Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Tracking fear - measuring safety perceptions in Saskatoon

Saskatoon river trail at night
by Mateja Mihinjac

This summer, I led a team of eight city planners and set out to explore how the physical and social environment in downtown Saskatoon, Canada influences perceptions of personal safety. This was the first-ever micro-level, fear and safety project to use a specially tailored, digitized software app to map and analyse downtown safety in Canada. This is something geographers of crime and environmental psychologists have been studying for decades, but often without the precise measurements that we were about to uncover.


Perceptions of safety have been understudied in the field of criminology despite knowing that they may affect people’s use of the public realm more than actual crime. Moreover, from Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design - CPTED - we know that features on the streets, parks, and neighborhoods where we live may promote or reduce fear in that environment. Yet, we rarely measure this association.

Downtown Saskatoon street research locations
As a criminologist specializing in SafeGrowth and CPTED, the City of Saskatoon planning department hired me for the summer of 2019 to develop and pilot this downtown project.

The first step included the development of the field data collection survey, a modified version of the Neighbourhood Safety Audit that incorporates the principles of CPTED. The survey was then digitized in a GPS location-based data collection app called Fulcrum, that allowed us to capture and record data with our mobile devices for use in subsequent analysis.


We formed two research teams of four participants from the Saskatoon Planning & Development Division. Each participant had undergone CPTED/SafeGrowth training and was knowledgeable about urban design and safety. Teams collected night and daytime data within the downtown area over 13 days.

Daytime audits were combined with evening audits of the same locations
Because we were interested in perceptions and fear at a very micro-level, the study area was confined to the blocks and laneways within a four block area. We used our new app to collect information from 108 micro-spatial locations within a radius of 30 meters (100 feet) of each location, and then we also collected 596 additional intercept surveys with members of the public on the street at the time.

Detailed fieldwork like this is laborious and time consuming, but teams were diligent and we were able to gain invaluable insights, in some cases uncovering findings about fear that were previously unknown.

Fear and safety perception maps can be correlated with actual crime maps


What did we learn?

  1. The social environment influenced perceptions much more than the physical environment. Respondents often couldn’t point to particular land use or design features impacting their perception of safety, but they were able to note people who increased their comfort levels, such as local employees, shoppers, and people running errands. Erratic and unpredictable behaviour on the street increased their anxieties. 
  2. Lack of activity in particular blocks due to underactive land uses impacted perceptions of safety, such as the 29 vacant storefronts in our study area. These vacant properties both lessened street activity and reduced “eyes on the street”.
  3. Interestingly, the respondents’ night-time perceptions did not appear as negative as we expected. Some parts were so inactive at night that we obtained very few interview responses. While CPTED surveys conducted by one team concluded these underactive areas were anxiety-provoking, when late-night social events and festivals activated the area, it positively influenced the perceptions in our surveys with the public. 
  4. Both the public participants and the CPTED team appeared reassured by the uniformed presence of community patrol officers in the Community Support Program. They particularly praised the Program for contributing to increased feelings of downtown safety. Many asked for expanding the program. 

One of the city planner audit teams during night field work

In our SafeGrowth training we often say: Once you learn CPTED you’ll never again look at the environment the same way. However, CPTED novices often forget that the environment encompasses both physical and social. This research provides evidence about the interplay between the physical and social environments on public perceptions. Clearly, physical and social CPTED strategies are equally important and must be part of all planning and prevention.