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.

York ‘Heat Map’ showing perceptions of dangerous and safer areas in York’s city centre. (Large stars indicate multiple votes)

[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?

Putting the finishing touches to the display.

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 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.

9 thoughts on “Safer Places by Design

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  2. Can the space by Black Horse Pasage be opened out and transformed into a welcoming space? It has vast unused potential.

  3. I live in South Bank and I really don’t like walking back from town on my own. I tend to stick to big main roads like The Mount/Bishopthorpe Road which are well lit and busier – I don’t take shortcuts late at night (like the cut through to Scarcroft School from Nunnery Lane) and I wouldn’t walk down the river or by Millennium Bridge. There are areas like Scarcroft park which are quiet and dark and I don’t feel safe. It’s not that anything has happened to me but at the top of Albemarle Road – it’s hard to see who is around. Further down, there are bushes down the side of the road and allotments, plus Little Knavesmire which are all very dark and quiet spaces – I don’t like walking there alone at night. I just don’t feel safe. In the city centre I feel ok usually because there are people around but it’s intimidating when there are large groups of drunk people around and you’re on your own.

  4. Cinder Lane and railway bridge (behind the station) – the top of the bridge has got a light out! It’s very dark walking over the bridge at night after I finish work at 22.30.

  5. I was mugged on the cycle track Between Arran place and layerthorpe over 20 years ago during the day. In all this time the cycle track does not feel my safer. It’s poorly lit in places once it goes dark and unless I’m on my bike or out running I try to avoid this. When they built derwenthorpe I thought efforts would be made to improve the whole track not just the end near derwenthorpe as it’s encouraged as a safe route to get to the city instead of the road. this doesn’t appear to be the case. As for Clarence Street with drinking banned in the parks, city centre streets and most other public areas it means street drinkers will gather near to hostel accommodation which includes Clarence st and bootham grounds another no go area after dark and even during the day.

  6. I never use to walk/run along the Foss alone now the Fairy Trail has transformed it into a safer, busier, happier place. No one wants to hang out there and get up to no good now it’s busy!
    Clarence Street for me was an eye opener the other day when I drove by early evening due to Gillygate closure and there were bodies just slumped everywhere drinking – not a great site.
    I often go along the river but not alone after dark but that’s not a new thing I always try and remove myself from what could be a dangerous situation. The lighting is poor along that section of the river.

  7. As a resident in the Blue Bridge Lane area, while I am uncertain as to the dangers, the drunken pedestrian, alleged drug dealing and use of the Blue Bridge, New Walk and Blue Bridge Lane as a thoroughfare to and from the city centre and the trace course, make it at best a rowdy area.
    I fear that the only real solution is a high visibility, and permanent police presence, especially at night when the blue line is conspicuously absent unless they respond to a incident. By then it’s too late!

  8. I feel why the Black Horse passage is bad is the Graffiti and the general mess of the place. Maybe the lighting. It is whether you want Victorian feel or a modern set of Lighting.

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