Perception of (in)security and risks

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Perception of (in)security and risks depends on general psychological mechanisms but also on cultural and social factors. Risk is never an objective figure but always "negotiated" or "constructed" within society, based on cultural backgrounds.

Relevance for security-related urban planning

Only focusing on objective risk reduction is not enough in security-related urban planning. Risk information and design features of urban infrastructure influence citizens’ perception of the risk that infrastructure is at: "the perception of insecurity in cities depends largely upon the substantial amount and constant flow of information that urban residents receive from many sources."[1] Appropriate risk communication that accompanies urban planning can help reduce the gap between perceived/felt and factual risk/security. Moreover, perception of security and risks is often gender-dependent, that leads to different urban protection needs. Understanding the various situations and individual needs should inform all aspects of urban planning and management.

Dimensions impacting citizens' perception of security of urban places

Dimensions Aspects to consider in urban planning
People Diversity
  • Usage patterns of an urban area and related needs of the user (including spaces);
  • Facilitation of usage possibilities for different types of people (integrative spaces);
  • Allowance of communication through the design of public spaces (meeting points).

Marginalised people

  • Marginalised people use public space as recreation area, and thus, they also rely on it;
  • The usage of public space should be encouraged and supported by planning toilets, banks etc.;
  • Creation roofed areas (sheltered installations) with no specific function.

Local experts

  • Local experts, like policeman or social workers of a public place, can easily identify and broach (social) issues of the area and therefore represent an important source of information and for urban planners;
  • In each planning step, urban planners should involve interdisciplinary teams, consisting of planners and local experts.
Objects Light/Lighting
  • Public places should be designed in areas with different illumination types;
  • In order to avoid “hot spots of fear”, the planning of main streets, parks, pedestrian underpasses, subways, etc. should consider powerful lighting and clear visible areas.

Visibility/overviewability and vitalisation

  • Urban planners should use more glazed materials to facilitate the visibility and an easy overview of public places;
  • Improvement of social security by using robust and sustainable materials.

Plants/maintenance of green areas

  • Consideration of aesthetic and functional aspects of green areas;
  • Avoidance of planning green tunnels and green areas with no visibility and clear overview.

Environmental pollution

  • Environmental pollution increases the citizens' perception of insecurity on public spaces. Therefore, urban planners should promote long-lasting and sustainable materials;
  • Effective and user-oriented urban planning focuses also on reducing environmental pollution (e.g. waste bins, free toilets).
Dynamic elements Good orientation/overview of public spaces
  • Urban planning should concentrate on the overview of urban areas for the purpose of orientation;
  • Usage of a clear guidance system for important functional areas, like subway, stations of public transports or pedestrian underpasses;
  • Introduction of adequate usage concepts for different mobility patterns (e.g. pedestrian, bicycle);
  • Important target points/destinations should be visible from a longer distance.

Traffic speed and circulation

  • Introduction of adequate usage concepts for different traffic patterns (e.g. bicycle, public transports);
  • Concentration both on functional and aesthetic aspects of public spaces allows fostering the possibility of “shared space” in order to enable urban and social skills (competences)

Public places as meeting points;

  • The urban planning process should provide concepts for different comfortable and "cosy" public spaces, where people living in the same urban area can spend time together, get to know each other etc.;
  • Familiar encounters in the residential area increase the subjective sense of security.
Image/Identity of places Image/Identity
  • In this context, image means the reputation of a place; meanwhile identity is characterised by the history and usage of it. It is very important that urban planners consider these two aspects to create secure and agreeable rehabilitation of places.
  • Diverse actions of public participation helps to integrate elements of identity and image of a public space in the urban planning process;
  • Each step of the urban planning process should consider aspects of identity and image of urban areas.

Approaches how to address it

  • Base security design and measures on citizens’ perception of insecurity, feeling of vulnerability and acceptance of technological solutions for security problems;
  • Inform citizens on risks of urban spaces/places before and after planning implementations;
  • Inform citizens on specific structural, design and material choices (see: designing in and designing out);
  • Involve citizens in planning decisions and processes to consider their views and requests - use citizen participation methods, in particular local open dialogue methods and participatory diagnosis;
  • Consider gender and group specific risk views and security associations;
  • Adapt planning decisions according to citizens views and adopt specific requests;
  • Compensate gaps in risk perception vs. factual risks by adequate risk communication;
  • Planning tools aiming at increasing urban resilience should be sensitive to the social context to which they are applied.

Related subjects

Footnotes and references

  1. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT): Enhancing Urban Safety and Security. London: Earthscan, 2007a, 19. Retrieved from: [last access: 2012-05-23].