The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is … What Exactly?


Tympanum of Conques, France – the damned

The bedrock principle of restoring public space is making people feel safe there. Visitors will only return to a downtown or park if they perceive it to be safe (and, of course, it must actually be safe!). The principal reason people avoided Bryant Park before 1990 was because they were afraid to go there. But why did they feel unsafe? What makes people afraid to spend time in certain places? I suggest that what makes people afraid to be in certain public spaces is a feeling of being unable to predict how other people they see in the space are going to behave, which makes them concerned for their physical safety. When people go outside of places where they feel they are in control, they look for certain markers that communicate to them that the other people they encounter in the space will behave in ways that they expect – and make them feel more certain that they will not be physically threatened.

People feel safe with what they know and people they know. If they don’t personally know the people they are going to encounter, they sense that people who have traits that are as much like theirs as possible are going to behave towards them in ways that they can anticipate. In prehistoric times, perhaps, one had circles of trust: your family and then your tribe were much less likely to pose a physical threat to you then those outside your tribe. Maybe in that environment, we developed carefully honed sensitivities about the cues that told us who was a threat and who wasn’t. As a result, we are suspicious of difference. Sameness generates feelings of predictability and therefore safety.


Bryant Park 1970

Early in my tenure in Jamaica, a business executive from a Fortune 500 company who lived near the downtown contacted us. He ran his company’s data center, which was then located in an office building in midtown Manhattan – very expensive space for a bunch of machines. This individual had the idea that he could relocate the data center to industrial space near the transit hub in Jamaica, save his company a ton of money on occupancy costs and pare his commute time from an hour to ten minutes. Our Business Services team at Greater Jamaica Development Corporation immediately went to work assembling a list of suitable available spaces. Attracting this company to Jamaica would have been a newsworthy event – a major step forward in our revitalization efforts for the downtown.

The executive visited the proposed sites and selected one as having all the attributes he was seeking. Our team assisted him in assembling a proposal to present to his corporate real estate department for their review and approval. A group from that office, which was located in the suburbs, was dispatched to visit the site – and then we heard nothing back for weeks. Finally, we reached out to the executive and inquired about the status of the site selection. He told us that “corporate” had made a determination that Jamaica “was not ready” for their company. We were surprised and disappointed since the space was inexpensive, conveniently located, had the structural elements required to host a data center and a very cooperative owner.

I spent a good deal of time thinking about what might have occurred and visualized a car full of white guys in suits driving down to Jamaica from their office, getting out at the transit center and noticing that the other folks on the street didn’t look much like them. The social environment was, most likely, entirely unfamiliar. With the street vending, the chaotic retail signs, the lack of national chains and the poor conditions on the sidewalks, they may have perceived the space as being disordered and out of social control. I speculated that they felt unsafe; that they were afraid.

The actual crime data at the time for Downtown Jamaica indicated that it was not any more unsafe than midtown Manhattan. But there was a broad perception that the Downtown was unsafe. The question became how to change that perception – however invalid or even irrational and founded in prejudice. The challenge became to find cues that would positively communicate to first-time visitors that the social behavior in the space was actually familiar and therefore predictable. We needed to find the physical things that we could control that would send the right subliminal messages. I realized that this project was similar to the changes we made to the Bryant Park environment in 1992 to draw people back into the park, and was the first step that needs to be taken in any public space improvement project – manipulating the physical environment to encourage visitors to perceive the public space as well-ordered and absent of physical threats.

For example, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason most people seek to avoid spaces where homeless people are present is that they have the sense (often based on actual, but limited, first hand experience) that single adult homeless people occupying public spaces behave in ways that are unpredictable to other folks. Implicit in that unpredictable behavior (perhaps driven by drugs and mental health issues) is a perception of a physical threat.

There are a number of basic placemaking tools that have proven their efficacy in changing people’s perception of the safety of public space. Visitors need to see things that are familiar to them. The most basic one is creating more street corner mayors/eyes on the street. These can be visible security staff/ambassadors who, by their presence convey a sense to the visitor that someone is paying attention and attempting to maintain social control. Counterintuitively, I believe that unarmed staff are more effective in conveying this message than people carrying guns. While I appreciate that military service members carrying automatic weapons in transit hubs in New York City may serve a deterrent effect, am I the only one who feels less safe as a result of their presence? Armed staff raise the idea for me of the potential presence of a serious, violent threat. My perception is that well-trained, unarmed staff better communicate a sense of calm and social control.

The public presence doesn’t have to be one related directly to security. People engaged in maintenance of public spaces convey a similar message. These can be people doing cleaning or horticultural work. They can be performers, ranging from formal presentations to buskers. A wide range of programmed activity in parks and sidewalks all have the same effect. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the cost effectiveness of plants and flowers in providing positive social cues. Good physical maintenance is an important tool. Better graphics in both wayfinding and retail presentation can have a powerful impact. Well-organized commercial activity, like farmers’ markets and night markets are also transformative of perceptions. Media can be valuable in supporting efforts to change perception in my experience; particularly community newspaper press coverage and social media activity.

I’ve become convinced that positive programming in public spaces has the ability to change peoples’ perception of them. The level of intensity of such programming is in inverse proportion to the depth of the perception of lack of safety. Whatever preconceived notions people might have about a place can be influenced and changed subliminally, no matter the source of those misperceptions. In Jamaica, we were successful in beginning to move the needle of the public perception of safety through public space programming strategies, leading to new investment and development. Understanding the feelings that drive people to avoid public space is essential in working to draw them back. Making spaces feel familiar and predictable is at the core of revitalizing them.

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