp into a building, or better lighting, may indeed assist in creating more welcoming, safer, cities. But it is equally important that urban safety strategies respond to issues of inclusion and justice, by addressing the attitudes which can exclude disabled people from the spaces of their local communities.

The work of Scotland-based charity I Am Me on disability hate crime is an example of this. It works to challenge discriminatory attitudes towards disability in schools, while also encouraging service providers and businesses in local communities to sign up to be safe spaces in case a person with a disability feels under threat when out and about.

Urban safety is as much about changing social relations as it is about technical fixes. Disabled people’s experiences show us that it is only by challenging assumptions about who has a right to inhabit urban space that we can create more inclusive, just and safer societies.

The Conversation

Claire Edwards, Lecturer in Social Policy and Director of ISS21 (Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century), University College Cork.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.