Monday, March 27, 2023

Safe places - outdoor rooms


Designing outdoor "rooms" - a building at the end of the street frames the space

GUEST BLOG – Carl Bray is a member of the SafeGrowth Network and an urban designer teaching at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. He runs Bray Heritage Consulting and is co-author of a forthcoming book on SafeGrowth and neighborhood safety. In this article, Carl offers some architectural observations on the concept of community-created and safe outdoor places. 

Municipalities can go far beyond basic security measures such as improved lighting and sight lines, the first steps in CPTED, to improve public safety. And it can also be a community initiative to create such spaces, something that is the essence of SafeGrowth. Whoever does it, making “outdoor rooms” is a creative and practical way to strengthen neighbourhoods and improve stewardship of place. 

Why is it that some places outdoors feel inherently comfortable, and others don’t? Maybe it is because the most comfortable share most of the features that a room has  – a floor, walls, and a ceiling – all at a human scale. We decorate rooms to suit our personal tastes, and we spend a lot of time in them. They are where we often feel safest.  

Walkways can contribute, or detract, from the outdoor room effect


A skill known and practised for centuries but only now being rediscovered is designing outdoor spaces that are room-like. In some cultures, people can literally create a room outdoors by moving their rugs, chairs, and tables onto the street or square to enjoy a special event or even to relax in cooler night air. 

Some large cities went further and converted streets into outdoor plazas: Times Square in New York City is one example. And during the pandemic, many places moved seating into on-street parking spaces to expand sidewalks and add to adjacent restaurants (some of these adjustments have been made permanent). 

But mostly it is everyday activities such as walking down a main street or through a neighbourhood when we feel as though we had entered what feels like a room. 

Redesigned public access bleacher in New York Times Square
- photo Jim Henderson, Creative Commons

Take a main street, for example. It often feels most comfortable when the street (floor) is about one and a half to twice the height of the flanking buildings (walls). In that case, the “walls” remain in our peripheral vision but we don’t feel confined. Walls are “decorated” with the details of individual buildings and the “ceiling” is defined by rooftops, towers as well as tree canopies, lighting, and signs (as well as, of course, the sky). 

Framing a street with murals and a building at the end

In a neighbourhood, it is the street trees and front yard plantings that add to the details found in building facades. If the street is narrow enough – say, around equal to the height of the buildings – the street tree canopies arch over the street and partially define the “ceiling”. There is even recent research suggesting tree canopies over sidewalks has a crime-deterrent effect.

While most of us live in places that have a pattern of straight streets along the edges of square or rectangular blocks, some places slant the grid and create what is known as deflected vistas, where the view along the street angles off to one side so that what is in the distance isn’t visible until you come around the corner. Even more, room-like is what’s known as a terminated vista. 

For example, a building sits at the end of the view, usually on the far side of a cross street, and defines the end wall of the outdoor room. Extrapolate that to the scale of a public square in Europe, for example, where all four sides of the square are framed by buildings, and you have a complete outdoor room. 

Street furniture and roads as walkways
- a more common practice after Covid


What all of these spaces have in common is an ability to make us feel comfortable and secure, even if it is at a subconscious level. An outdoor room attracts people to use it, with the result that it becomes safer. By creating and furnishing outdoor rooms, and making them work well, municipalities can go far beyond basic security measures and elementary CPTED steps, such as improved lighting and sight lines. It can also be a community initiative to create such spaces, something that is the essence of SafeGrowth. Whoever does it, making outdoor rooms is a creative and practical way to strengthen neighbourhoods and improve stewardship of place. 

While much of this relies on empirical observation, not scientific research, more methodical approaches, and precise data may soon be available to support these notions. Historical precedent certainly suggests that such places succeed. In the meantime, I encourage you to go outdoors and test these ideas for yourself. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Conflating social disorder with violent crime

Many factors impact fear of crime - such as night lighting  

Tarah Hodgkinson

Just because an area may appear dangerous, doesn’t mean it is dangerous. Criminological research indicates that fear of crime has all kinds of impacts on community safety. It often correlates with people retreating into their homes and out of the public sphere, creating more opportunities for crime and generating even more fear. 

This field of research examines the kinds of indicators of disorder that lead people to be afraid, including both physical and social factors. These can range from groups of teenagers hanging around, seemingly without purpose, broken windows and graffiti, to sex workers openly soliciting and visible drug use. 

However, we don’t often discuss the way in which these physical and social indicators of disorder can lead to misperceptions about the type of crime that may be occurring. 

Digitized Fulcrum safety audits - one of our SafeGrowth tools
to compare reported crime with spatial patterns of fear

I was recently putting together a short fact sheet about crime and social disorder for a mid-sized community in Ontario. Like many cities across the country, this community was dealing with a significant rise in visible homelessness in their downtown core. And similar to many cities, there was concern that the increase in homelessness would also mean an increase in crime and violence. 

To analyze the police data, I again used a data analysis tool called the location quotient, a metric that measures crime specialization to inform policy and prevention. This differs from crime rates or crime severity measurements which are easily influenced by population size. 


In this case, the findings indicated that while social disorder specialized in the downtown area, no other crime type, including violence, was overrepresented downtown. This does not mean that violence is absent in the downtown area. What it does mean is that, compared to the rest of the city, the downtown does not account for most violence. 

While social and physical indicators of disorder, including homelessness, may create perceptions that an area has a crime and violence problem, that often isn’t the case. Rather, what is happening, is that the police are overwhelmingly responding to social disorder and visible indicators of poverty and disadvantage. 

This isn’t surprising for criminologists, but it is an important finding for communities and policy makers. It doesn’t mean that these areas should be policed more heavily, but instead that we need to address the roots of poverty and homelessness in these areas. That is how we create safe and inclusive places for all.