Social aspects

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In this Securipedia page, the focus is on the social functions of urban objects in an urban environment. In the graphic of the Securipedia overall structure, the assumption is depicted that (potential) measures that mitigate (potential) threats have impact on the social functions of urban objects, because of the consequences for the design and accessibility of the objects and the urban environment in general.

To be able to understand how current or future security measures have an effect on the social function we need first to know what is understood by social functions of urban object in particular and of the urban environment in general. Secondly, we need to know what the mechanisms are, through which safety measurements effect, positively or negatively, the social functions.


To understand the concept of social functions we need to keep in mind that mobility, economic and safety are of course also social in nature. But to facilitate sense making, we have distinguished social functions as a separate category, which will be described from a sociological and a psychological perspective.

General, sociological perspective

The social function of urban property, i.e. urban objects in urban environments, is illustrated by the phrase “The city is not a business, the city is for all”. In the social sciences, especially sociology, this view is known as functionalism[1]. Functionalists see society, and hence urban environments, as made up of inter-dependent sections (objects) which work together to fulfill the functions necessary for the survival of society as a whole. People are socialized into roles and behaviours which fulfill the needs of society. Functionalists believe that behaviour in society is structural. They believe that rules and regulations help organize relationships between members of society. Values provide general guidelines for behaviour in terms of roles and norms. These institutions of society such as the family, the economy, the educational and political systems, are major aspects of the social structure. Institutions are made up of interconnected roles or inter-related norms. For example, inter-connected roles in the institution of the family are of wife, mother, husband, father, son and daughter.

Functionalists believe that one can compare society to a living organism, in that both a society and an organism are made up of interdependent working parts (organs) and systems that must function together in order for the greater body to function. Functionalist sociologists say that the different parts of society e.g. the family, education, religion, law and order, media etc. have to be seen in terms of the contribution that they make to the functioning of the whole of society. This ‘organic analogy’ sees the different parts of society working together to form a social system in the same way that the different parts of an organism form a cohesive functioning entity.

The theory is based around a number of key concepts. First, society is viewed as a system – a collection of interdependent parts, with a tendency toward equilibrium. Second, there are functional requirements that must be met in a society for its survival (such as reproduction of the population). Third, phenomena are seen to exist because they serve a function.

General, psychological perspective

Talcott Parsons stated that “the social system is made up of the actions of individuals” [2]. Parsons determined that each individual has expectations of the other’s action and reaction to their own behaviour, and that these expectations are derived from the accepted norms and values of the society which they inhabit[3]. These social norms are generally accepted and agreed upon. As the behaviours are repeated in more interactions and these expectations are entrenched or institutionalised a role is created.

Parsons then developed the idea of roles into collectivities of roles that complemented each other in fulfilling functions for society. Some of the roles are bound up in institutions and social structures, such as economic, educational, legal, and even gender structures. These structures are functional in the sense they assist society to operate, and fulfill its functional needs so that the society runs smoothly. A society where there is no conflict, where everyone knows what is expected of them, and where these expectations are constantly being met, is in a perfect state of equilibrium. The key processes for Parsons in attaining this equilibrium are socialisation and social control. Socialisation is important because it is the mechanism for transferring the accepted norms and values of a society to the individuals within the system. Perfect socialisation occurs when these norms and values are completely internalised, that is they become part of the individual’s personality[4]. Socialisation is supported by the positive and negative sanctioning of role behaviours which do or do not meet these expectations[5]. A punishment could be informal, such as a snigger or gossip, or more formalised through institutions such as prisons and mental institutions. If these two processes were perfect then society would become static and unchanging, and in reality this is unlikely to occur for long.

From the perspective of functionalism, one could argue that measures that mitigate (potential) threats are concerned with maintaining equilibrium of the urban system and restoring omissions in socialization (crimes), in following social norms (hooliganism), and social control.

Influencing behavior through environmental design

From a social functions perspective citizens should always be part of security and related safety considerations in urban planning. Not only are citizens the ultimate end-users and consumers of social functions, much of the planning and design of object directly effects citizens perception and behavior and, hence, effects social functioning. The relation between tactical design and the effective use of the built environment on the one hand and the reduction of both crime and the fear of crime is expressed in a crime prevention theory called ‘Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design’ (CPTED)[6]. A main objective of CPTED is to reduce or remove the opportunity for crime to occur in an environment, and promote positive interaction with the space by legitimate users. CPTED is a preventative, pro-active model, and not a reactive one.

The dilemma is that the design implication of these functions often conflict with one another. For example, the placement of cameras is a modern variant of social control. From placing camera’s it is expected that it, apart from curbing crime and offenses, enhances the sense of security. The same cameras also bring the message about that it is apparently necessary and that the area is full of offenders, which good undermine the sense of social security. If urban planners do not recognize different functions of space and objects it is obviously very difficult to balance out conflict among these different functions. In order to overcome this state of affairs, Steele [1973] developed a system for categorizing the social functions that immediate physical settings play for people. For describing the social function of urban objects in an urban environment we use four dimensions:

  1. Shelter and safety. This is the most basic needs which a home can provide, and the most basic amenities are relevant here. The roof keeps the rain out, there is plenty of insulation, ventilation, heating works, there is drinking water, sanitation facilities, sound insulation, ample space, and solid hinges and locks. Defective functioning of these facilities have serious implications for health, and evokes a deep sense of unease that strengthens the perception of risks, including with regard to social security. In this context, it is not enough to view 'home' solely as an object in which one lives, it is also concerns the ‘living quality’ of the immediate residential area and close surrounding.
  2. Social contact has a strong direct connection with the perception social security. In almost all the literature that deals with relationship between design and safety measures and social security, the social environment is mentioned often in relation to social control. The importance for instance of having an outside view, if not necessarily to check upon each other, but is an opportunity of getting to know the neighbors, and getting to know the familiar strangers. Hence, it is more a enabling factor in the development of social contact , then the signaling undesirable behavior. Good relations with neighbors, or even the estimation of that possibility, and the feeling that support will be offered as necessary, increasing a sense of social security. The "language" of the physical environment plays an important role. Graffiti or vandalism, but also neglect homes, give nonverbal impression that the neighborhood is inhabited by people who have little concern for their environment, and whom you cannot count on in case of problems.
  3. Services and pleasure. The environment should be arranged so that people can do and find what they need. Appropriate facilities, such as shops and schools, with good accessibility, can reduce feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, which affects the perception as social security. People may feel unsafe feel when they cannot find their way around (because of diversions, streets closed, too much uniformity, the omission of prominent landmarks). Services, like well-maintained football pitches in old neighborhoods, give space to young people to do what they like, and with that reduces socially undesirable behavior and reduces feelings of insecurity.
  4. Psychological ownership and identification refers to the messages sent by the setting which tell someone what a person, group, or organization is like, such as the things a person exhibits in his office. People also need to tag and recognize what belongs to them. By defining the environment to smaller residential areas, the feeling 'this is ours' is strengthened. Marks in the environment (a work of art where residents can identify with, a church where people attached), and the grid may be important here. Psychological ownership plays a special role regarding the perception of social security, because it consistently shows that people consider their 'own' neighborhood safer than others.

Each of these dimension will be addressed in relation the types of urban objects and measurements taken. It is not necessary that an object or measurements are ‘rated’ on all four dimensions. Certain measures that mitigate (potential) threats may have a positive effect on one or two dimension, a negative effect or essential an neutral effect on others. Therefore, rating measurements in positive, neutral or negative effect is not a mathematical exercise, instead it is meant to raise awareness of the effect these measurements have on the way people behave and with that the effect measures and design considerations have on the social functions.

Entry points for social functions in security-related urban planning

Culture aspects

Security culture as a concept has different connotations. A security culture can be developed within an organisation, a city council, and among urban planner for that matter, with the explicit aim to encourage people to respect common values and standards towards security whether they are inside or outside the workplace, i.e., more generally, urban objects. This meaning of security cultural is closely related to security awareness, i.e. the knowledge and attitude people possess regarding the protection of the physical and especially, information assets. Another connotation is that security culture refers to the general perception within society of what risk an security means and what it entails and of course the general acceptance of measures to mitigate the dangers and threats. Hence, different perceptions and disputes about risk and security can be linked to competing worldviews, as they are paramount in multicultural cities: Conceptions of risk, security and solutions to security problems vary according to the organisation of political and social relations.

Entry points for culture aspects in security-related urban planning

Footnotes and references

  1. functionalism has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially interested in how social order is possible or how society remains relatively stable
  2. Parsons, T., & Shils, A., (eds) (1976) Toward a General Theory of Action, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p:190
  3. Parsons, T., (1961) Theories of Society: foundations of modern sociological theory, Free Press, New York. p:41
  4. Ritzer, G., (1983) Sociological Theory, Knopf Inc, New York. p:196
  5. Cuff, E. & Payne, G.,(eds) (1984) Perspectives in Sociology, Allen & Unwin, London. p:46
  6. Jeffery, C. Ray. (1971). Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications