Safety through urban design

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Whether we are healthy, wealthy and lead a lavish life, security remains the primary condition for us to enjoy all the blessings. Time and time again, Pakistan has faced security challenges, mainly due to internal and international threats.

One of the main reasons for homeland security issues is the unprecedented increase in urbanization which has profoundly affected individuals, communities, economies and the natural environment. Our cities have truly become cosmopolitan centres. Rural exodus and globalization have brought new challenges for maintaining public safety and security. As global urbanization rates continue to rise, resulting in most major urban centers experiencing increased levels of gentrification, the demand for new and innovative approaches to crime prevention will undoubtedly intensify. .

Traditionally, a lot of money and politics are injected into the system to enforce law and order. It’s perfectly understandable, but there is something very important that could secretly help control the crime rate in cities. More than a century of research supports the hypothesis that crime can be reduced through enlightened urban design and planning. It may seem a bit unusual to establish design principles as a tool to control the security situation. But for centuries, the principles of urban planning have been a driving force in shaping the design of contemporary cities and towns.

The economic and socio-political situation determines the physical shape of cities and towns. For example, in medieval times, the principles of town planning design adopted were mainly aimed at ensuring the safety of cities against invaders; which they did by building fortified cities. To cope with frequent wars and attacks, each city was surrounded by a heavy and well-protected fortified wall with a water channel around it and a confusing and irregular street pattern in the city. This was actually adopted to confuse the invading army and camouflage the defenders.

A careful study of all fortified towns shows that the iron grid scheme – roads crossing at ninety degrees – was never adopted for contemporary towns. The irregular streets were basically a sharp strategy and were actually way ahead of their time.

With the passage of time and changing socio-economic circumstances, particularly after the industrial revolution in Britain in the 17th century, the nature of towns and cities changed completely. Invasion through economic domination was the driving priority established by the revolution. This led to significant rural-urban migration, as more labor was needed in the newly created industrial towns, which necessitated new challenges in the design of the urban fabric and statutory configuration. A number of theories and ideologies have been advanced in urban planning and certainly new experiences have been made.

But the greater revenue created by innovation in information technology at the turn of the 21st century has taken the world to another level. It is imperative that the technological revolution has brought about a change in the design concepts of urban planning. Today, with the inclusion of advancements in technology, geo-referencing, satellites, CCTV and more, urban design principles have been redefined and remain relevant for securing cities. For example, today, “routing” takes center stage in any city design as it remains a core ingredient for city patrols and service delivery. Regular street patterns are helpful to maintain the same.

Therefore, cities will undoubtedly be the defining feature of human geography in the 21st century. The latest advances in planning concepts are “smart cities” which have not only revolutionized lifestyles but also addressed security issues in the most innovative way. But it is a very expensive solution to controlling crime for a developing country like Pakistan. For smart applications to be implemented, some basic infrastructural arrangements are needed on the ground; this is lacking in Third World countries that face institutional and capacity challenges, and lack funds for data collection and updating. Therefore, achievable changes such as “increasing visibility” in the design of urban form could be helpful in maintaining law and order.

Certain design principles influence safety. This remains one of the best ways to endorse natural or informal oversight in neighborhood design. Buildings that face each other provide more space for activities, and the development of public spaces with terraces and street furniture are 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 in such a way that criminals feel exposed and vulnerable.

Residual unplanned spaces that are blocked by thoroughfares and roads are potentially dangerous places in cities. In Pakistan, multi-storey residential towers are gaining popularity in terms of security. More often than not, people don’t know their neighbours, 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. Equitable distribution of opportunities, services and facilities among people reduces frustration, emotional turmoil and excessive anger. For example, the provision of facilities evenly distributed in a neighborhood – such as sports grounds for minors – could be a positive outlet for their energies. The breakdown of social control in the community, whether due to varying economic status or increased cultural heterogeneity, leads to social disorganization.

Urban planning or architectural interventions cannot prevent crime from being committed in a city. It cannot be argued that a design-based approach to crime prevention takes precedence over conventional methods of controlling criminal activity. But to eliminate planning and design from a set of tools against crime and the fear of crime is to neglect a rudimentary tool that is quite effective. Thoughtful planning could be a way forward for implementing the latest surveillance and crime prevention and security maintenance technologies and interventions.

The author is an urban planner, economist and artist based in Lahore. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

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