The issue of risk of harm occurring in public places in UK towns and cities is often only mentioned in the media in response to tragic events. And yet, our safety can also be improved through proactive, good urban design and planning. If we engage more with the latter, can we prevent more tragic events occurring? Can we all feel safer in York?
Recent tragedies in the UK remind us that the issue of our safety from harm in our towns and cities is continuing; sadly, York is not exempt. Despite modernity’s assurance that ‘these types of incidents are very rare’, this can feel hollow based on our lived experiences.
As such, the issue of safety raises pertinent questions about how space in our cities has been encoded based on our gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality or if we are homeless (amongst other categories). For example, could it be that urban planning in the modern sense, dreamed up in the post-war period as a type of genderless utopia, have actually made things worse for women? By eliminating the paternalistic idea of ‘protecting women’ based on valid desires to push for equality, planners and city developers have neglected to acknowledge that misogyny violence directed specifically at women in the urban environment continues to be an urgent and pressing problem.
- Do we take different routes around York informed by our perception of risk to safety, and influenced because of our gender or age or another factor?
- If some of us have to take longer routes to access areas, is this fair?
- What spaces do we avoid and why?
- What role does surveillance play – does the unseen panoptic eye, often presented as a cheap cure-all for societal control in urban spaces, really offer any tangible benefit or reassurance?’
Modern anxieties around how, and even should, we navigate the network of streets, alleyways, ‘snickets’ and underpasses, in our urban environment should be etched into the stories of our built environments, yet they are rarely documented or even considered. Indeed, the question of how safe we are or feel on the streets of our cities has been ever present, suggesting that it should be amongst the leading guidance in how we design and manage our urban spaces. The reality is other impulses drive urban design or prevent urban reform, such as concerns of cost, traffic flow, accessibility, signage, drainage, even the preservation of heritage. Despite perceived or real danger on our streets, the issue of safety rarely gets asked by our politicians or in the media.
York Civic Trust has an established reputation for fighting to better protect the city’s historic buildings and special spaces, including narrow lanes and the ‘snickelways’. But the protection of our city’s historic environment should not come at the cost to citizens feeling less protected from harm.
Using its role as a civic voice, the Trust is facilitating a series of events under the umbrella ‘Safer Places By Design’ during York Design Week to bring an open, public discussion between York Citizens and interest and professional groups.
A ‘Safer Places by Design’ interactive digital conversation on Thursday 20th October identified some of the city’s areas considered a safe or dangerous place and allowed participants to re-see our city through the eyes of others.
[Download the Heat Map as a pdf using this link.]
York’s areas identified as the most dangerous are:
- Cinder Lane and railway bridge (behind the station)
- Along the river between Scarborough Bridge and Clifton Bridge
- Rougier St
- Clarence St
- Stonebow area
- Tang Hall Beck cycle path
- Hob Moor
- Love Lane and railway bridge
- Blue Bridge and New Walk
Where’s missing, which is the worst, how might they be improved through good design? Tell us using the comment function at the bottom of this page.
The extent of urban design to influence behavioural change in making our city safer was questioned in the interactive discussion. It was agreed that planning and urban changes is not a panacea for making the city universally safe, especially due to the need for wider changes in behavioral attitudes in some sectors of society, but it can make a positive contribution and so the opportunity to do should be seized.
York was identified as a particular tricky city to protect people form harm due to its historic street pattern and needing to find a balance between design elements, such as street lighting and sight lines, and respecting the historic environment. Interestingly, many of the identified areas identified as dangerous are on the periphery of the historic core of the city, and where a transition is found between it and the inner suburbs.
Use the comment section below to tell be part of the conversation.
The public happening event on Sunday 24th October, used one particular location in the city – Black Horse Passage and connecting lanes and streets around the Stonebow area – to explore what makes a space in York feel dangerous or could make it feel safer. Professional input challenged us to look at these spaces anew and consider them from a range of possible users.
Discussion points coming out of the event focused on how our sense of safety and danger is informed by signals and signifiers: graffiti, high walls, broken lights, lack of way finding, poor sightlines of exit points on a street or alley. A walking tour led by Richard Ball, North Yorkshire Police Designing Out Crime Officer, as part of the happening highlighted many of these elements. Richard also pointed towards relatively easy solutions to address the unsafe feel of Black Horse Passage: such as cutting back the trees or lowering the height of the street lights down the passage, as the lamps of two of the three lamps are currently tossed in the crowns of trees, greatly limiting light in the passage. The height of the boundary wall to the passage that is owned by British Telecom was also identified as a problem for perceptions of safety – casting shadows, concealing activity out of public sight, preventing escape routes. Can British Telemcom be persuaded to lower or remove the wall for the public good?
There is also a more human-scale dynamic to the signifiers. In and around Blakc Horse Passage and connecting lanes, participants of the happening tours responded particularly to a change from a residential vibe (such as along Straker’s Passage) to an industrial or commercial street vibe (such as Black Horse Passage; Wesley Place and Garden Place), the former feeling safer; the latter, less safe.
Connected with this is how greater use of a street or area can make it seem safer, and in doing so encourage others to use that space and setting in motion a general uplift for the feel of an area. Meaning, perhaps how to get people to start using an underused space is the hard part! Wesley Place showed signs of use by skateboarders – a group who can be marginalised as anti-social for some. But can they be part of the solution – providing a prominent use in an underused area? How else might we encourage people to use some of these under used places?
The final installation on Tuesday 26th October used Black Horse Passage as a canvas to capture the thought-provoking comments on safety in York collected throughout the week. Using bunting and glow sticks, it aimed to encourage us to rethink less-safe spaces such as this, can we make them safer and celebrate this and these spaces? Can we cast some light on them through public discussion and seeking out solutions?
If you happened to see it, please send us your photos or thoughts, and your views on the wider project, to firstname.lastname@example.org or via our social media channels @yorkcivictrust.
Thank you to everyone who took part and contributed their ideas throughout the week. The topic of safety on York’s streets is a very pressing and important issue, and the conversations had have been productive and extremely insightful.