Creating safe and secure urban spaces is a core concern for city managers, urban planners and policy workers. Safety is a slippery concept to pin down, not least because it is a subjective experience.
It incorporates our perceptions of places and memories, but also norms in society about who is expected to use spaces in the city, and who is considered to be out of place.
The experiences of people with disabilities offer important insights into the complexities of urban safety, because of the varied encounters with space that impairment can bring.
Their experiences show that safety is a fluid concept. Places city planners may consider safe can actually make some people feel unsafe, and what is safe for one person might not be for another.
Over the past two years, we have been carrying out research to understand how people with disabilities in Ireland – including people with visual, hearing and mobility impairments – experience urban safety and the impact it has on their everyday use of different spaces.
We have found that issues of inclusion and the idea of who “belongs” in particular spaces are important and should be considered alongside more traditional approaches to urban safety.
Reducing crime by design
City planners have often been criticised for prioritising “situational responses” to urban safety. These focus on a technical understanding of urban safety as a problem to be solved. Greater police visibility, more lighting and CCTV and the idea that we can design out crime from our cities are all examples of situational responses.
While these initiatives may have a place, they often focus on the public realm at the expense of the smaller spaces of people’s lives. They also do not reflect how safety, or a lack of safety, is understood by different groups of city dwellers.
There is no neat match between what crime statistics might say about the safety of an area, and how people actually feel fear and safety in that area.
Our study, conducted across three cities in Ireland, revealed that feelings about fear and safety very much shape disabled people’s experience of their urban environment. In some cases, they can prevent them from using different spaces.
People identified a range of spaces and places in the city that felt unsafe. These included public spaces such as transport hubs, bars and nightclubs, shopping centres and deserted spaces.
The presence of people they didn’t know or trust, crowds and the inaccessibility of the built environment could make people feel vulnerable in these spaces. In some cases, the absence of people contributed to feelings of insecurity.
Others described feeling more unsafe in their homes. This was due to isolation, poor housing design and location and, in some cases, domestic violence.
What is key here is how people interpreted spaces in terms of fear and safety. Spaces were not fixed as safe or unsafe. One person’s unsafe space could be another’s refuge. Neither can we say that people with disabilities are a group who feel inherently unsafe.
The people we spoke to described fear and safety as a result of a range of different of factors coming together at specific times and places.
One man with a visual impairment, for example, described feeling fear in spaces which others might consider to be safe. He recalled an incident when, crossing the road in an urban space in the middle of the day, his concentration was distracted by a group of young people who repeatedly teased and shouted out to him that he shouldn’t cross when he stepped out using a white cane.
Many people had developed strategies and routines to ensure they felt safe in different spaces. This included using learnt transport routes, going out at certain times of day, and only visiting places that they felt were welcoming.
These places included restaurants and specific shops where staff knew them, or made an effort to accommodate their needs. Other people only went out accompanied by someone, or used specific technologies when out and about. This included mobile phones, but also – in cases where people had been subject to hostility – the wearing of bodycams as a deterrent.
Thinking about safety in urban planning and policy is more complex than situational responses give credit for. Providing a wheelchair ramp into a building, or better lighting, may indeed assist in creating more welcoming, safer, cities.
But it is equally important that urban safety strategies respond to issues of inclusion and justice, by addressing the attitudes which can exclude disabled people from the spaces of their local communities.
The work of Scotland-based charity I Am Me on disability hate crime is an example of this. It works to challenge discriminatory attitudes towards disability in schools, while also encouraging service providers and businesses in local communities to sign up to be safe spaces in case a person with a disability feels under threat when out and about.
Urban safety is as much about changing social relations as it is about technical fixes. Disabled people’s experiences show us that it is only by challenging assumptions about who has a right to inhabit urban space that we can create more inclusive, just and safer societies.