Safety through urban design

Whether we are healthy, wealthy and live a lavish life, security remains the foremost condition for us to enjoy every blessing. Time and again Pakistan has been confronted with security issues, mainly because of internal and international threats.

One of the major reasons for internal security issues is the unprecedented increase in urbanization which has profoundly impacted individuals, communities, economies and the natural environment. Our cities have truly become cosmopolitan centres. Rural-to-urban migration and globalization have brought new challenges for the maintenance of public safety and security. With global rates of urbanization continuing to rise, resulting in most major urban centers experiencing increased levels of gentrification, the demand for new and innovative approaches towards crime prevention will undoubtedly intensify.

Conventionally, a lot of money and policy is injected into the system to enforce law and order. That is perfectly understandable, but there is something very important that could covertly help control the crime rates in cities. Over a century of research supports the supposition that crime can be reduced through informed urban design and planning. It may sound a bit unfamiliar to establish design principles as a tool to control the security situation. But for ages, urban planning principles have been a driving force to shape the design of contemporary cities and towns.

The economic and socio-political situation decides the physical form of cities and towns. For instance, in the medieval era, the urban planning design principles that were adopted were mainly meant to provide security to towns from invaders; this they did by constructing fortified towns. To cope with frequent wars and attacks, each town was surrounded by a heavy well-protected fortified wall with a water channel around it and a confusing and irregular street pattern within the town. This was actually adopted to confuse the invading army and camouflage the defenders.

A close study of all fortified towns is evidence of the fact that a grid iron pattern – roads crossing each other at a ninety-degree angle – was never adopted for contemporary towns. Irregular streets were basically a sharp strategy and in fact were far ahead of their times.

With the passage of time and changing socio-economic circumstances, especially after the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 17th century, the nature of towns and cities changed altogether. Invasion through economic dominance was the driving precedence set by the revolution. This led to a lot of rural-urban migration, as more labor was needed in newly established industrial towns, which called for new challenges in devising the urban fabric and statutory setup. A number of theories and ideologies were put forward in urban planning and certainly new experiments were made.

But the greatest turnover created by innovation in information technology at the turn of the 21st century has taken the world to another level. It is imperative that revolution in technology has driven a shift in urban planning design concepts. Today, with the inclusion of technological advancement, geo-referencing, satellites, CCTV and much more, has reshaped urban design principles that still hold relevance for making towns secure. For instance, today ‘routing’ holds a central place in the entire design of a city as it remains a central ingredient for patrolling and municipal service delivery. Regular street patterns are helpful in maintaining the same.

Consequently, cities will undoubtedly be the defining feature of human geography in the 21st century. The latest advancement in planning concepts are ‘smart cities’ that have not only revolutionized lifestyles but also addressed security concerns in a most innovative manner. But this is a very expensive solution to control crime for a developing country like Pakistan. For smart applications to get implemented, some basic infrastructural arrangements are needed on the ground; this is lacking in third world countries that are confronted with institutional and capacity issues, and lack finances for data collection and updation. Therefore, achievable shifts like ‘increasing visibility’ in the design of the urban form could be helpful in maintaining law and order.

There are some design principles that influence security. This remains one of the best methods to endorse natural or informal surveillance in neighborhood design. Buildings facing each other bring more activity areas, and introducing public spaces with patios and street furniture are some ways to improve visibility. Various studies prove that criminals avoid targeting properties that have a high degree of ownership and control and that urban spaces can be designed so as to make criminals feel exposed and vulnerable.

Unplanned, residual spaces which are blocked off from connecting pathways and roads are potentially unsafe places within cities. In Pakistan, the multiple-storeyed residential towers are gaining preference in terms of security. More often than not, people don’t know their neighbors, which creates a poor sense of community. Stronger communities where people know and trust each other are key to ensuring a safe environment.

Planned communities ensure a direct positive effect on the human psyche and indirectly control negative attitudes. The equitable distribution of opportunities, services and facilities to the people reduces frustration, emotional unrest and undue anger. For instance, provision of fairly distributed facilities within a neighborhood – like sports grounds for juveniles – could be a positive outlet for their energies. Breakdown of social control in the community, whether due to variation in economic status or increased cultural heterogeneity, leads to social disorganization.

Urban planning or architectural interventions cannot control crime from being committed in a city. One cannot argue that a design-based crime prevention approach takes precedence over conventional methods of controlling criminal activities. But to eliminate urban planning and design from a set of tools against crime and fear of crime is to neglect a fairly effective rudimentary tool. Thoughtful planning could be a way forward for the implementation of the latest technologies and interventions for monitoring and prevention of crime and to maintain security.

The writer is a Lahore-based urban planner, economist, and artist. She can be reached at:

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