The Evolution of Innovative Approaches to Build More Secure and Safer Public Spaces

The following article was written by three researchers from the University of Leeds: Adam Crawford (Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice), Susan Donkin (Research Associate in European Urban Security) and Christine Weirich (Research Assistant in European Urban Security). The University is a partner in the IcARUS (Innovative AppRoaches to Urban Security) project, led by Efus.

These findings were also presented during the third Annual Meeting of the PACTESUR project, dedicated to cross-cutting innovative urban security policies, on 19 October in Nice (France).

This presentation will outline and assess a number of trends, tensions and fault-lines that have characterised shifts over time in the design and regulation of safe public spaces across Europe and beyond. We do so to stimulate debate and discussion about the trajectory of learning and the challenges for the future. In doing so, we will draw from the wider Review we are conducting for the IcARUS project.


European cities face significant challenges and major threats, such as terrorism and organised crime, but also incivilities, petty crime and new health risks, which all affect citizens’ feeling of safety. These challenges undermine the vibrancy and security of urban public spaces and threaten the well-being of European urban populations. In the context of fears of immigration, increased hyper-diversity, growing social and economic polarisation, the privatisation of public space and ‘splintering urbanism’ (Graham and Marvin 2001), Stuart Hall’s (1993; 2017) clarion call that how we develop ‘the capacity to live with difference’ is the central question of our time, remains as prescient as ever.

  • Public spaces are places of difference, excitement, spontaneity, play and even unpredictability, where diverse populations come together, co-exist and interact in uncertain encounters (Sennett 1992). This is what Massey (2005: 181) refers to as the ‘throwntogetherness’ of public spaces. They combine co-presence and physical proximity with relative anonymity.
  • Public spaces are contested places infused with different and competing economic and social and organisational interests, where commercial and business imperatives converge with moral claims over appropriate behaviour and conditions of citizenship.
  • Security is but one imperative in public spaces that sometimes collides with other public goods or private pursuits.
  • Use of public space fosters perceptions of safety. Underused and desolate public spaces are fear inducing (Jacobs 1961). Unlike other public goods (where the more others use it the less value it has for the individual), public space does not suffer congestion and crowding in the same way, such that a certain level of use is beneficial to all. Nonetheless, there are tipping points at which public spaces become over-crowded or dominated by certain groups rendering them less welcoming to others (Low 2017).
  • In recent decades, many city authorities have sought to render public spaces safe through various modes of crime and terrorism prevention and order maintenance, but in so doing risk turning them into sterile, sanitised and (over-)securitised fortresses (Koolhaas, et al. 1995; de Cauter 2005).
  • Public spaces are crucial arenas in which encounters with difference are hosted in convivial ways fostering civic norms that bind loosely connected strangers in mutual recognition (Barker, et al. 2019).
  • The challenge is how public spaces can remain liberating and liminal yet safe, welcoming and regulated.

Tendencies, trends and learning across time

We propose that four broad tendencies and four emergent trends are apparent across time:

  1. UA tendency to import overly crude versions of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) strategies and ‘defensible space’ ideas that sought to alter the built and physical environment so as to ‘design out’ criminogenic opportunities; often infused with logics of ‘preventive exclusion’, opportunity reduction and overt surveillance as deterrence, and with little regard to aesthetics (Crawford 2009).
  2. A tendency to search for universal solutions under the banner of ‘what works’ which has drawn attention away from the situated and contextualised features of local places – with less attention to ‘what works’, ‘where’ and ‘for whom’? And simultaneously with little regard to which groups of people benefit from particular interventions or design features in a particular place/situation at a specific time?
  3. A tendency to prefer technological solutions – i.e. hardware – to human solutions in regard to addressing security concerns, with less concern for the intersection between social and technological processes.
  4. A tendency to over prioritise security as against other benefits, uses and values of public spaces – social, cultural, environmental, educational and health-related – resulting in the over-securitisation of public spaces. One of the ironies of such quests for security is that in their implementation they may foster perceptions of insecurities by alerting citizens to risks, heightening sensibilities and ‘scattering the world with visible reminders of threats’ (Zedner 2003: 163).
  5. A trend towards a cross-fertilisation and transfer of design and regulatory strategies first implemented in privately-owned public spaces – shopping malls, amusement parks, recreational facilities, etc. – where commercial logics frequently take precedence over overt securitisation (Crawford 2011).
  6. A trend towards a ‘process of naturalisation’, whereby regulation becomes embedded into the physical infrastructure and social routines in ways that is less noticeable, and a dynamic of ‘quaintification’ by which forms of regulation and control that are too harsh to fade into the background ‘are symbolically rehabilitated as both unthreatening and even laudatory’ (Flusty 2001: 660).
  7. A trend away from resort to coercive law enforcement, police, prosecution and punishment, towards compliance strategies that decentre the police and engage informal actors, civil society mediators and forms of persuasion, self-regulation and capacity building (Barker 2017).
  8. A recent trend towards human-centred solutions that are sensitive to local context, the causes of social problems, the nature of social interactions and early intervention.

Case Studies as Illustrations

We will illustrate how some of these trends and tensions have played out in practice and through learning across time with case study examples from two cities involved in the IcARUS project: Rotterdam and Stuttgart.

Example 1: In the city of Rotterdam, the City Marine programme has provided an innovative institutional mechanism for organising and delivering urban security. City Marines (Stadsmarinier) are individuals who are assigned to neighbourhoods determined to be most at risk (on the basis of data from the Safety Index). The task of the Marines, aided by a specific budget and resources, is to address serious issues within the community while also addressing the overall feelings of safety within the neighbourhoods.

  • Youths were causing issues during New Year’s Eve celebrations in the neighbourhood of Bloemhof in Rotterdam including smashing windows, challenging police, and general disruption. This resulted in negative and unwelcoming feelings within public spaces for this community. Businesses were concerned about damage to their property and residents were less inclined to use such public spaces. The initial proposal for this issue included investing in more police/security presence and surveillance technology. This would have ultimately cost the city more and may not have created a feeling of a safe and welcoming community space.
  • The solution devised by City Marine Marcel van der Ven approached this issue by speaking directly with ringleaders and creating a programme which benefited all within the community, and resulted in a self-regulating community. The City Marine was able to create a unique solution by understanding the neighbourhood, and those that live in it. He was able to tackle the underlying issues and improve the situation for all involved, instead of simply focusing on the security aspect of the issue. His versatile position as a city marine also allowed him to operate as a figure of authority, while not representing a police authority – thereby allowing him to establish and maintain a working relationship with those individuals who may be untrusting of police. This practice also became used in other neighbourhoods in Rotterdam.

Example 2: Stuttgart experienced multiple public order incidents since 2019, including riots in Stuttgart city centre, the latter being related to pent-up demand to gather and socialise post-lockdowns, and the associated mistrust in the authorities heightened by Covid-19 restrictions.

  • These incidents are illustrative of contested uses of public spaces. Gatherings of large groups of young people, coupled with excessive noise and littering impacts on others’ enjoyment of these spaces, and can increase feelings of insecurity. The association of these incidents with young people from migrant backgrounds means youths are increasingly being stigmatised by other users of these spaces, polarising society.
  • The city introduced Respektlotsen (respect guides/pilots) in 2020 with the aim of promoting tolerance by engaging mainly young people in casual, friendly conversation. The idea is to highlight that mutual respect can break down barriers, thus preventing conflict and aggression. Using informal actors who are sensitive to the local context (many of whom are from migrant backgrounds themselves) encourages youths to self-regulate their behaviour (non-coercive compliance), as well as opening avenues of communication with other users of public spaces, fostering integration.
  • The interconnectedness of different urban security concerns is highlighted in Stuttgart’s approach of creating safer and more enjoyable public spaces facilitating co-existence, demonstrating the importance and value of incorporating human solutions, in addition to design and technology.

Future challenges

Rather than asking how ‘to build (ever) more secure and safer public spaces’ (as the title of this presentation suggests!), we should perhaps be exploring ways to ensure a minimum threshold of security that enables other civic values, social pursuits and public goods to flourish; where regulation is parsimonious and non-intrusive in ways that, wherever possible, foster self-regulation by citizens.

This requires us to see security as a foundational good; one that can also easily reach a tipping point that intrudes on other – more fundamental – social goods. It also necessitates an understanding of the diversity of uses and effects of public spaces as dynamic places; not as abstractions – as always virtuous or ever-malign – but as having meaning through the ways they are used in everyday human interactions and the way they relate to the wider cultural environment and economic forces of the city in which they are located.

Some key questions for the future remain:

  • Restrictions introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic have impacted public spaces in new and particular ways, with the imposition of curfews, lockdowns and ‘stay local’ orders. To what extent has the experience of regulating public spaces during Covid-19 compounded or confounded existing trends and tensions? Has Covid-19 accentuated cumulative learning or prompted new departures?
  • Environmental change has already become a major force propelling migration and displacement across the world, prompting ‘climate refugees’ scarcity of goods/resources. As such, global warming is likely to exacerbate the existing and growing geography of inequality and the uneven distribution of lived insecurity. How will public spaces adapt to the environmental needs and demands prompted by climate change? How will the new risks, harms and vulnerabilities fostered by global warming and the extreme weather conditions that accompany it impact on public spaces as key elements in city-wide ‘green infrastructures’ within European cities?
  • In the face of fiscal restraints on municipal authorities and in the face of pronounced dynamics of privatisation and residualisation of urban public space and the growth of quasi-public ‘mass private property’ (Barker, et al. 2020), what futures do public spaces have as well-resourced, vibrant and convivial spaces? Can public spaces as civic resources survive the encroachment and commodification of the market?

Learn more about the IcARUS project

Learn more about the PACTESUR project


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