Feeling Safe in Trustworthy City

Academics of Urban Planning Yosef Jabareen and Naomi Carmon highlight a few functions of trust mentioned in the literature hitherto; promotes long-term social stability, reduces the costs of exchange and transactions, enhances the quality of life, enables rapid cooperation, and is a vital component of social capital[1]. When trust is absent, societies become unstable and disorganized, crime increases and our risk perception gets skewed in the negative. It can be said, therefore, that safety and trust are in a feedback loop.

Enhancing safety and trust within communities is a complex issue with historically varied responses that sometimes exacerbate the problems they aim to solve. Government and law enforcement agencies have traditionally favored a “hard” approach—increasing surveillance, boosting police presence, adding armament, constructing physical barriers, and promoting social homogenization. This strategy, reminiscent of the adage “when you are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” seems logical on the surface. However, it can paradoxically lead to increased violence and a heightened perception of risk, which can spiral into further mistrust and instability.

This paradox demonstrates two sides of the safety coin: external and internal. The external dimension relates to the objective assessment of risk and safety, which can be quantified and analyzed logically. In contrast, the internal dimension addresses people’s subjective feelings and perceptions of safety. Research indicates that there is often little correlation between these two dimensions, suggesting that objective measures of crime and risk do not necessarily align with subjective feelings of safety.

Urban Planning scholars have attempted to resolve these complexities by suggesting the creation of ‘communities of trust.’ They define these as socio-spatial settings where substantial relationships of trust exist among community members, leading individuals to feel safe because they do not perceive others as threats[2]. One crucial tool in fostering these communities of trust is  common spaces.

Common spaces, or public spaces, are key in promoting interactions and relationships that build trust. Well-designed common spaces can become areas where community members engage with each other in positive and non-threatening ways, thereby reducing the feelings of risk and enhancing the internal perception of safety. This has been supported by evidence suggesting that shared spaces that promote social cohesion can contribute to lowering crime rates and improving community resilience.
By focusing on the spatial aspect in the design process, we can create spaces that are safe but also actually enhance the feeling of safety. This aspect is made up of what and who is physically present in these spaces, how we use these spaces, and what they mean to its users. To set a clearer guideline, we can consult the Safe Urban Spaces toolbox by Nordic Safe Cities and SLA studio[3]. The 5 guiding principles they propose are: creating local alliances, focusing on the people, being inclusionary, being site-specific, and designing primarily for positive behavior.

Urban Living Labs (ULL) exemplifies these principles in action. ULL orchestrates a confluence of individuals from diverse backgrounds, catalyzing dialogue and coalescing their efforts towards a unified objective. Such collaboration not only fulfills the stated objectives of these principles but also epitomizes an astute methodology for spatial design.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that our initial understanding of safety and trust may be misguided. Going forward, we need to conceptualize more encompassing frameworks that account for the human factor in safety design, such as communities of trust. In light of these frameworks and held together with guiding principles, creative initiatives such as ULL are imperative to bring about change. The field is ripe for more research and new initiatives, highlighting the important role TRUSTMAKING can play in all of this.

[1]Jabareen, Y., & Carmon, N. (2010). Community of trust: A socio-cultural approach for community planning and the case of Gaza. Habitat International, 34(4), 446–453.
[2] Forrest, R., & Kearns, A. (2001). Social cohesion, social capital and the neighbourhood. Urban studies, 38(12), 2125-2143.
[3] Nordic Safe Cities. (2018). Safe Urban Spaces: Tools and Approaches for Safe and Inclusive Cities. Nordic Safe Cities and SLA Architects.