Fear and the Urban Form

Gated community in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Source: Tuca Vieira.

Gated community in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Source: Tuca Vieira.

“I don’t mind the American soldiers on our streets. If I could talk to them I’d ask: Why are you so afraid of us? Why do you fear us so much?”

So answered my Afghan friend, when I asked him how he felt about the American troops parading the streets of Kabul. I expected him to be appalled by the invasion on his privacy, or sovereignty. But what appalled him most was their fear, and how it seeped into his everyday life. When he looked at them too long, they pulled out their gun, he said. I thought the high walls and barbed wires of Kabul’s new architecture conveyed the same message.

Anthropologist Teresa Caldeira, in her book City of Walls: Crime, Segregation and Citizenship in Sao Paulo, analyzes the escalation of crime in Sao Paulo since mid-1980s that generated widespread fear. This led to “new strategies of protection and reaction in the city, of which the building of walls is the most emblematic. Both symbolically and materially, these strategies operate by marking differences, imposing partitions and distances, building walls, multiplying rules of avoidance and exclusion, and restricting movement,” she writes.

Fear is an emotion induced by a perceived threat, and the perception of threat is dependent on many things – including, but not limited to, gender, age, sex, race, neighborhood cohesion, confidence in police, personal experience of victimization, levels of local incivility and financial conditions. In the previous examples fear is a result of the loss of power in structurally unequal relationships with a collective “other”, whether it is the U.S. military that elicits a fear of violent contestation or the wealthy elite in Sao Paulo. In both, the nature of the observer and nature of the observed environment influence one’s perception of threat. But the relationship between fear and our built environment is for me, most peculiar. Probably because it is hard to tell whether form follows fear or fear follows form.

Can we Design away Fear?

In Afghanistan, "HESCO Barriers" line corridors protected by sand barriers thick enough to withstand the impact of a car bomb. Source: NPR.

In Afghanistan, "HESCO Barriers" line corridors protected by sand barriers thick enough to withstand the impact of a car bomb. Source: NPR.

If fear indeed follows form, I am tempted to ask: Can we design away fear? There has been no dearth of attempts made in the past to do this.

After the Industrial Revolution, modern architecture sought to assuage the fear generated by rapid industrialization and urban problems of ‘disorder’ – giving birth to modernism. The profession of planning meanwhile diverged from its initial agenda to become primarily curative rather than preventive or formative.  Postmodern urbanism sought to improve upon the shortcoming of modernism and to respond to the peculiar nature of fear that it in part caused. But it ended up falling in the same traps (see Nan Ellin's 2007 Architecture of Fear).

Architect Nan Ellin says in Architecture of Fear, “Contemporary insecurity has elicited a reassertion of cultural diversity, nostalgia for an idealized past, an infatuation with mass imagery, flights into fantasy worlds, a marked privatism, and a spiritual turn. In urban design, these tendencies are primarily manifest as historicisms, regionalisms, and allusions to mass culture.”

The contemporary focus on crime and safety in relation to the built environment began with the American-Canadian journalist, author and activist Jane Jacobs in the 1960s. To her, a safe city was the traditional city with streets and blocks, diversity, functional mix, concentration and buildings of different age. Her observations were astute but without systematic empirical evidence.

In 1972, architect Oscar Newman developed a more targeted response to safety through design, with the concept of Defensible Space. His answer to the problem was introducing a more graduated territoriality through the creation of semi-public and semi-private spaces – and to some degree, by putting up fences. His work was evidence-based with, for instance, detailed spatial descriptions and statistics.

But can crime really be prevented through environmental design? It is a question open to debate. Any effort to understand the relationship between fear and the built form based purely on empirical evidence is futile, because actual crime figures do not present the whole picture. Let me illustrate with an example.

Take a neighborhood with very sophisticated surveillance, security systems and 24-hour guards. Measures that make impossible for one to bat an eyelid without someone cooped up in a surveillance room knowing about it. Actual crime rates are reduced to a minimum here. But is this an ideal living environment? Are we not bargaining our sense of security for our sense of freedom? Are we not compromising our ‘right to the city’?

Secure but Segregated

The latest and perhaps more extreme reaction to the problem of crime and fear of crime in cities are enclosed housing developments, often called gated communities. A gated community is a housing development on private roads closed to general traffic by a gate across the primary access. The development may be surrounded by fences, walls or other natural barriers that further limit public access. These housing developments have become popular in some severely crime-ridden developing countries, such as South Africa and Brazil but to a large degree are also found in the USA, where more than seven million households (about 6% of the national total) are in developments behind walls and fences.

Developments of this kind create spaces that contradict the ideals of openness, heterogeneity, accessibility and equality. This is fairly evident in the city of Los Angeles. Like in many other global cities, as the economic disparity deepened over time so did the lines of segregation.  Most of L.A.’s public life takes place in segregated, specialized and enclosed environments like malls, gated communities, entertainment centers and theme parks. Many of these changes in urban environment are furthering separation between social groups that are increasingly confined to homogenous enclaves. The consequences of this new ‘separateness’ can be drastic. Defensible architecture and planning may end up promoting the same conflict that it was intended to prevent.

Freedom from Fear

The city of Oakland recently received $7 million from the federal government initially intended to deter terror attacks at the port of Oakland. Instead, these funds are being used by a Oakland police initiative that will collect and analyze surveillance data. Source: Globalresearch.org

The city of Oakland recently received $7 million from the federal government initially intended to deter terror attacks at the port of Oakland. Instead, these funds are being used by a Oakland police initiative that will collect and analyze surveillance data. Source: Globalresearch.org

Different cultures have different ways of fearing. The meaning a society attaches to the fear of God or the fear of hell is very different from the fear of pollution or the fear of cancer. As Frank Furedi explained in “Culture of Fear”, we associate fear with a clearly formulated threat and today we represent the act of fearing itself as a threat.

In that sense we are all victims, even if we have not personally experienced an act of crime, since we are all aware of it, and live in fear of it. This is a fear we are reminded of every day in media, daily conversations and sub-consciously, through our environment. This fear infringes on our everyday behavior, activities, sense of security but also freedom.

As architects and designers, we need to view the issues of safety and fear from a new lens. Maybe crime prevention alone is not a solution. An alternative to ‘gatedness’, a neighborhood that is secure but not segregated, needs to be imagined, if we hope to finally reach the root of the problem.

Tanvi Maheshwari is a Master of Urban Design student at UC Berkeley. She is currently pursuing her thesis on the subject of fear and its relationship to urban form in the Indian context. 

She can be reached at 

tanvi@berkeley.edu

.