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Can placemaking help reduce crime?

With anti-social behaviour and crime continuing to act as a major barrier holding back UK high streets, Joe Barratt asks what role placemaking should play in making our streets safer?  


When stories emerged earlier this year of shops shutting down and Westfield Mall owners pulling out of San Francisco amidst a crime epidemic, there was a sense of shock among the British media. “What really takes you aback is the palpable feeling of lawlessness and the all-pervasive fear of crime,” noted Rohan Silva in The Times.

“Even for a city that has always managed to rebuild after flattening financial and geological shocks, San Francisco — emptier, deadlier, more politically dysfunctional — seems closer to the brink than ever,” warned The Financial Times.

But nowhere in any of this damning reportage was any sense that a similar crime epidemic could start to take root in British towns and cities.

‘Surely this couldn’t happen over here?’ was the underlying assumption behind the shock of San Francisco’s collapsing business confidence.

Not just a U.S. problem

But after a recent surge of TikTok-fuelled looting on London’s busiest streets, Britain’s commentators are finally waking up to a problem that’s closer to home. And at a time when the Co-Op, one of the UK’s top ten largest supermarkets, is warning that some towns could soon become no-go areas for shops because of rising crime, alarm bells should be ringing.

For some they already are.

We don’t want to be like some bloody American city,” argued Manchester councillor Pat Karney, as he recently surveyed the aftermath of mobs of teenagers involved in violent clashes in the city centre.

With scenes like this now becoming more common, public debate is rightly focused on policing and a failure to uphold the law in towns and cities across the country. It must also look at wider society and how communities can be supported.

Public spaces and social cohesion

While it’s widely acknowledged that there needs to be more neighbourhood policing, this alone is not enough. With a growing recognition that public spaces are key to building social cohesion and giving everyone a stake in their community, there is a need to re-think how we can enhance the public realm.

Key actors in the placemaking space such as the BID Foundation have already started this conversation. They have set up a working group to discuss crime issues affecting town and city centres and are looking at how best to improve the physical environment of public spaces.

One way to do this is by repurposing derelict areas and empty buildings, and there is growing evidence that carefully managed interventions can play an important role in keeping communities safe. Last year researchers from the University of Edinburgh, for example, found that green space was a consistent predictor of reduced violent and property crime risk.

This transformation often relies on people adopting, using and managing neglected space – because inclusive high street interventions and place design can create more resilient communities. With an increase in empty buildings, shops and office space since the pandemic, there has arguably never been a better time to take a more creative approach to transforming spaces in communities everywhere.

This should start from a point recognised by researchers from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that public spaces have an important historic role as places where differences of lifestyle and behaviour are tolerated and co-exist. Bringing in groups such as younger people that don’t always feel they have a stake in their high streets is one way to achieve this. In Kendal, for example, a college campus with hundreds of students is moving into a shopping centre.

The Rowntree Foundation research warns that “definitions of ‘community’ which exclude particular groups are of questionable legitimacy in the long term”. They also argue that regeneration strategies or policing approaches intended to ‘design out crime’ can end up ‘designing out’ people.

Secured by Design

The ‘Secured by Design’ approach taken by police seeks to reduce crime by incorporating crime prevention measures into the layout and landscaping of new developments. While some of the measures, such as improving the security of buildings, are fairly common sense, this approach has frequently been criticised for going too far and forcibly designing out people and preventing social interaction. In Ashford, for example, police were criticised for removing benches from parks because they provided “places to gather”.

The ’Secured by Design’ programme was created in 1989 and ensures police exert a significant influence over the design of public spaces. Planning applications may be blocked if local authorities do not incorporate police recommendations. It’s been described by some architects as encouraging people to live in fear of their neighbours.

There are many good examples of inclusive place making that benefit safe and secure neighbourhoods. In Grimsby, the Humberside Police and Crime Commissioner, through funding from the Home Office, has ensured that a double decker bus kitted out with a gym and youth space, plus a mobile boxing ring, is often seen in parks and public spaces offering a range of activities for young people.

Similar pop-up boxing projects have been launched in estates across the Humber region and they are redolent of the successful midnight basketball schemes in America, which have become a sanctuary for many young men and have been shown to reduce property crime.

At a time when there is considerable research showing that many young people feel no sense of belonging, these initiatives are needed more than ever.

Outlets for young people

As founder of the Teenage Market, I’ve seen first-hand how animating spaces and giving young people a sense of ownership can impact on communities. In Harpurhey, Manchester, for example, it provided an outlet for four young teenagers, who spent their summer foraging berries to make homemade jam. When it came to the market, they sold hundreds of jars and made a tidy profit.

It generates purpose, pride in place and gives young people confidence in their abilities and a hunger to do more.

And when the stalls are packed away at the end of a successful day and we begin to sweep emptying halls, I often look at other empty buildings in neighbouring towns and imagine how they could easily be re-purposed to engage with communities that feel locked out of their high streets.

Start-up incubators, community space, basketball chapters, midnight football leagues, arts, theatre and music space along with all manner of original hangouts co-designed by young people…

The opportunities are endless and the costs for such schemes are relatively low.

But it requires a departure from an increasingly popular placemaking approach that’s solely concerned with driving asset value in real estate. Ironically, though, it will ultimately protect those investments because crime-blighted areas quickly become worthless.

This is about creating a different kind of value.

The investor dividends may not be immediately noticeable, but the returns to the community are far more valuable in the long run.

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