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.
MEASURING PERCEPTIONS OF SAFETY
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.
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.
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.
What did we learn?
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.
I live in one of the most livable towns in the country. It has a variety of bookstores, an active and safe teen skate park, accommodation for the elderly, alternative housing options like cohousing, and two local industries.
There are over 40 restaurants for just 8,000 people (obviously a tourist town) and a festival every weekend from spring till winter. It has one of the most successful farmers markets and a vibrant and architecturally interesting downtown.
There hasn't been a murder in the city for decades and last year there were 52 violent crimes (mostly minor assaults) in the county with about 29,000 residents producing a county violence rate of 17 violent incidents per 100,000 residents.
In short, it is safe and vibrant.
Gotham City crime
New York City is also one of the most vibrant cities in the country and by every meaningful measure, it dwarfs my town. It has thousands of restaurants, bookstores, festivals, and every other amenity imaginable serving a city of over 8 million. It has a lower crime rate than most large cities. Yet, in comparison to my town the violent crime rate last year in NYC was 55 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
In other words, the violent crime rate there was three times higher than here.
Yet a former neighbor, a young woman who lived in New York until recently, describes feeling much safer on New York streets than here. She is more concerned about walking home in the dark here than walking there even though her actual risk is 3 times higher (To be fair I doubt she knew the different rates, only how she felt).
The Truth about Risk
Perception and risk are two entirely different animals. I have spent many years working in high crime places. I learn about the cues of environment, attitude of the locals, and actual crime risks. My first lesson - we may feel safe but not be so.
This week I read a great blog about crime risk by Sam Harris titled The Truth about Violence. He cites four basic safety principles including how to avoid dangerous places and people.
Harris also describes a truism about us: It is unpleasant to study the details of crime and violence—and for this reason many of us never do. I am convinced, however, that some planning and preparation can greatly reduce a person’s risk.
Read Harris's blog. It's worthwhile.
No doubt considerable fear exists on the streets of London after this week's riots. Whole books are written on urban crime and fear. What about rural places far from urban mayhem? The Gabriola Island murders from last blog suggest rural crimes too ferment fears of public places like nature trails.
This is ironic. Parks and trails are statistically far safer than bars at closing time or inside homes when domestic strife turns violent. Study after study tell us public trails are safe, such as Tod Schneider's article on bike trails back in 2000.
Yet those are urban studies. Research has yet to examine rural nature trails and crime. CPTED was born, after all, in the city.
I was recently interviewed by a horticulture magazine about trees and crime asking these very questions. The article, Trees Thwart Shady Behavior, described a study on crime and residential trees by examining 2,813 single-family homes in Portland, Oregon.
Controlling for visual appearance, presence of barriers, and street activity, the study showed "houses fronted with more street trees had lower crime rates". That was all crime rates, including vandalism and burglary.
Read it HERE.