Safe as Houses: Should We Be Planning Safer Cities?

-By Jessica Carnwath, Recruitment Consultant, Architecture & Planning-

It would be hard to find anyone who has not been profoundly moved by the events of the last couple of months. Across the country we collectively mourned a tragedy, the loss of a young woman’s life, who disappeared from our streets. What started as small ripples of fear and discomfort grew and gathered momentum, becoming a furore.

Women all over the UK started coming forward with their experiences, incidences in which they felt uncomfortable or unsafe walking alone. That single tragic event became a catalyst for a much bigger conversation; it forced into light women’s safety and how uncomfortable we feel in our own environment. 

As a young woman living in London, I am no stranger to feeling on edge; keys in hand so I don’t fumble at my front door, walking in well-lit streets and crossing the road to avoid strange men. It has become so ingrained in my everyday behaviours, it’s almost subconscious.

The news of Sarah Everard’s disappearance jolted those subconscious behaviours into the forefront of my mind, making me hyperaware of the small things I do to protect myself. And it prompted me to start talking to other people about their experiences, their fears.

Planning safer cities

Walking alone in a city is a source of genuine discomfort for many people, men and women alike. And opening that dialogue about safety revealed an underlying acceptance that discomfort and fear is the compromise you make when you move to a built-up urban area. People seem to accept, without question, that living in a city means sacrificing a feeling of security and safety. That was plain in my conversation with my colleague Ettie Gioia, ‘I always let people know when I’m walking alone and when I’ve got home safe, or I get on the phone to someone while I walk’. As she says, ‘it just feels too risky not to, you never know who might be around’.

To a certain extent accepting there is more risk is understandable – cities are more densely populated, so by extension there is a higher likelihood of being the victim of a crime. Scale up the numbers and you tend to scale up the statistics. You have more people and more disparity in wealth, resources, and circumstance, so it follows you will have more crime.

This uneven wealth distribution also tends to lead to a physical divide in our cities; beautiful, affluent, well-maintained areas sitting alongside poorer, more rundown districts without access to the same funds. This division in affluence can also equate to a division in safety and crime rates. Poorer areas don’t have the resources to regenerate older housing estates or increase CCTV coverage, and so these areas are physically more vulnerable to crime. This vulnerability in turn breeds more opportunity for criminal acts, and the cycle becomes self-perpetuating. There is more to crime than just criminals, it does not exist in a vacuum. It comes down to money, to education, to the physical environment. So, should we just accept that crime in cities happens? Or should we look at these variables, and try to prevent crime rather than just respond to it?  

Planning safer cities

Maybe we should forget reactive policing and move towards proactive crime prevention.

The aftermath of Sarah Everard’s disappearance has reminded us that we’re constantly reacting to issues, leaping forward with measures to put in place after the fact, rather than focusing resources on long-term solutions. This retrospective policing isn’t proving effective anymore. Increased police presence, putting plainclothes police officers in bars, these feel like knee-jerk reactions. Having a high police presence as a crime deterrent is one branch of controlling crime levels, and it’s crucial, but it’s not the only factor.  

A lot of the older social housing estates in London haven’t been redeveloped in years, and the lack of effective security measures means high levels of theft, violence, and anti-social behaviour. It still feels like the police are there to deal with the consequences, rather than prevent the threat in the first place. Can law enforcement be more than that? Should we be pouring our limited funds into reactive crime prevention or is it a better investment to try and build safer spaces in the first place? What if money was put towards regenerating these areas, making them not only physically more secure, but also better maintained and managed.

Regenerating and retrospectively altering places to improve their anti-crime measures can be costly and difficult. So, whilst redeveloping these areas is important, it’s crucial that safety measures are built into our spaces going forward. Planning aims to create sustainable communities, building places that are economically, socially, and environmentally viable long term. Crime prevention plays a big part of that. And in doing so, we should consider seven crucial factors:

Planning safer cities

For Andrew Barr, Planning Partner at Robinson and Hall, not enough money is being put into anti-crime measures in the development stage, ‘As it stands, the anti-crime measures being put in place seem more like lip service than something that’s taken seriously and that needs to change’, says Andrew, ‘it’s just not a priority and it should be’. Building attractive, carefully maintained areas, with wide well-lit streets and security features like passive surveillance and CCTV, sounds fantastically straightforward.

But as Andrew points out, these designs often come up against the issue of density. Developers argue that wide-spaced developments, with broad streets and overlooked public spaces might be desirable, but it prevents them from being high density. That, in turn, stops them from being financially viable and gets in the way of meeting housing targets.

The profit margins of big developers and housebuilders shouldn’t take precedence over building safe, well-constructed places that communities can be proud of. Places that put anti-crime at their centre, ensuring they are well-structured, physically protected, carefully maintained, and bustling with activity and life. If not, if we put density and quantity at the heart of our building regimes, we’re merely going to end up rebuilding the same spaces later down the line.

Not to mention these places won’t be safe, comfortable places for residents to live. Law enforcement can be more than solving crime, it can play an active role in preventing it from occurring in the first place, by opening a dialogue between anti-crime agencies and developers, local authorities, and planners. Long term, by building safety into our developments at the very point of inception, we can save money to start regenerating existing areas. It’s time to start moving our understanding of crime prevention from something that happens after the fact, to something that can play a role in making sure it doesn’t happen in the first place. 

Planning safer cities

So, let’s build safety into our cities. Stopping crime isn’t easy but just focusing our resources on law enforcement as a deterrent, as purely punitive, isn’t enough anymore. It’s time to examine the other variables that make an area unsafe, and start being smarter with our funds.

It’s time to make anti-crime measurements a priority from the very get-go. That way, women may eventually be able to walk alone and not feel on edge, people will feel safe in their homes, and no one will need to breathe a sigh of relief when they make it through that rough area at the end of the road.

Forget profit margins, and short-term thinking – we’re developing at the rate of knots, so we need to ensure that those developments are sustainable, safe, and will last. We shouldn’t just accept that cities aren’t safe and leave it at that. We need to take responsibility for creating safer spaces. 

The Author…

Jessica Carnwath

Recruitment Consultant, Architecture & Planning

After finishing her Classics Masters,  Jess joined Oyster Partnership and the Architecture & Planning team. She has been very successful in forging great relationships with clients and candidates and in creating an extensive network across the Property industry.

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