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.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.