Is a walk in the park a scary proposition?

Posted: April 12, 2010 in Uncategorized
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“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:  for Thou art with me.” – Psalm 23: 4a

Without getting too theological about it, have you ever entered a public park and had that kind of thought?  Maybe you haven’t feared for your life, but have you felt threatened in other ways?  Have you avoided public spaces because of that fear?

The measure of success for any public space is whether or not it is used by the public.   

I don’t have studies or statistics to indicate what percentage of public space failures are due to concerns of personal safety, but I would guess it’s pretty high.  In the greater Charleston, WV, metropolitan area I can think of many spaces that suffer from such concerns.  Some are time-of-night issues; others are scary in the middle of the day.

And here’s the unsettling truth:  It isn’t the space itself that creates the fear.  It’s people.

I’m going to speak in broad generalities.  Not everyone will have the same fears.  Police officers or Special Forces soldiers will have much less fear than an administrative assistant on a lunch break.  But the fears of the general population are somewhat predictable, if not always logical. 

Who do we fear?  It varies.  One kid with a skateboard is not scary.  Five or six teenage kids bullying their way along a sidewalk might be intimidating to some.   One 20-something with tattoos and piercings may be little cause for concern.  A small group of his friends hanging out in the shadows of a park would likely be reason enough for most folks to avoid the park.   Go ahead.  Visualize your scary people of choice.  The less someone looks like us, the more we avoid them.   And don’t bother with the argument that we shouldn’t judge people by the way they look.  While this is true, we have to acknowledge that we’re dealing with emotional responses and not pure logic.  The perception of fear is all that really matters. 

So if scary people contribute to the failure of a public space, how do we deal with them?   There are two broad schools of thought:  Exclusion and Inclusion.

Exclusion means keeping the undesirables out of the public space that is intended for law-abiding citizens.  Well, sure, those involved in criminal activities should be arrested.  But what about those who have broken no laws, but we’re afraid they might and that we might be their victims?  Can we exclude the skateboard gang or the kids with tats and piercings?  Yes, we can, by various legal means, but do we really want to?

The other argument is for inclusion.  Sure, let the skateboard gang hang out (as long as they are not breaking laws or damaging property).  Public space is for everyone, regardless of whether or not they look like us.  But in order for the inclusion argument to work, there must be a broad cross-section of people using the park.   In addition to the skateboarders and body piercers, there must be lawyers, accountants, construction workers, city managers, administrative assistants, artists, retirees and, of course, kids.  Such a cross-section of people provides a self-policing environment.  There is a sense that if an evil-doer tried something, there would be someone else willing to help stop him. 

Both methods work.  Exclusion keeps out undesirables, but who sets the definition of undesirable?  You can see the trouble that could cause.  And even if we all agreed, it would seem that as a society we would be depriving ourselves of the opportunity to know more about each other – even those who are not like us.

But inclusion has its challenges.  It’s the chicken and egg syndrome.  How do you get the broad cross-section of users if a public space is occupied by scary people?

There are many issues involved in attracting people to a public space.  Design is one.  Location is another.  Socio-economic context is another.  All of these factors may attract one set of people while discouraging another.

In this forum, I write to encourage those who are involved in the development of public spaces to explore the issues that can make them successful.  I hope that by doing this, we can all learn and ultimately help create better spaces.   But it needs to be a two-way conversation.  So now I’m going to specifically ask for some input.

If you are a civic leader, a mayor, a city manager, or an urban planner, and have some thoughts on how to make public spaces safe, please share your thoughts.  Likewise, if you’re a design professional, let us know what has worked with some of your projects.  Or if you’re just someone who has given this some thought and want to weigh in, please do. 

What do you think?

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