Vibrant public spaces in cities promote "natural guardianship" and deter crime, especially against women

As a city grows in its population, sprawl and complexity, ensuring the safety of people using its public spaces needs to be given priority. Of the varied users of public spaces, women are the most vulnerable. The recent proposal to install closed circuit cameras at several places in Delhi brings to focus issues related to safety in a city, detection of crime and its prevention. While active monitoring measures such as installation of cameras and patrolling may be necessary in some places, the quality of natural supervision that a public space inherently offers through cues in its physical environment, can also act as a deterrent to crime.

Public spaces devoid of adequate and appropriate activity, and a sense of ownership invariably become vulnerable pockets for violence in a city. Many cities have their own set of such spaces and zones. Delhi, with its spread out habitat, listless intermediate void zones, and wide arterial roads and sprawling greens, many of which run out of activity and fall dead by night, is no exception.

Compact cities, with a focus on livability, on the other hand, have the potential to generate vibrant and engaging environments. Streets tend to be safer, with active edges, be they shop fronts, hotels or residences, and with a generous dose of pedestrian movement. The absence of active edges indicates poor health of a street in terms of safety if offers to its users. As Jane Jacobs, the activist thinker on urban issues, pointed out long ago, spaces that lack “natural guardianship” promote crime.

However, a city’s design and construct is an amalgamation of many kinds of spaces. Large campuses, spacious enclaves, and grandiose urban spaces, such as Lutyens’s Delhi, have their own role to play in a city’s structure and design. Such sprawling zones, many of which transform into unqualified voids by night, may be plugged at select locations with internet cafes, coffee shops, small departmental stores, first aid centers and patrol booths, or a combination of these to establish points of activity and reference. Good design can ensure their unobtrusiveness. At another level, sprawling urban enclaves with sparse building density can be improved for safety through measured densification and sensitive urban design.

Best use of Land

Land use plays a vital role in determining the safety quotient of an urban area. Those areas with mixed land use, usually a combination of office, retail, residential and other uses, offer persistent monitoring of their public spaces into late hours. Vendors and hawkers, often considered as unsightly encroachments, involuntarily attend to their immediate public realm. Zones in a city offering niches for diverse and wide range of activities also bring health and vibrancy to them. On the contrary exclusive zones with singular land use like financial districts, or a software district with extensive sprawl turn into desolate and unsafe islands by night, or even during peak working hours. As a policy, the idea of creating large exclusive zones needs to be revisited and creation of more mixed land use zones to be promoted, if needed through regulatory incentives.

Other minor but important measures can significantly contribute to making urban environments safer through physical design features. For instance, regulations may stipulate a modest height for compound walls, and a certain degree of transparency through design. This can enhance spatial and visual permeability, simultaneously expanding the owner’s territory of vigilance. Blunt and long, continuous high walls, develop a negative zone along the edges with potential for abuse. Large urban parks, usually with thick peripheral plantation designed to ward off acoustic disturbance and to create a green oasis, involuntarily seclude themselves from the city’s streets, becoming vulnerable to crime.

Creating a view

Wherever possible, creating transparent edges to urban greens and open spaces enhances natural involuntary overseeing, which can deter and mitigate criminal behavior. Opening up of confined green spaces also contributes to visual relief and adds to aesthetic value of the surrounding environs. Good illumination is of course an indispensible element in creating safe zones. Large commercial buildings with active shop fronts close to grade, unlike the introverted malls, offer a positive edge and encourage pedestrian activity and fluent access. Urban elements like express ways, subways or under passes, unkempt urban open spaces, derelict and run down zones of a city, all need attention and upgrade from the stand point of safety and crime deterrence.

These suggestions are not exhaustive, and each city would need its own solutions. Formulated by C.Ray Jeffry in 1971, crime prevention through environment design, CPTED, is a comprehensive approach which aims at deterrence of crime through design of physical environment while allowing its use. With increasing urbanization and densification of our cities, there should be national guidelines for crime prevention in urban areas, through environmental design and urban design. Think tanks need to draw on expertise from various disciplines including Urban Design, Landscape Design and Environmental Design, behavioral sciences, social sciences and others. What is urgently required is a national task force can oversee enforcement of these guide lines with focus on women’s safety.

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P. Venugopal is an Architect and an Urban Designer based in Hyderabad. He can be reached at tdc_architect@rediffmail.com

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