Nepal | September 22, 2020

Creating safe cities: Focus on open spaces

Biranchi Poudyal
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Cities function lively when people are free to enjoy social space without any security barrier. Excessive safety concern can violate people’s right to access public spaces, create environment of fear and knock off the basic principles of democracy

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

Over the past few decades the global societies have witnessed an unprecedented urbanisation growth with over 50 per cent of the world’s population now residing in cities. Undoubtedly, increased urbanisation, coupled with the significant rise in global migration, brings new challenges to public safety.

In overpopulated metro cities like Kathmandu, concerns related to street crimes have become more evident these days. The problem analysis triangle deduces that crimes are likely to happen when (1) potential criminal and (2) vulnerable targets come together in (3) suitable space and time.

Unfortunately, Kathmandu is home to lots of such crime potential spaces in different corners of city.

In the past the abundance of public spaces encouraged people to venture out, creating a safe public domain. Shared spaces for refreshment, gathering parks, squares for daily talks and commerce were the fundamental features of traditional Kathmandu. Nowadays, the absence of such public spaces and more focus on private life have hugely reduced people’s mobility. Crime thrives when individuals are detached from physical social network and feel difficult to distinguish between outsiders and neighbours which make them more prone to criminal assault.

Now the big question remains: who are responsible to ensure public safety?

However, even city planners, architects as well as public space managers are also equally responsible for establishing safer public spaces.  This does not mean we have to construct high walls or physical barriers. Focus on creative designs at the pre-planning phase can be a good starting point when it comes to creating safe spaces.

There are some successful cases of non-invasive security approaches such as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) which include strategies like the construction of sightliness to keep eye on the roads, coherent web of pedestrian streets and connecting edges of narrow alleys with main lane to ensure maximum mobility, which may drastically reduce crime rates. Though there exist easy ways like imposing security measures in public but such imposition detaches people from  public spaces and discourages gatherings. As a result, public space will no longer remain public as there will be no mobility of people.

Cities function lively when people are free to enjoy social space without any security barrier. Excessive safety concern can violate people’s right to access public spaces, create environment of fear and knock off the basic principles of democratic society. Similarly the loss of publicness in night-life of Kathmandu has amplified due to the improved but old-fashioned security measures and access controls. The pendulum of landscapes security has already shifted from militarised imposed security system to softer and less obtrusive public policy approach, more commonly known as architecture security.

Big cities in advanced societies are making efforts to design self-secured public space where people’s mobility itself functions as their own security shield.

The new city planners should seek theoretical framework to endorse the use of design as a system to facilitate better security in public spaces. The creative integration of security measure in space design can make a well organised city with secure platform for public mobility.

While planning a safe city, spatio-temporal arrangements formed through the connections of people, space, time and crime prone context must be taken into consideration.  In modern urban planning, environmental criminology no longer exists as afterthought; instead more research in geography of crime has been carried out to institutionalise the discourse of spatial crime analysis.

During Maoist insurgency, mass migration inside the Capital became a common phenomenon. Then city was forced to accommodate thousands of incoming crowds and fulfill the needs of growing business, housing and automobiles. Such mono-functional urban design leaves no public space inside Valley, resulting in zero mobility in off-hours.

According to government statistics, only 0.48 per cent and 0.06 per cent open spaces are available in Kathmandu and Lalitpur district respectively. Absence of public space minimises the rate of mobile “eyes on street” as coined by urban planner Jane Jacobs.

Safe public space attracts people’s movement, be it a street hawker, pedestrian or group of coffee talker who involuntarily function as surveillance agent. Such spatial web can discourage potential criminals because there will always be witnesses that can interfere. When cities become more residential, they create “non-space” or “small piece of abandoned space” outside the walls of their gated buildings.

In order to maximise the degree of public security in today’s cosmopolitan Kathmandu, the governments should urgently update the out-dated urban planning approach and strive for innovative strategies to create a walkable city. If Nepal, the government considers the dimension of spatial security design in new city projects, other metros will not face similar security doom as contemporary Kathmandu is going through.

Poudyal is senior researcher at Global Initiative For Vivid Empowerment (GIVE), a Kathmandu-based NGO


A version of this article appears in print on September 21, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.

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