Monday, May 6, 2013

Campus safety - the fear vs risk paradox

Biomedical Research building, University of Toronto


Novices to CPTED sometimes see things with a clarity others lack. Jennica Collette is a planning student at the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. She and fellow students recently completed their first CPTED study. In this guest blog she summarizes their findings and comes to similar conclusions as reported by Harvard University design students in March.

As part of a University of Waterloo social planning class, a group of fellow students and myself wanted to know how urban form influenced safety, both actual and perceived. We chose university campuses, a context that was relevant and familiar, and compared our suburban campus at University of Waterloo to the urban campus at University of Toronto. It was our first CPTED experience.

We started by familiarizing ourselves with CPTED lingo including Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space Theory and Jane Jacob’s "eyes on the street". We looked at reported statistics and charts as well as perceived safety through site visits and random interviews. The results weren’t what we expected.

Initially we assumed the University of Toronto was less safe. Why? Perhaps the strong association between large urban centres and crime or the idea that people who don’t necessarily “belong” at the University can wander through the campus freely and easily. But during interviews we were told both campuses felt safe. Other than identifying some areas of concern, like poorly lit loading areas in Toronto or a woodlot trail in Waterloo, there were rarely moments where students felt like they were in any danger.

Library at the University of Waterloo
When we crunched the numbers we discovered, on a per student basis, there were more crimes at the University of Waterloo than the University of Toronto. Granted, both of these campuses experienced very few serious crimes, mostly petty theft and mischief, but there were simply more of them in Waterloo.


One of the most significant differences between the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo was the presence of people. Even during reading week Toronto’s campus was bustling with activity. In Waterloo, during the weekends and evenings, you could count the people on one hand.

Toronto’s safe environment can be attributed to a combination of multiple uses, permeable grid form and high densities. The Royal Ontario Museum, the Ontario Legislative building, and Queen’s Park all lie within the campus boundary and the grid form makes the campus as much a waypoint as a destination.

Street vendors activating the street at the University of Toronto
In Waterloo a ring road topped off with berms surrounds the campus. We were told buildings were oriented with crowd control in mind rather than legibility. All this makes the campus particularly unappealing for a visitor.

Does built form influence actual and perceived safety? Our first CPTED experience confirmed it does. What we found mostly is that there is so much more to safety than movement predictors and improving lighting (though that is part of it). From a planning perspective a large part of making environments safe is activating spaces and activating communities. It turns out that is also the conclusion of Second-generation CPTED.

Whether it a campus or residential neighbourhood, the key seems to be having people present who are engaged in their environments.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Unknown said...

Thank you for the post, I enjoyed it. I've experienced four college campuses. Two were typical campus experiences but one was within a city and another was surrounded by forest and due to the summer break, there were very few people walking around. Walking through the trail to the bus stop felt unsafe, more so than when in NY where there were cameras and people around at all hours. Having other people around, strangers and otherwise, and being able to keep an eye out for people around helps people feel safe.

GSaville said...

Thanks for that Karlie.

I agree with your observations of campus life and walkability. Like you, Jennica told me during her team walkabouts on the two campuses it was the street activity, or lack thereof, that made all the difference in comfort.

Seems you and both are on the same page!