Safe Public Spaces

Every day, there are people who leave their home and feel unsafe in the world. They experience inescapable threats to their lives and livelihood from the system that has been built up around them, forced to move through spaces that feel at best uninviting and at worst mortally dangerous. These people are not abstractions. They are your friends and your neighbors, members of your community, your loved ones.

Our world is becoming increasingly dangerous for so many, and we cannot afford to ignore it. It is our imperative and our duty to do what we can to change this. The danger is stitched into the fabric of our environment, and rooting it out will require restructuring of our public realm.      

We have witnessed, in recent years, a decline in the use of public space as a community hub. What used to be the beating civic heart of the urban space, a place for people to gather and grow together, has become increasingly privatized and sterile. While there are many factors that contribute to this transition, key among them is the lack of safety for so many. In order to foster cultural and social diversity in our public spaces, we must create places that champion social justice and equity, and that are accessible and safe for all.

How can we begin to shift our public spaces towards this ideal? Setha Low, Professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Director of the Public Space Research Group, has proposed methods by which we can address this issue and begin to take action. First is the consideration distributive justice. We must ask ourselves whether we have created public space for everyone in our community, and if we have fairly allocated our community resources. 

Photo by Maria Sipin

To be inviting, a public space must be designed and constructed which all members of the community in mind. Next, it is essential to recognize our differences. All people must be acknowledged as individuals with rights to public space. Safety begins with the feeling that you have a right to occupy a space, and to be comfortable in doing so. In order to foster this, the rules of the public spaceneed to reflect the individuality of its members, and not be based solely on the norms of the dominant class.

Our public spaces must allow for all individuals to interact safely and respectfully, and those in authority must treat all users with comparable respect. The public space needs to encourage people to help one another and to practice stewardship of the space; we must care for one another and for the urban spaces in which we live.

Lastly, public space must be accessible to everyone in the community. We must all strive towards social justice by any means that we are able, and these concepts are a foundation upon which we can build towards equity and safety for everyone in the public sphere. To learn more about how you can act on these principles, please consider attending the 54th International Making Cities Livable Conference in Santa Fe, where Setha Low will be discussing her work in a keynote address.