[Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present the third and final part of Ian Lowrie’s investigation into Vancouver crime patterns.]
What makes a street safe? Is it high fences? Street lights? The police? Your trusty iPhone? One or the other, there are certainly streets within which one feels safer walking down than others. As we are well aware, one will even go out of our way at certain times of day to take a route that makes us feel less vulnerable. What kind of streets offer such perceived safety?
In the final part of Mapping Vancouver Crime we will follow up on the trends seen in the city and neighbourhood crime maps and take to the streets to explore the spatial details that offer either feelings of security or fear. A considerable amount has been written on the topic and to help relate the discussion to Vancouver I have chosen to look at two residential streets with contrasting spatial organizations: one within the area of Kerrisdale (also highlighted in Part Two), and the other street belonging to the Strathcona neighbourhood.
Let us first look at the patch of Kerrisdale that was found to have high instances of residential break-ins. This stretch of Vine Street is typical of the study area with its scattered apartment buildings.
The first thing to note are its large setbacks. The vast open space that flank either side of the sidewalk only adds to the isolation and vulnerability of the pedestrian. What’s more, beyond the setback are barriers. On one side of the street there is a high fence enclosing the apartment building’s private garden and, on the other side of the street, is a strong edge of trees and shrubs that hide the building’s entrance.
The large lot sizes mean little variation along the street, and less variation translates to fewer visual cues that pedestrians and, perhaps more importantly, motorists have to pick up on. Fewer visual cues in the driver’s view can result in traveling at higher speeds. How this is a dangerous pattern in an urban environment goes without saying, but higher speeds also eliminate any potential surveillance that a slower moving motorist might offer to the street.
Moreover, there is very little street level interaction made by adjacent buildings. The few entrances and access points to the residences are either hidden or private. For instance, the access to underground parking on the left side of the image means that anyone arriving or leaving the tower is able to do so with no acknowledgement of the street’s public life; the resident simply drives directly in or out of the building without ever really occupying the space between their home and their destination.
A combination of large lot sizes, vast setbacks, hidden entrances, and strong barriers along this stretch of Vine Street contribute to a street and street activity that are detached from the rest of the block. The apartment complexes are so inward focused that they seem to say, “We don’t care what happens out there, just don’t bring it in here”. Needless to say, such spatial treatment is not conducive to active community involvement in street safety.
Now let us compare the situation in Kerrisdale to Union Street in Strathcona, a street that has a much different built form, and compare signals of perceived safety:
The most noticeable difference between the two streets is scale. On Union Street the lot sizes are drastically less wide and its building heights do not exceed two-and-a-half storeys. In contrast to the effects of lot size mentioned in Kerrisdale, a greater number of buildings on Union Street results in significantly more variation (not to mention, interest) and potential eyes on the street. And with this comes more points of access from which one could expect to run into people carrying on with their daily lives.
Furthermore, with the increased number of access points and the “breaking up” of the block, motorists are more likely to travel at a slower speed. While the street itself is no more narrower than Vine Street, street parking on both sides virtually ensures slower moving traffic and contributes directly to potential street interactions by residents and visitors parking their cars.
Another important aspect of Union Street that helps facilitate a safer feeling pedestrian experience is that the buildings are oriented towards the street. There are fewer perceived and actual barriers between the sidewalk and the adjacent properties. For example, the fencing does not go any higher than waist height, there are ample front-facing windows and porches, and private gardens next to the sidewalk all seem to announce, “We care about what goes on out here”.
Unlike the spatial language spoken in the Kerrisdale case, the Strathcona street demonstrates some of the key points preached by the most respected researchers in this area of design.
Oscar Newman, who wrote the seminal Defensible Space, was one of the first proponents for public safety through the design of our cities and many of his points still ring true today. Newman explains, “Defensible space is a model for residential environments which inhibits crime by creating the physical expression of social fabric that defends itself”. Key to this is the idea of expressing social fabric; in other words, residents claiming their community through built spaces and, in turn, conveying care for a common terrain.
Counter to this, as Newman suggests, are living arrangements that discourage involvement in ensuring public safety. The Vine Street example is a case in point. In particular, the apartment towers, existing in isolation to the rest of the block, allow its residents to retreat into indifference. According to Newman, it is this kind of separation that results in the neglect of common safety.
In the examination of our city through the mapping of crime we have ended up zooming in on specific patches of Vancouver. This series of articles is not intended to point out unsafe areas — Kerrisdale is by no means unsafe — but aims to find some of the spatial patterns that make it easier for someone to commit a crime across a variety of scales.
The examples shown in Kerrisdale and Strathcona could be found in any neighbourhood of Vancouver and, as such, show how easy it is to neglect concern for public safety regardless of geographical location. Of course, people play a large part in making streets safe. But without spaces that require people to be in a position to oversee what happens on their streets, the fight against crime will be lost.
Ian Lowrie is a member of studioCAMP. He holds a Bachelor of Environmental Design degree from the University of British Columbia.