Coding safety into urban design

Active travel will only work if we feel safe on our streets, particularly when it is dark and we are alone. It is important, for many reasons, that we create cities where we feel comfortable. Active travel certainly depends on it.

Active travel: why feeling safe matters

Crime is not as common in Canberra’s suburbs as many of us would think. Not that there is no crime at all, but the frequency and severity of crime is statistically low. Cognitive biases. Are at play (read Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman), resulting in our perception of our safety differing from what statistics tell us. This is why police personnel at Canberra community council meetings often appear mystified by the audience’s emotional reaction during discussions about personal safety. Our perception of risk to our safety has more to do with human nature and psychology and arguably much less with rational factors or numbers in statistical reports.

For active travel, however, whether our fears are rational or not is irrelevant. Active travel is about walking and cycling, through dark lanes, parks, and poorly lit streets at night. We rarely feel vulnerable at a party or in a shopping centre, but we often do feel vulnerable alone and when the environment is unfamiliar and uncertain. If the infrastructure is not such that they feel safe, people will not use it. It is as simple as that!

Bing: Emotional Brain Amygdala (Free to share and use)

It is therefore essential to build community paths and bike paths so that people feel safe to use them all times of day and any time of year.

Community safety: The actual and perceived safety existing in any community. ‘Actual’ safety is measurable and usually expressed as ‘a rate of crime’. This may differ from ‘perceived’ community safety – derived from interviews and attitude surveys.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 2

Thinking fast and slow

It seems strange that we are so confronted by the idea that we may not know what is going on in our mind. Recent studies in neuroscience would indicate that the neural activity of the conscious “thinking brain”(neo cortex) is the size of a snow ball on the top of an iceberg. The overwhelming portion of our neural activity is not consciously perceived. This is the “fast” thinking referred to in Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman. The conscious component is the “slow” thinking of our mind. Our working memory is very limited, and we are likely to make errors when we are fatigued (or the functioning of our brain is impaired by drugs, such as alcohol). Clearly our brain is a highly complex system, however, we should not be alarmed that we do not know everything that is going on in there. It has served us well for many thousands of years.

Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman is an outstanding book and explains the nature of our mind and the mechanism behind decision-making. This mechanism is prone to making specific types of errors in specific circumstances. Because these errors stem from cognitive biases we typically cannot intervene to correct them. We are normally completely unaware that we are making them. Other people around us are more likely to pick up on our decision-making errors than we are ourselves – and we are more likely to pick up theirs. As we often cannot avoid thinking mistakes, we are better off applying à systems approach by changing our environment, so that it permits errors due to cognitive biases without significant economic or physical harm to ourselves.

Bing: Brainwave (All Creative Commons)

At canberra.bike we are concerned with how to get people cycling. Behaviour follows infrastructure, which needs to be visibly and physically safe through good design, construction and maintenance. It needs to directly connect town centres and come with good signage.

The negation of zones where pedestrian paths, roads and cycle paths cross is problematic. The juxtaposition of traffic with quite different characteristics is hard to judge and this can lead to collisions. Vulnerable road users come away particularly poorly from such collisions. For this reason, keeping pedestrians, cyclist and drivers separate goes a long way to improving safety. “Think 3” is the name of the game, but in Canberra we still have the concept of shared paths.

There are active travel standards for what makes a good bike path. This article looks at the standards that address the psychological component of safety.

Codifying our safety

There is a wealth of research that has been done on perceptions of personal safety. Human nature is the same everywhere, so the recommendations do not depend on the country where the research is done. Great benefits are to be found in treating safety as mostly a psychological phenomenon if we wish to quickly get people moving.

What people feel is safe is easy to test and verify. The recommendations have been codified into rules that can be applied by practitioners in designing urban infrastructure, whether retrofitting in older suburbs or design of new estates.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a General Code (effective 16 December 2011). It is nowhere near as impressive as it would first seem. There are few rules and mostly vague criteria. More detail aspects of the design are passed off to other design standards. At this point it is worth capturing what is in the CPTED General Code. The code applies to buildings, too, but canberr.bike only focuses on cycling.

The code tries to make concrete what makes us feel secure.

  1. Lighting to protect from the darkness
  2. Line of sight to the destination for certainty
  3. No hasty surprises from hiding places
  4. A feeling of community belonging
  5. A feeling of community protection

A short description is provided to understand these concepts.

Light to protect from the darkness

Most people feel very uncomfortable in the darkness. The darkness hides the unknown and plays on our fears. On a cold night, a dark oval is the safest place in the world, because it is the place the people are least likely to go. Our brain reality is the opposite, in the darkness we lose our bearings and seek light to find them again. Our hard wired instinct warn us that we are potentially in danger. Our warning bells go off!

Line of sight for certainty

A direct visible route between the exit of the building and the destination provides surety that we know where we are and how to get there. We are unlikely to take a shortcut through the forest to Grandmas house. So to maze like lanes and paths around corners leave us uncertain about the destination and what is along the way.

Bing: Certainty People (All Creative Commons)

No nasty surprises

It is well-known that hedges, bushes and forest beside paths and close to intersections, where we must stop and wait makes people nervous. You cannot see what is in the bush but must pass by it. This is not only true when it is dark but in the day as well. The more uncertain we feel about our environment, the more likely it is that such potential hiding places will impact our need for certainty.

A feeling of community belonging

Most people feel safe at home. The concept of home is that I belong there. We can make a great effort to make where we live feel like home. Once achieved we feel comfortable – my home is my castle! This is also true for the community we live in. The streets, the park, the suburb belong to the community, and when we see ourselves as part of that community, we feel at home in the streets, the park, the suburb. We feel the same sense of trust and wellbeing that we feel at home. In new suburbs, the community feeling needs to be built, but once achieved, the feeling binds to provide a sense of safety. It is the challenge for the urban planner to design a suburb, which welcomes and allows the community to grow and prosper.

A feeling of community protection

In short, this is the feeling that my community is watching over – and out for – me. Pedestrian corridors have been built between houses, they are wide, straight and well lit, so the people in the houses can see me (perceived safety). Paths are along streets in front of houses, so that pedestrians feel safe as they can be observed from both passing cars and from within houses. The sense that the community is watching over me makes me feel safe. This is particularly true when it is dark.

The crime statistics, however, are full of stories of houses that are cleaned out, cars stolen from driveways and parcels thieved from the door step, during the day without anyone noticing anything.

As we drive faster our vision narrows, as the landscape rushes towards us and we look further and further ahead. The area of our vision that we can actively process is the size of our thumbnail at the length of the arm. Unless we continually scan our environment we are very unlikely to observe pedestrians beside the road. Often after collisions with pedestrians or cyclists, the motorist swears that they had not seen them. If we are distracted by phone or people in the car, talking or otherwise, our perception narrows even further.

In houses lit at night it is not possible to see anything outside in the darkness, and if the blinds are down, such as on winter nights, and windows closed to keep out the cold, it is very unlikely that those people that are home will observe anything outside.

The final point is that again and again it has been proven that when somebody falls and gets hurt most people will not stop and help. Most do not believe this. Even when told that of this, most people will predict that most strangers will stop and help. This makes our “naïve” thinking so interesting, as it is impervious to evidence to the contrary.

File: Chris Froome – The First Man to Cycle through the Eurotunne (14613484233).jpg

Terms Used in the Code

There are four key principles of crime prevention through environmental design:

Natural surveillance:

This is intended to limit the opportunity for crime by designing spaces and buildings that foster human activity and interaction as well as overlooking of the environment.
Included in the designs are such features as:
a) clear, direct paths that encourage pedestrian movement through spaces
b) streets that allow passing traffic to observe open spaces and car parks
c) obvious building entry points, clearly visible from the street and/or pedestrian spaces
d) building entrances and windows that look out on to streets, open spaces and parking areas.

Natural access:

This is the ‘channelling’ of the movement of people in the environment, either to encourage them into spaces to increase activity and hence increase natural surveillance, or to discourage people from entering areas where it is generally inappropriate for pedestrian movement. It is possible to alter the movement of people through the environment by the use of symbolic and/or actual barriers. These may take the form of changes in levels, gardens, ground markings, lighting, entrances, fences, or bollards.

Territorial reinforcement:

This involves developing and/or maintaining a sense of proprietary for the space or development by the community. If people feel a pride of ownership then there is a greater propensity to take care of the environment and to look after those in the community. Territorial reinforcement requires a sense of ‘place’ and amenity to be established. This is best when it is considered through the whole design process and when there is a clear delineation between private, semi-private and public realm. … Increasing the use of the site by legitimate groups in the community increases the sense of ownership and the legitimate users may take on the role of voluntary custodians of the site.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 1

Definitions Used in the Code

Activity centres

The traditional focus for services, employment and social interaction in cities and towns. People shop, work, meet, relax and live in activity centres. Usually well served by public transport, they range in size and intensity from local centres to Group and Town Centres and the City Centre.

Activity generators

Land uses that encourage and intensify use of the public domain – may include outdoor cafes and restaurants, shops and outdoor sporting areas located in open space.

Community safety

The actual and perceived safety existing in any community. ‘Actual’ safety is measurable and usually expressed as ‘a rate of crime’. This may differ from ‘perceived’ community safety – derived from interviews and attitude surveys.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)

An analytical tool used to redesign and modify the built environment to reduce opportunities for crime. CPTED focuses on the effective design and use of the built environment to reduce the incidence and fear of crime and improve quality of life.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 2

Neighbourhood design

This neighbourhood design section immediately passes the buck to the ACT Crime Prevention and Urban Design Resource Manual, which will be reviewed later.

Public Realm

Element 3: Public Realm is mostly criteria (C) that will be assessed in the development application under the so-called “merit track”. Rules with clarity are rare.

C3
Natural surveillance of open space and community areas is provided by:
a) locating to adjacent activity centres;
b) encouraging pedestrian (or cyclist) movement through the space;
c) ensuring clear sightlines from, and between, buildings and open space areas: community areas; and
d) designing out any entrapment spaces

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 5

C8
Hard landscape features such as low walls, bollards are used to delineate movement areas from semi-private areas.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 6

C10
Provide a schedule of lighting showing that lighting complies with each of the following:
a) Australian Standard AS1158 Lighting for Roads and Public Spaces Part 3.1: Pedestrian Area (Category P) Lighting – Performance and Design Requirements

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 6

C11
Legitimate users and activities at night are encouraged by lighting:
a) spaces evenly and consistently (except where accent/feature lighting is necessary)
b) inset spaces, entries/exits and paths
c) to reduce the casting of shadows that could hide intruders

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 6

Travel and Access

Element 6: Travel and Access is where most of the active travel recommendations are found and there are not that many. References are made to three documents that will require further investigation.

  • ACT Crime Prevention and Urban Design Resource Manual
  • Austroads Guide to Traffic Engineering Practice Part 13. – Pedestrians
  • Austroads Guide to Traffic Engineering Practice Part 14. – Bicycles

The following quotes are from this section.

C23
Pedestrian Routes, Bicycle Paths and Lanes are designed to maximise opportunities for natural surveillance by:
a) maintaining sightlines along paths between destination points
b) allowing overlooking from adjacent areas

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 9

C24
Provide direct access routes to buildings streets, car parks and public transport. Signs should be used to assist pedestrians where it is not possible to establish clear sightlines between destinations.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 9

C25
Security of pedestrian routes, bicycle paths and lanes are provided by:
a) selecting and lighting ‘safe routes’ to the standard required for pedestrian areas so that these become the focus of legitimate
movement after dark;

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 10

C26
When planting adjacent to pedestrian /bicycle routes:
a) ensuring there are open sightlines. Low planting (maximum height 600 mm) and high-branching trees (two metres) should be
used;
b) avoiding tall bushes, dense shrubbery and dense clusters of trees, especially immediately adjacent to routes and at
predictable stopping points such as road crossings.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 10

R27
A Statement is provided that pedestrian paths are
designed in accordance with AUSTROADS Guide to Traffic Engineering Practice Part 13. – Pedestrians

R28
A Statement is provided that Bicycle Paths are
designed in accordance with AUSTROADS Guide to Traffic Engineering Practice Part 14. – Bicycles.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) General Code 2008-27, effective 16 Dec 2011, ACT Government, page 10

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