You are on page 1of 48

What are we scared of?

The value of risk in

designing public space

According to our newspapers, a simple walk

in the street or park is becoming ever more
dangerous. Horse-chestnut trees have been
taken down because conkers may drop on
passing pedestrians, and swings facing into the
sun have been removed for fear that children
may be blinded.
The very things that make our streets, parks and
squares interesting places are being stripped out
for fear of causing an accident or injury, and the
willingness to create new and exciting features
in public spaces is being subdued for fear of
future liabilities.
This disproportionate response to risk is making
our public spaces far duller for the majority of
us. Arguably the debate over litigation and
compensation is a superficial symptom of a
deeper set of cultural issues reflecting our
relationship with our surroundings.
In What are we scared of? CABE Space has
invited four distinguished thinkers to relate their
views of how we deal with risk in our use of public
space. Running through each piece is the idea
that tolerance of risk is a necessary stimulus for us
to be able to understand, enjoy and deal with our
urban environment. CABE believes we should be
creating inspiring and stimulating places. We
hope this inspires your view of the world too.
Julia Thrift,
Director, CABE Space

Risk and the creation
of liveable cities
Charles Landry
The assessment of risk
is a very personal affair
Dorothy Rowe
Stimulating the senses
in the public realm
Iain Borden
Streets and the culture
of risk aversion
John Adams

Charles Landry

Risk and the

creation of
liveable cities

" The landscape of risk

The evaluation of everything from a perspective of risk is a
defining characteristic of contemporary society. Risk is the
managerial paradigm and default mechanism that has
embedded itself into how companies, community organisations
and the public sector operate. Risk is a prism through which
any activity is judged. Risk has its experts, consultants, interest
groups, specialist literature, an associational structure and
lobbying bodies. A risk industry has formalised itself. It is similar
to how acute awareness of marketing emerged as a core idea
to operate business more than 30 years ago.
It subtly encourages us to constrain aspirations, act with overcaution, avoid challenges and be sceptical about innovation.
It narrows our world into a defensive shell. The life of a
community self-consciously concerned with risk and safety
is different from one focused on discovery and exploration.
Risk-consciousness is a growth industry: hardly a day passes
without some new risk being noted. It is as if risk hovers over
individuals like an independent force waiting to strike the
unsuspecting citizen. This might concern personal safety, a
health scare, school kids playing conkers in a school yard who
need to wear goggles, or removing swings from parks through
fear of injury. In 1994 Factiva noted 2,037 mentions of the term
at risk in UK newspapers; this rose to over 25,000
by 2003.
The notion of an accident seems to have gone from our
understanding. Cleansing the world of accidents means
scouring the world for someone to blame. It was just an
accident or was it? an advert asks. John Adams notes that
bad luck transmutes into culpable negligence with the
foresight of risk-taking being reinterpreted, with hindsight, into
a consequence of negligence.
This drives a tendency never to blame oneself or take
responsibility. Instead many litigate, leading to claims of a
compensation culture, yet that culture feeds on deeper fears.
The media plays an important role in shaping perceptions of
risk, creating a climate that disposes us to expect bad
outcomes. It plays a dual role. It heightens dangers and then


Risk is a prism
through which any
activity is judged

rebukes when responses are too diligent, especially in the

public sector. It spectacularises certain issues and even creates
panics. Which risk factor emerges within the media or political
battlefield can seem arbitrary. The risk of food poisoning,
though often highlighted, is far less than the risks caused by
sedentary lifestyles encouraged by planning which reduces
walkability in our settlements.
The opportunity side of risk-taking begins to disappear. There
seem to be no more good risks; all risks appear bad. The
mood of the times is averting the worst rather than creating
the good. Guidelines are drawn up on worst-case scenarios.
Consciousness of risk comes in myriad forms. Some have
been with us for a long time, such as assessing the financial
viability of projects. Others concerned with safety and health
are more recent: we are now more conscious of child abuse,
bullying, and abuse of the elderly. Some say that what we
now call bullying was once known as name-calling or office
politics. Public health is another arena of safety-consciousness.
There are scares about new epidemics from BSE, to Sars,
to Ebola and other crossover viruses between animals
and humans.

Blue Carpet, Newcastle.

Grabbing most headlines are safety concerns about personal

injury and the notion of compensation culture. Undoubtedly a
perception exists that the public has a greater tendency to seek
redress following an injustice or injury. People look for someone
else to blame for their misfortune. The now collapsed claims
management companies like The Accident Group (TAG) and
Claims Direct fed an enormous number of claims into the
system. They left a legacy for those helping people to pursue
claims. Lawyers or insurance companies are less prepared to
fund claims without high chances of success.
Claims management companies emerged five years ago after
the Woolf Reform scrapped legal aid for personal injury. They
gathered masses of claims by advertising on TV and radio, in
the press, direct marketing, street canvassing or telesales, with
slogans such as No win, no fee or Where theres blame,
theres a claim. The Accident Group alone generated 15,000
claims per month and sold them on to solicitors, some of
whom have up to 10,000 personal injury claims running, with

05 Risk and the creation of liveable cities

dedicated departments acting like production lines to process

them. An environment emerges where suing is seen as an
entitlement; one leading practice was asked: Who can
I sue when nobody is to blame? The major categories
of claims which affect our living environment are fourfold:
Employers liability in relation to injuries at work;
Occupiers liability say the liability of a housing association
or supermarket to provide safe conditions;
Road-traffic accidents;
Liability under the Highways Act say in relation to tripping
over a defect that is part of the public highway where the
local authority has responsibility for maintenance.
Concerns about safety and health in the construction industry
have been widespread and involve employers liability. It is
widely acknowledged that the industry had to dramatically
improve its safety record. There is little criticism of those safety
improvements, embodied in the Construction, Design and
Management (CDM) regulations, which have created new
professions such as planning supervisors. However, the
process has affected urban professionals in pursuing
innovations. There is a preference to go for tried and tested
technology, materials or procedures.

The simultaneous rise

of the risk and creativity
agendas is one of the
great paradoxes today

Occupiers liability affects the design of buildings and their

aesthetic; what railings or banisters are acceptable to ensure
no injuries? Liability under the Highways Act affects the
streetscape: are materials slip-resistant? Could the design of
street furniture cause injury? Are trees growing out of control
and causing tripping? Should there be protective barriers so
that pedestrians do not stray into roads? The only defence for
local authorities is to have a reasonable system of inspection,
with everything hinging on the word reasonable. The basis of
arguments concerns was it reasonably foreseeable that an
accident could occur. The boundaries of foreseeable are
continually being tested and stretched.
Protecting against road accidents equally affects the look and
feel of streets, junctions or interchanges, with a resulting
increased clutter of barriers, guard rails and excessive signage
and signalling.

06 Risk and the creation of liveable cities

Misfortune cannot be
blamed on acts of God
so the blame must lie

The rise in claims has forced local authorities to enhance their

inspection and maintenance regimes, with Leeds, Cardiff and
Liverpool often cited as having good strategies for maintenance
guidance and procedures. For example, when claims clusters
occur in specific areas, Leeds targets these for special
attention. Significantly, this has affected the culture of
maintenance which is now conducted specifically with the
avoidance of claims in mind rather than seeing the urban
environment in terms of criteria such as is it pleasing? or
does it feel attractive?.

" The paradox of risk and creativity

The simultaneous rise of the risk and creativity agendas is
one of the great paradoxes today, given that risk-avoidance
strategies often cancel out inventiveness. We increasingly
demand that citizens, businesses and public institutions be
creative, explore and experiment to survive and be competitive
in a globalised world. Yet cities need to be inventive to adapt to
21st-century needs. It means reconfiguring cities economic
base and physically restructuring them to adapt to the new
conditions of service-based industries. Equally there are social
issues to confront, from the implications of increased mobility
and the growth of multicultural cities, to crime and fear of
crime, and pockets of severe disadvantage that often physically
lie next to affluence.
Thus new agendas are rising to the fore. One is greater
awareness of environmental sustainability; another is the
creation of more aesthetically satisfying places; a third is the
capacity of places to retain and attract the talent that can make
them economically successful. Often bold architecture and
sensitive urban design play significant roles in this process.
People want more from their cities so the quality-of-life and
liveability agendas have come to the fore. These highlight
walkability, a public realm and associated infrastructure that
foster increased interaction between people, and urban
settings that allow simultaneously for excitement and reflection.
Yet for decades we have adapted the city to the car, and its
needs have shaped the look, feel and atmosphere of places.
This means challenging how the built environment is put
together. The sustainability agenda demands new ways of
building and sometimes using novel materials; new architecture

07 Risk and the creation of liveable cities

can push at the boundaries of the tried and tested within

construction, and the desire for more walkable places can tip
the balance between pedestrians and cars. Achieving these
aims involves good risks. They confront the legacy of how
things have been managed in the past, yet aligned to a culture
of risk-aversion, moving forward becomes doubly difficult.

" A trajectory of risk-consciousness

What social and political conditions have encouraged a risk
perspective on life? Asking the question does not denigrate the
contribution risk-consciousness has made to address legitimate
problems. What implications has risk culture for making and
shaping liveable cities and how we lead our life as individuals?

People who believe

they cannot cope will
find it difficult to be
responsible for their

The pervasiveness of risk-consciousness and aversion comes

from deeper anxieties about life. It is part of broader historical
forces impacting on our sense of self and how we view the
world. From the early 1990s onwards a series of books
highlighted a profound shift in our view of the modern world
and our notion of progress embedded in the Enlightenment
ethos. This increasing disenchantment targets the
Enlightenments unbounded optimism, the arrogance and overconfidence of science and industrialism, the speed and scope
of globalisation, and its unintended effects and unconstrained
pollution. In addition there is a fear of out-of-control technology.
All this has coincided with the decline of traditional ties that
provided values and models for action and readily
understandable identities for individuals, be they a religion, an
ideology or a fixed community setting. Those value bases
anchored people, giving purpose and direction, allowing them
to negotiate lifes travails. The erosion of tradition and taken-forgranted relationships and responsibilities breaks continuities
and establishes uncertainty within which individuals have to
assess lifestyle options themselves.
The paradox is that the freedom of choice projected as
liberation, especially in the commercial world, is then
experienced as frightening. When little can be taken for granted
like ties of family, ideology, community or other forms of
solidarity it is difficult to know which information to trust and
what to predict. This loosening of ties feels like swimming in the
rapids with free-floating anxieties.

08 Risk and the creation of liveable cities

Periods of transformation and transition can involve a mix

of heady expectation and worry as the foundations are
reassessed before they move to a more settled pattern. Within
this setting trust in oneself and others erodes. Everything is
uncertain. Francis Fukuyama defines trust as the expectation
that arises within a community of regular, honest and
co-operative behaviour, based on commonly shared norms, on
the part of other members of the community. An absence of
trust in humanity shapes our perception of risk. It is a symptom
of the cleavages that have made us fearful and risk-aware.
Misfortune cannot be blamed on acts of God so the blame
must lie elsewhere.

Exchange Square, Manchester.

Risk-consciousness rises when conditions of uncertainty and

the perception of powerlessness increase. Unable to control
pressing issues from environmental degradation to crime,
health hazards, or the imbalances created by globalisation, it
mirrors the scenario of technology out-of-control. The system
is to blame for what is wrong. This affects public perceptions

09 Risk and the creation of liveable cities

There is a merry-goround and pass-theparcel on risk

and the emotional frame which guides perceptions

independent of the reality of risk, so overwhelming objective
risk calculations. The sense of powerlessness, vulnerability
and impotence begins to shape self-identity. The responsible
individual as potential maker, shaper and creator of the
environment becomes a passive individual always on the
receiving end. He or she negotiates the world as a dangerous
jungle with risks lurking in the undergrowth beyond the control
of humanity. The author of circumstance becomes the victim of
circumstance. Resilience, alertness and self-responsibility
lose sway, and by making claims we assert our authority
and identity.
How responsibility and accountability are defined is determined
by social and political norms. If we focus on the fragility of
people, this shapes our norms of accountability. People who
believe they cannot cope will find it difficult to be responsible for
their behaviour. Blame is credited to an external force and the
sense of responsibility is distanced from ourselves. It
legitimates the growth of litigation and shifts individualism
defined as self-sufficiency and personal responsibility to a
rights-oriented individualism. As Frank Furedi noted, the
expansion of the right to compensation is proportional to the
shrinking of individual autonomy.
Ironically this raises a further paradox, as the science that now
allows us to assess and calculate risk is the science that we
blame for causing risk in the first place. The capacity to absorb
the speed of change is difficult, which is why the notion of the
precautionary principle has gained currency. That principle
suggests we are not merely concerned about risk but are also
suspicious of finding solutions. It is best not to take a new risk
unless all outcomes can be understood in advance.
Judgement remains the key in deciding where to act with
caution and where to give leeway for experiment.

" How we create the urban form

How does the risk environment affect the urban professions?
From engineers, to architects, land use planners, project
managers, valuers, quantity surveyors, estate agents and
property developers, risk moves to the centre of their work and
increased resources are spent on risk assessment. This ranges
from employing people with legal experience or risk assessors

10 Risk and the creation of liveable cities

as part of instituting new management procedures to the

increased costs of insurance cover for all professions beyond
the level of inflation. Whilst it can sharpen up practices, the
palette of possibilities is shrinking, so constraining their
capacity to innovate and provide certain design features.
The increased risk process tends to focus on managing the
downside rather than considering potential.
Indeed, those in the new planning supervisory and safetyauditing roles have a vested interest in a climate of risk since it
justifies their existence, and at the same time are predisposed
to reduce risks. In addition, the fragmentation of the industry
with the growth in intermediaries such as project managers
tends to further increase risk aversion. In this world of multiple
contracting and intermediaries there is a merry-go-round and
pass-the-parcel on risk, with everyone seeking to export their
risk to someone else. In this process the broader goals and
long-term perspectives of urban design can get lost. In
addition the exclusive focus on safety rather than health stunts
debate about creating urban environments and developing a
regulations and incentives regime that fosters healthy lifestyles.
This ranges from encouraging public transport to providing
walkable urban settings or cycling-friendly environments.
The biggest risk is not to take risks if we want to avoid
creating depressing cities, and the way forward seems to be to
develop risk-mitigation strategies by keeping close to clients
and other contractors in a collaborative process of systematic
risk assessment.
The following articles explore these distinct aspects of our risk
conundrum: the individuals perspective on taking risks in their
environment; the diversity of an environment able to provide
those risks and opportunities; and finally, the risks in conflict
between users of our urban areas motorists and pedestrians.

11 Risk and the creation of liveable cities

Dorothy Rowe

The assessment
of risk is a very
personal affair

The trouble with people is that they ruin the theories and
the best-laid plans of experts. People will persist in seeing
everything in their own individual ways. Of course they cannot
help but do that because the way we each interpret whatever
we encounter comes out of our past experience and, since no
two people ever have exactly the same experience, no two
people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way. Thus,
no matter how wisely and imaginatively designers and
architects create a public space, each person who encounters
that space will interpret it differently and consequently use
it differently.1
Deploring the stupidity and lack of consideration for others that
some people display in public spaces achieves nothing. The
task must be to establish effective ways of discovering the
different perceptions of a public space and then assessing
them to decide which interpretations need to be included in the
design and which perceptions might be modified through
discussion and the dissemination of information. If you want to
know what people will do and why, ask them and, if they trust
you, they will tell you. This is the only way to arrive at
compromises on which everyone can agree.

1 The landscape architect Kathryn

Gustafson, who designed the Diana
Memorial Fountain, said in an
interview in The Guardian, 12
October 2004, I feel we made a
mistake in letting people walk in the
water. I apologise for that. I thought
people would picnic near the
memorial, and run their hands
through the water, think about their
lives, think about Diana. She went
on to say that she had not
anticipated that people would walk
in the fountain or let their dogs run in
the water, nor did she expect that
rubbish would be thrown in.

At the same time experts need to be well aware of their own

perceptions and be as critical of them as they are of other
peoples. The trouble with experts is that they love abstract
nouns so much they often fall into the trap of thinking that if
there is an abstract noun there must be some real thing to
which that noun refers. Early in the 20th century the French
psychologist Binet observed that some children behaved more
intelligently than others. He set about creating tests to
compare these differences in childrens behaviour.
Psychologists who followed Binet stopped talking about
children behaving intelligently and instead created an abstract
noun, intelligence. They assumed that intelligence was
the name of some real thing which they could measure.
Psychologists spent nearly a hundred years trying to
measure this fiction but now at last they have had to admit
that intelligence does not exist. People behave intelligently in
many different ways, and just how intelligent this behaviour
may be varies with how each person interprets each situation
he encounters.


Risk is an abstract
noun created to cover
the multitude of ways
in which individuals can
perceive a situation in
relation to their own
personal safety

Similarly, risk is not a thing nor is it an attribute of design or

of public spaces. The mathematical probability of an event
occurring can be calculated, but individuals then decide what
that probability means to them. Risk is an abstract noun
created to cover the multitude of ways in which individuals can
perceive a situation in relation to their own personal safety.
When we make decisions about our own personal safety it is
not just our physical safety we consider. We all need to survive
in two ways. We need to survive physically, as a body, and we
need to survive as the person we know ourselves to be. Forced
to choose between surviving as a body or surviving as a person
we always choose to survive as a person and let our body go.
Forced to choose between dying knowing that our life had
significance and integrity or living on feeling that we are a
nothing, despised and ignored, we choose to die. This is the
thinking behind acts of great heroism and of suicide. We
interpret the probability of an adverse event in terms of
surviving as a person. The aviation industry spends millions in
advertising the pleasures and rewards of flying, thus indirectly
reassuring people that flying is a safe way to travel, yet many
people refuse to fly or suffer agonies of terror if forced to step
into a plane. When asked why this is so people talk in terms of
the helplessness of a passenger once the aeroplane doors are
closed and the passengers lives are in the hands of the pilot.
The feeling of being utterly helpless threatens to annihilate us
as a person, and so we will behave in ways that other people
see as illogical in order to avoid feeling helpless.

" The fear of being helpless

Most of us can remember that, whether our home was happy
or unhappy, as children we needed time away from adults. We
needed places where we could run, explore, play with our
friends or be on our own to look and wonder, think and
daydream, and make amazing discoveries. Yet increasingly
many parents do not let their children play in public spaces no
matter how physically safe the space may be. These parents
explain that there is always a danger that the child will be
assaulted and perhaps kidnapped by a stranger who is a
paedophile. An irresponsible media feeds such fears by not
telling the truth about paedophiles. Statistics show that by far
the majority of sexual assaults on children are made by men
whom the child calls daddy, granddad, step-dad or my big

14 The assessment of risk is a very personal affair

brother. Nevertheless, many parents prefer not to

acknowledge this, or feel that they can control what goes
on in their home but are helpless to protect their child against
the stranger.
Many of the people who use public spaces perceive
themselves as being helpless in the hands of the government,
the council, and anyone who may have power. They say they
never vote because their vote would make no difference; they
fail to get good care from the NHS because I dont want to
trouble the doctor; they are unaware that all professional
bodies and government departments have well-worked-out
procedures for complaint, or, if they are aware of these
procedures, are sure that if they complained they would be
rebuffed and ignored; they take pride in looking after
themselves rather than risk being patronised by someone who
has deigned to offer them help. In contrast the people who
design public spaces are less likely to see themselves as being
helpless in the hands of the powers that be. If something goes
wrong they complain and expect it to be put right. Hence
designers of public spaces are likely to feel that they choose
whatever risks they take while people who feel helpless see risk
being forced upon them.

When people resist

having good done to
them by the experts
or by the government
they are showing that
they do not trust the
experts or the

We all acknowledge that there are situations where we have to

let someone else take control and make the decisions about
the dangers involved. For us to do this without being reduced
to a state of terrified helplessness we have to feel that, first, we
have chosen to hand over control rather than having it taken
from us, and second, that we can trust the person or institution
which has taken control. When people resist having good done
to them by the experts or by the government they are showing
that they do not trust the experts or the government.

" Control and company

Another abstract noun which psychologists have turned into a
fictional thing is personality. They have used questionnaires
that through statistical wizardry have produced clusters of
correlations which psychologists have called traits, or types, or
factors. Whatever the questionnaire or the statistics used, one
particular cluster of correlations always appears, a cluster
which psychologists call extraversion, with its opposite
introversion. Psychoanalysis produced something similar.

15 The assessment of risk is a very personal affair

Jung divided people into what he called extraverts and

introverts, Freud called them hysterics and obsessionals. In
examining the reasons that people give to explain why they do
what they do I have found that, while we all fear losing control
of everything and falling into chaos and we all fear being left
absolutely alone, abandoned and rejected, for each of us one
of these two fates seems to be far worse than the other.

The fear of chaos

or the fear of
plays a part in
every interpretation
we create

As a result, people who fear chaos are likely to see public

spaces that are neat and organised as being safer than the
spaces they see as verging on the chaotic, while people who
fear abandonment are likely to prefer a space which is full of
things that assure them they are not alone. The fear of chaos or
the fear of abandonment plays a part in every interpretation we
create. We are not always aware of this, with the result that we
can assess the safety of a public space without consciously
recognising that it awakens our greatest fear. Similarly, as
introverts we are more likely to trust someone we see as well
organised and with a plan of which we approve, whereas as
extraverts we are more likely to trust someone we see as
likeable and as liking us.

" The pleasures of paranoia

The people who plan and build public spaces often have good
reason to think that many of those who comment on their work
are not so much sensibly aware of possible dangers in the
public space as thinking in totally paranoid ways. However,
paranoia has a purpose. It assures the person that he is
significant. The great benefit of paranoia is that it means
someone somewhere is thinking of you. Many of the people
who use public spaces do not like to admit even to themselves
that in reality no one is thinking of them. They may lack family
and friends or, even if they have family and friends, may find
that these people are totally wrapped up in themselves and
never spare them a thought. Older people, for example, can
feel helpless in a society which ignores them. Rather than feel
helpless they may prefer to think that muggers and burglars are
thinking of them. Then they have a legitimate excuse to
complain that the government is not thinking about them. This
is why the perception of the amount of crime committed always
exceeds the amount actually committed.

16 The assessment of risk is a very personal affair

" Its not fair

In a world beset with disasters and suffering most people
comfort themselves by believing that they live in a Just World
where goodness is rewarded and badness is punished. All
religions teach this, though religions differ in how they define
good and bad, reward and punishment. Many people who say
they are not at all religious also say that they would find life
intolerable if they could not believe that somehow in the end
good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The
belief in the Just World not only satisfies our sense of justice, it
also allows us to believe that we can keep ourselves and our
loved ones safe by being good. Thus we are not helpless.
In the Middle Ages people saw God, Heaven and Hell as the
means of balancing the scales of justice, but as belief in these
three powers waned people started to look to this world as the
place where justice is obtained. In the 19th and 20th centuries
the trade unions fought for the right for workers to receive
compensation if they were killed or injured by the negligence
of their employers. When these cases went to court what was
fiercely argued by the lawyers on both sides was whether
someone was to blame for the accident or whether the
accident happened by chance. But chance does not exist
in a Just World.

people started to
look to this world as
the place where justice
is obtained

When a disaster occurs we always ask two questions: How

did this happen? and Why did this happen? The how
question is the subject of inquiries and coroners courts. The
why question is the theological or philosophical question,
Why in the whole scheme of things has this happened?
When Princess Diana died many of the flowers left for her
carried cards which read, Why? There are only three possible
answers to this question, namely It was my fault, It was
someone elses fault, It happened by chance. However, in the
Just World nothing happens by chance. The choice becomes
It was my fault or It was someone elses fault. People who
blame themselves for a disaster are likely to become
depressed. People who blame others may become angry or
paranoid, believing that they have been unfairly punished by
some Power which is determined to destroy them, or they may
seek redress for having been unfairly punished by claiming
damages from some institutional source whom they see as
having failed to protect them.

18 The assessment of risk is a very personal affair

The choice becomes

It was my fault or
It was someone
elses fault

Many people find it impossible to accept that they live in a world

where things happen by chance and for which there is no
recompense or reward. They do not want to recognise that they
are adults responsible for themselves in a world which is
indifferent to their existence. They want to remain as children
looked after by their parents, or God the Father, or by the
government and by professional and business institutions. Like
all children they resent their parents interfering in their lives but at
the same time they want to be certain that they are being looked
after by their parents. Hence complaints about the nanny state
exist beside the demand that people should be protected from
and recompensed for any disaster they may suffer.

" Whats to be done?

Everyone wants to be free and everyone wants to be secure.
However, the more security we have, the less freedom, and the
more freedom we have, the less security. There can be no
optimum balance of freedom and security in a public place
because each person who uses that space will have a different
view of what constitutes the right balance.
Those public spaces which work well are those where the
planners have managed to create a design where the
discrepancies between the views of the people using that
space are not too disparate. There is a balance between
order and chaos which both introverts and extraverts find
acceptable, a point at which no one feels unduly constrained
or unduly exposed to danger.
Such a balance cannot be achieved in all our public spaces if
people believe that they are entitled to recompense for every
single disaster that befalls them. There needs to be an on-going
public debate about how we perceive chance and responsibility.
At present the mechanisms for public discussion are
unsatisfactory because most people feel that they are excluded
from the debate. Public debates seem to be confined to the
articulate and the educated, while the need for order and rulefollowing stifles originality and passion. Consequently many
people continue to feel helpless, without any say in what
happens to them. Yet it is only through debate that we can
reach those compromises that we can all regard as satisfactory.

19 The assessment of risk is a very personal affair

Iain Borden

the senses in
the public

One of the main tendencies in public space has been to

minimise risk providing mini-cities in which risk has been all
but removed. These are places of safety and certainty.
However, much of the joy of public spaces comes from their
surprising qualities, from not always knowing them or the
people they contain. Here, the tendency is to encourage risk,
to create places of uncertainty. This, then, is an essential
tension in public space whether to remove risk, and so erase
danger, or to tolerate or even encourage risk, and so enjoy the
unexpectedness of our cities and fellow citizens.

The internalised and predictable

world of the shopping mall

Predominant among spaces that tend to remove risk are

shopping malls, particularly large ones, which increasingly
provide myriad fashion shops and other retail outlets, ample
parking for all, as well as such facilities as multi-screen
cinemas, food courts, and even rock-climbing walls or tennis
courts. They offer architecture of an apparently high quality,
blending wide concourses, historical styles, large sculptures,
variegated colours and playful light.
This, many contend, is what public space should be
contented, pain-free consumerism where there is always a
place to sit down, a drink to be quaffed, a toilet to be found
and a new product to be purchased. Such public realms are a
Utopia, places where there are no homeless people, wailing
sirens or speeding couriers.
Yet while malls are perhaps ideal places to shop, are they really
good public space? For they offer few of the qualities of real
cities, none of the vitality and downright unpredictability of the
full-on urban experience. Rather, as internalised, controlled and
sterile arenas cleared of all litter and undesirable people
malls suggest that we are only citizens in so far as we
consume. Malls insist that we know what we want and that
we do not want to be truly surprised.
Furthermore, we now have museums, galleries, railway
stations and airports that are increasingly becoming similar
shopping opportunities they are part of that process by
which it seems all public and semi-public spaces are turning
into places of consumerism.


So there are indeed risks here the risks of losing sight of what
a vital civic arena could be. The risk of the city-as-shoppingmall is that public space becomes only for consumerism, that
our bodies become passive, that we consume only by
purchasing, and that political rights and critical thoughts
are replaced by docile and accepting minds.

" Playing with risk

How then might our public spaces be different? Firstly, we
should realise that space is produced by all of us. In short, we
all make the public realm and the public realm makes us.
Secondly, it is not only the activities of shopping, walking,
sitting and looking that make up public spaces. Everything we
do helps make the public realm, from commuting and driving to
using our senses of touch, smell and hearing, to emotional
experiences like talking, making music and falling in love.
Thirdly, different people have different ways of using public
space the elderly may think about the public realm differently
from those who are younger, or there may be a feeling that
White British cultural spaces are at variance with Asian British
cultural spaces.
Fourthly, we can also delight in being different within ourselves,
so that each of us might be at once a photographer and a
scaffolder, old and young we can take risks with ourselves,
with how we create public spaces at various times, attitudes
and stages in our lives.
But what does this mean in practical terms? The most obvious
way people can have new public spaces to suit their own
needs is simply to go out and make them. They can do this
through simple economic activities such as boot-sales and
church fairs, or through artistic acts like busking and street
performances, or guerilla-like tactics of war-chalking (marking
walls with chalk to indicate the presence of wireless internet
links). In short, if children can play, why not all of us?
One of the most pervasive forms of play in the urban realm is
that of skateboarding practised by millions in just about every
country worldwide which readily demonstrates many
questions posed by a truly risky public space: who owns the

22 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

we can take risks

with ourselves, with
how we create public
spaces at various times,
attitudes and stages in
our lives

public realm, who has the right to use it, and with what kind of
actions and attitudes?1
Skateboarders focus their activities on city streets, office plazas
and myriad semi-public spaces such as staircases, park
benches, window ledges and shop forecourts. Disaffected
both by the harshness of city streets and by the glossy displays
of shopping malls, skateboarders have transformed these
territories into their own play space.
This is a very different kind of experience of the city to that of,
for example, shopping, driving, walking or looking. The
skateboarders own body becomes alert with touch, hearing,
adrenalin and balance. Here then, the dissatisfaction with
streets and malls which both repel the human body and turn
it into an instrument of vision is confronted by a newly
invigorated body, multi-sensory, adaptable and alive.
Most importantly, these appropriated skateboarding places are
often public. As a result, embedded in skateboardings actions
are not only transformations of dull space into stimulating
arenas of activity, but also implicit critiques of what public
space should be. For example, skateboarding suggests that
architecture can be micro-spaces and not just grand
monuments, that we can produce not only things and objects
but also desires and energies, that public space is for uses
rather than exchange, that one should use the public realm
regardless of who one is or what one owns, and that the way
we use public space is an essential factor in who we are.
Now, there are risks associated with activities like
skateboarding, including bodily harm to practitioners and other
city dwellers, the perceived threats posed to conventional
modes of behaviour, the physical damage skateboarders might
cause to the built environment, the noises they make, and the
general anti-work, anti-consumerism attitude which they often
seem to promote.
Yet the actual damage caused by skateboarding is overstated
very little damage occurs to benches and ledges, particularly if
they are designed to withstand skateboarding rather than to
repel it. And I have yet to find a single example of a
skateboarder actually colliding with a pedestrian this surely

23 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

Pocket park, New York

does happen, but compared to, for instance, the thousands

of pedestrians killed by motorised traffic, as well as all the
other problems created by cars (see John Adams article for
some sobering thoughts on this matter), this is not an
insuperable problem.
There are enormous benefits from encouraging activities
such as skateboarding within particular public contexts. For
example, skateboarding encourages active young people
who are not watching television, but who are outside, in the
fresh air. By taking the risk of skateboarding in public,
skateboarders can do something physical and independent,
which lets them meet other people, and which can even be
entrepreneurial (for example, skateboarders often set up
professional teams, clothing companies and video production
facilities). And so by us taking the risk of allowing skateboarding
to occur, and by skateboarders themselves taking the risk of
moving in this way, we can have cities in which these citizens

25 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

If we are prepared to
take the risk, these are
our rewards: the
unpredicted, the
alternative, surprising
ways of living in cities

are more healthy, more fit, more open to real urban spaces than
are, for example, many television-fixated and computerobsessed teenagers.
And even for those who do not skateboard there are also
benefits. We get healthy, non-lager-lout, independent-minded
fellow citizens; we get something vibrant to look at besides
shop windows; we get strange sounds and colours in our
streets; and, above all, we get something different, which we
might not have expected to come across. If we are prepared to
take the risk, these are our rewards: the unpredicted, the
alternative, surprising ways of living in cities.

" Designing for risk

But how can we design or manage our public spaces to allow
for such risks? On the one hand, we can do this by creating a
multitude of those different spaces which conventionally make
up the public realm not just shopping malls but also
traditional neighbourhood parks, industrial buildings turned
into bars and restaurants, town halls, and Ferris wheels.
But we need to be careful. In many propositions for public space
there is an underlying model of urban life resting on the ancient
notion of civilisation as the art of living in cities: the art of painting,
sculpture, music, theatre, galleries, grand public squares. Here,
while there is often the occasional nod to everyday life and even
the appropriation of space, a certain model of polite society
permeates through. Such public space is, above all, the city of
gentle wanderings and spoken conversations. It is the city of latte
coffee, big Sunday papers, designer lamps and fresh pasta.
It is not, however, the city of the disparate activities that people
actually do in cities and this is extremely important, for, as
Dorothy Rowe explains, no two people ever have quite the
same experience or view on things. This, then, is not the city of
shouting, loud music, running, pure contemplation,
demonstrations, subterranean subterfuges. It is not the city of
intensity, of cab ranks, boot-sales, railway arches or street
markets; nor is it the city of monkish seclusion, crystal-clear
intellectualism or ephemeral art interventions.
By contrast, in the Netherlands, Adriaan Geuze and West 8
have created a series of provocative public spaces.2 The

26 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam

Carrascoplein Shadow Park, placed below some elevated

railway tracks on the outskirts of Amsterdam, is made up of
what initially appears to be little more than an artificial wooded
landscape: grass and asphalt surfaces littered with cast-iron
tree stumps lit up from within. At night, the latter glow and cast
shadows over the concrete columns and undersides of the
overhead bridges. The effect is at once calm and unsettling, at
times empty and eminently ignorable (especially during the
day), and at others (particularly after nightfall), ambient, moody
and almost unsettling in the way that light, shadows and colour
flicker across the site.
Although this might now appear to be a successful artistic
intervention, it was not an easy park to create. The designers
and local planners were at first concerned that they might be
creating a terrain even more threatening than the already
alienating nature of the underpasses. They were also
concerned that the peripheral location of the park might
mean that it was invisible to all but local residents.

27 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

However, they consciously took the risk that these qualities

could be manipulated into something new, just as the looming
presence of a wood at night can be transformed into a
welcoming camp-site by the introduction of a campfire.
As a result, the Carrascoplein Shadow Park has been
welcomed by local pedestrians, many of whom now feel much
more willing to traverse the space, as well as by those seeking
an alternative urban experience in this case, a dance of light
and shadows. The risk of doing something quite strange in an
out-of-the-way location has been repaid by improvements in
the quality of the place and its attractiveness to people living
elsewhere in Amsterdam.

Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam

The risk of doing

something quite
strange in an out-ofthe-way location has
been repaid by
improvements in the
quality of the place...

More monumental is the Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam, a

large square divided into different surface textures such as
perforated and box-section steel, timber and rubber. This
composition encourages different activities, such as football on
the timber, rollerblading on the epoxy and, of course, the
general walking that criss-crosses wherever people wish, but
particularly along a long rubber strip. Overhead, spotlights on
giant crane-like anglepoises respond either to coins inserted
by members of the public, or to a pre-programmed random
sequence in this way the spotlights spasmodically energise
the square, creating another layer of light and colour. Those
using the Schouwburgplein thus do what they wish, their
actions being at once subtly encouraged, highlighted, guided
and flexibly accommodated. The park is a kind of informal
game, a playground for movements and experiences of all
kinds. Here the designers have again taken a risk, but a
different one to that at the Carrascoplein Shadow Park. At the
Schouwburgplein, the design itself was well understood from
the start, and the risk has been in letting those who use the
space do with it, within certain constraints, as they wish. The
designers have created a multi-purpose board game in which
we as urban citizens are the pieces on the board, free to make
up our own rules and actions.
If the risk of the Carrascoplein Shadow Park was being able
to control the character of the park, and the risk of the
Schouwburgplein is in letting users act in uncertain ways, then
another way of taking risks in the public realm is in the very
process by which it is created that is, by taking risks with who
is involved and what they want. In this context, it is instructive

29 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

The designers have

created a multi-purpose
board game in which
we as urban citizens
are the pieces on the
board, free to make
up our own rules
and actions

to consider Royston Road Parks in Glasgow, an initiative far

less monumental or artful in appearance than the Dutch
projects already described.
This was not an easy area in which to operate, for not only is
Royston Road Parks situated at an historically significant
location the point where the Molendinar Burn (around which
Glasgow evolved) flows above ground but, more importantly,
it is also a place where there are pressing social issues that
need to be addressed urgently. In particular, Royston Road
passes through priority areas for every social funding strand
from the regeneration of housing to alcohol and drug rehab.
Risk here, then, is about creating public realms which are not
simply agreeable or stimulating, but which are also involved
with community and local concerns.
In order to address these issues, the constructed scheme
has not just preserved a local landmark known as the Spire
but has also brought training and employment to the area.
The idea here has been to involve the arts in real community
development, creating the Parks using a local workforce
and six artist residencies hosted by local groups, operating
collaboratively with landscape architects Loci and artists
Graham Fagen and Toby Paterson (incidentally, a noted
skateboarder). Such a process can never be quick, and
to bring the community along with the project, many
meetings, consultations, workshops and public displays
of proposals were undertaken. At each stage, the risk was
always that the very local community which Royston Road
Parks was intended to benefit might become alienated from
the project.
In the end, despite several contentious debates and heated
moments, the project has emerged as a highly beneficial public
realm, one where people can sit, walk, skateboard, cycle,
cogitate and converse. The result of risking the commissioning
and designing process has been a series of zones of safety
and play, created by such entities as a church spire, a burn of
water, and intense local activity. Emphasised on this site is the
immediate, the bond of people and their common effort. In
particular it shows that the process of creation of public space
can often be as important as the final product itself.3

30 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

" Difference and risk

Where then does this leave our understanding of the public
realm and risk? Above all, we must realise that new kinds of
public realm can be designed not just to make us more efficient
consumers, but to encourage us to be healthy physically,
mentally and artistically these are public spaces which
stimulate our actions, feelings and attitudes to the world.
Using design to stimulate people but without trying to wholly
determine their actions means that we take risks with our
fellow citizens, accepting that we should let the public realm
not only reflect but encourage the full range of positive human
actions and qualities.
There are of course different kinds of risk involved in creating
these kinds of public space. On the negative side, there is the
possibility that the public spaces might be dangerous and
become centres of drug-taking or mugging. Alternatively,
such spaces, particularly the more artistic ones, might be
misunderstood by the public, and be castigated as a waste of
money. They might soak up economic and other resources,
and worse still, might not be used at all.

We need a city that

we do not know, that
we do not understand,
that we have not yet
encountered, that is
simultaneously strange,
familiar and unknown
to us

On the other hand, there are also huge positive benefits to

be gained, risks that pay off massively in terms of culture,
community involvement and even economics. In this way, we
can have public spaces that are different to the shopping mall,
museum or urban plaza; they create new uses by members of
the public, and new understandings of what the city might be
all about; they involve the community and help bring in new
skills and work; and they can yield results long after they were
first constructed.
Above all, then, we must realise that public space space
that is truly public acknowledges four kinds of difference.
These differences are all about risk-taking, about allowing for
the uncertain, unpredictable and not-wholly-programmed
to occur.
The first of these differences means accepting that people of
different backgrounds, races, ages, classes, sexuality, gender
and general interests all have different ideas of what public
space is, and that they make their own places to foster their
own identities. This difference requires the risk of recognising

31 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

that we are not all the same, even that we ourselves might not
be quite who we think we are.
The second kind of difference is physical, visual and designed,
and means realising that public spaces should not all look the
same. Beyond the piazza and avenue, cities need hidden
spaces and exposed spaces, rough spaces and smooth
spaces, loud spaces and silent spaces spaces where people
remember, experience, contest, appropriate, get scared, make
things, lose things, and generally become themselves. This
difference requires the risk of having true diversity in city
spaces, and that these spaces should encourage or tolerate
not exclude or repel all that people do.

Carrascoplein Shadow Park, Amsterdam

The third kind of difference is about times, about allowing for

certain parts of the city to be used differently at various times of
the day, week or year. We need times that are slow and times
that are fast, times given to us by our bodies and times
controlled by machines. This means allowing people to go
faster on pavements than the speed of the slowest pedestrian,
or to hang around in parks. It means letting skateboarders use
office plazas on the weekend; it means taking the risk of
allowing people to do things outside of the conventional time
patterns of the daily sleep-work-rest cycle, or the weekly and
annual work-weekend-work-holiday. It means letting people
remember private thoughts as well as national events,
responding to local actions and not just global trends.
And the fourth kind of difference is the experience we have
of spaces, the way in which we approach our cities and
architecture. We need spaces in which we encounter
otherness and sameness, where we are at once confirmed and
challenged and this comes from not being certain, from not
knowing everything around us, from a degree of surprise and
the unusual as we go about our everyday lives. We need a city
that we do not know, that we do not understand, that we have
not yet encountered, that is simultaneously, strange, familiar
and unknown to us. This is public space which is always a
surprise, a unique place, a stimulation. This difference requires
the risk of not always knowing what lies around the corner.

33 Stimulating the senses in the public realm

John Adams

Streets and
the culture of
risk aversion

people moving at
three miles per hour
view the world at a
higher level of resolution
than those moving
ten times faster

A great many streets in British cities are unattractive and

unfriendly. While some would argue that this is down to poor
design or maintenance, these unwelcoming streets are just
symptoms of a bigger problem. The root cause is the
enormous growth in traffic since the Second World War and
the deference shown towards motor vehicles. The street life of
our towns and cities has been damaged by this deference
manifesting itself in two complementary ways. Transport
planners and engineers have accorded the motorist priority
over other road users, and in parallel other, more vulnerable,
road users have retreated before the threat posed by the
increase in traffic. As the number of vehicles grows, balancing
the risks to different street users becomes increasingly difficult.
The room for manoeuvre is literally getting less. Fundamentally
there is a difference in the way those designing and those using
our streets perceive the road.

" The present situation and how we arrived at it

For decades the principal objective of transport planners and
highway engineers has been the provision of a road network
that would accommodate rapidly growing numbers of cars as
safely and efficiently as possible. This has resulted in a
streetscape dominated by features designed for the safety and
convenience of people moving at 30 miles per hour, and for the
provision of somewhere convenient to park when they reach
their destinations.
In contrast, people moving at three miles per hour view the
world at a higher level of resolution than those moving ten
times faster. The fine detail that can be appreciated at walking
speeds is invisible to the motorist. In any event, the aesthetic
sensibilities of motorists have traditionally been of no concern
to highway engineers who have been focused on:
Providing sufficient road space to meet forecast demand;
Synchronising traffic lights, and organising other priority
measures to ensure maximum flow;
Providing signage and other road markings that can be
read at speed;
Planning for ever more crashworthy vehicles;
Making roads more forgiving of careless driving.
And where engineers and safety organisations like the Royal
Society for the Prevention of Accidents have been concerned


Kew Bridge, London

about the safety of those not in cars, they have favoured

measures that promote increased deference to the car, in the
form of:
Preventing pedestrians from straying into the paths of
cars by forcing them to use inconvenient footbridges or
foul-smelling tunnels, or channelling them through cattle
pens, often requiring a wait in the middle of the road;
Advertising campaigns warning pedestrians and cyclists of
the danger of traffic, and encouraging parents to keep
young children on reins;
Road-safety education in schools that preaches deference
to traffic.
The consequences of policies, applied over many decades,
that have privileged cars and the people in them above local
public transport, cyclists and people on foot, have been
profound. The use of local public-transport services has
declined by more than 50 per cent in the past 50 years.1
Cycling and walking have declined by at least as much,2 only
partly because former cyclists and pedestrians have switched
to cars. As the amount of metal in motion has increased, those
with softer, more vulnerable shells have retreated before the
threat. The clearest, best-documented demonstration of this
effect relates to children. In 1971, 80 per cent of seven- and
eight-year-old children went to school on their own,
unaccompanied by an adult.3 Today no school of which I have
inquired will release a child of that age at the end of the school
day unless there is an older responsible person to collect
them. This policy has evolved partly as a response to parental
fears, and partly as a response to schools fears of legal liability
should one of their charges come to harm.

2 It is not possible to be more

precise because the early National
Travel Surveys did not record
walking trips of under one mile; the
surveys have never recorded the
walking involved in the on-street
recreational activities of children.

The fear of harm relates not just to the damage that might be
inflicted when fast-moving hard metal meets soft flesh, but to a
growing fear of strangers. Since 1950 there has been a more
than six-fold increase in the distance that the average Briton
travels in a day. As we spend more time far from home, we
spend less time close to home. As a result fewer of us know
our neighbours and we spend more of our waking hours in the
presence of strangers. The schools respond with Stranger
Danger campaigns, warning children that anyone they dont
know might intend them harm inculcating paranoia at a
tender age. Adults become more fearful for themselves as well

37 Streets and the culture of risk aversion

As the amount of
metal in motion has
increased, those with
softer, more vulnerable
shells have retreated
before the threat

as for their children. As more people take to cars, those left

behind on foot, cycle or the local bus feel increasingly isolated
in the midst of strangers.
Mistrust also afflicts those who plan and maintain our streets.
As escalating insurance premiums attest, they are fearful of
personal injury claims caused as a result of the state of the
street. Both those planning and maintaining the streets and
those using them are becoming more risk averse.

" Drivers of risk aversion

Continuing car growth4
The root cause of the decline of street quality shows no sign of
abating. In 2001 a record number of new motor vehicles were
sold in Britain 3,137,700. The following year surpassed this
record with 3,229,400, while 2003 produced yet another
record 3,231,900. The forecast for 2004, at the time of
writing, is a number of a similar size another record or nearly
so. The government considers continued growth in vehicle
numbers inevitable: Our transport strategy has to recognise
that demand for travel will increase in the future.5 This growth
places under enormous pressure those whose jobs require
them to manage traffic and parking and the wider
environmental consequences. Most of the growth in vehicle
numbers has been, and must continue to be, accommodated
by suburban sprawl; the on-street car park in older urban areas
has been full for some time.

6 The National Audit Office, in its

report Tackling Congestion by
Making Better Use of Englands
Motorways and Trunk Roads, takes
the government to task for not
adopting measures, such as hardshoulder-running, that would
accommodate further growth.

The focus on technical fixes

Industry, supported by government, has targeted the lions
share of resources for transport problems at alternative energy
supplies, smarter travel employing telematics to squeeze
more capacity out of existing networks, and technological
developments that will make cars cleaner and more energy
efficient. To the extent that such pursuits are successful, by
making motoring faster and cheaper they will encourage more
of it. There exists no coherent plan for dealing with the
anticipated further growth.
Established highway engineering practices
Traditionally, the approach to dealing with traffic growth has
focused on ways of accommodating it. The pressure on these
practices is enormous.6 In each of the last four years of record

38 Streets and the culture of risk aversion

Marble Arch, London

motor-vehicle sales, allowing for the scrapping of old vehicles,

the nations vehicle population has increased by more than
800,000. Providing only one parking space for each of these
extra vehicles would require a new parking lot, each year, the
size of a new motorway from London to Edinburgh nine lanes
wide.7 Most planning consents for new commercial or
residential development still require sufficient parking space
for the anticipated, growing, numbers of cars. Meanwhile
the older urban areas, fearful of losing custom to the
suburbs, struggle to squeeze in a few more parking places
by encroaching on pavements, the space previously reserved
for pedestrians.
Safety concerns
One result of all these pressures and attempts to cope with
them has been the ugly, cluttered urban streetscape
highlighted by the recent English Heritage Save Our Streets
campaign. The road layouts illustrated and their accompanying
signs, signals, barriers and road markings are not the work of
any single planner; they are the cumulative result of numbers of
unco-ordinated interventions. Typically traffic engineers will
have calculated the volume of traffic that must be
accommodated. Then highway engineers will have produced a
design for getting it through the junction as efficiently as
possible. And finally thought will have been given to the needs
of pedestrians. The primary justification for almost all the clutter
will be safety to prevent motor vehicles from running into
pedestrians, or each other.
Despite the vast amount of this clutter spread throughout the
land while it may speed the flow of traffic there is
surprisingly little statistical evidence that it produces safety.
Beyond a certain point, as it accumulates over time, it
produces information overload and becomes confusing rather
than helpful to those trying to negotiate their way through it. But
the main limitation of this approach stems from the assumption
by its installers that people will behave like obedient
A brief period of observation of such a junction will confirm
that they do not. Pedestrians routinely disregard red lights
(in Britain red lights for pedestrians are merely advisory, not
mandatory). And they are frequently found on the wrong side

39 Streets and the culture of risk aversion

Road junction, Gloucestershire

Traditionally, the
approach to dealing
with traffic growth has
focused on ways of
accommodating it

of the barriers; pedestrians are natural Pythagoreans,

preferring the hypotenuse to the other two sides of the
triangle wherever possible.
There is little statistical evidence of the effect on safety of the
sorts of measures illustrated because accident statistics do not
provide a reliable measure of road safety.8 In 1922, for
example, there were more than three times as many children
killed in road accidents than there are today, not because the
roads are three times safer to play in today, but because they
are seen as so dangerous that children are not allowed out any
more. There are countless roads in Britain carrying high
volumes of fast traffic that the people living alongside them
deem dangerous, and for which they appeal for traffic-calming
measures. And they are routinely fobbed off with the highway
engineers accident map showing that their road must be safe
because it has a good accident record. It usually has a good
accident record because it is dangerous; children are forbidden

40 Streets and the culture of risk aversion

to cross it, old people are afraid to cross it, and fit adults cross
it quickly and carefully. The good accident record is purchased
at the cost of community severance. People on one side of the
road do not know their neighbours on the other.

" Bucking the trend

There exist encouraging counter examples to the scenes
depicted. Some of the most attractive urban environments to
be found in Britain and throughout Europe are those that have
been completely pedestrianised. However, the circumstances
in which this is feasible are relatively few. The more difficult
challenge is to accommodate both people and cars in a more
civilised and attractive way. Neal Street and Seven Dials in
Covent Garden, London, are successful British examples. They
have succeeded in circumstances where the ratio of
pedestrians to cars is high.
Experiments in Denmark and the Netherlands have been
undertaken in more challenging circumstances. By stripping
out all road markings, signs and signals, and injecting
uncertainty into the encounters between motorists and
pedestrians and cyclists, planners have not only removed the
clutter that defaces so many British streets, but reduced
accidents as well.9

Despite the vast

amount of this clutter
spread throughout
the land while it may
speed the flow of traffic
there is surprisingly
little statistical evidence
that it produces safety

These experiments have been based on the antithesis of

the traditional highway engineers view of motorists and
pedestrians as obedient automatons. They assume road users
are alert to signs of safety and danger and modify their
behaviour accordingly. They demonstrate that where the street
environment can be reconfigured, without explicit signage, to
convey to all participants that no one has an automatic right of
way, and that all must look out for, and respect, everybody
else, it is possible to create a safer environment without the
usual clutter.
Clearly this is not a method recommended for helping
pedestrians across the M25. The relationship that cars and
pedestrians have with each other is critically dependent on
relative numbers. On any local high street thronged with
shoppers, as pedestrian numbers build up beyond some
critical point, they start crossing the road at numerous
unapproved places, and traffic slows down and tries to nudge
its way through the crowd. As schooling fish trying to avoid
41 Streets and the culture of risk aversion

pedestrians are
natural Pythagoreans,
preferring the
hypotenuse to the
other two sides of
the triangle wherever

predators and swarms of cyclists asserting their right to the

road have learned, there is safety in numbers. Another
manifestation of this phenomenon is the much lower fatality
rate enjoyed by (unhelmeted but much more numerous) Dutch
and Danish cyclists.10
Pedestrians and cyclists react not just to the volume of
motorised traffic, but also to its speed. Some heavily trafficked
roads in central London with little pedestrian street life became,
after the introduction of congestion charging, even more
intimidating to vulnerable road users. Without measures to
encourage more pedestrian and cycling activity, the reduced
flows of traffic go faster. Creating attractive urban environments
requires not only the suppression of motorised traffic but also
the promotion of street life to take its place.

" Impediments to further progress

A major inhibition in England to replicating the encouraging
Covent Garden examples and the Dutch and Danish
experiments is the uncertainty about the legal status of
measures such as those depicted here. Traffic Signs
Regulations and General Directions 2002 is a rule book the size
of a telephone directory that spells out in great detail the legally
required shape, size and placement of all traffic signs if they
are put in place. But what is frequently unclear are the
circumstances in which their installation is required by law,
is recommended in the form of official guidance or is simply
highway engineers long-established practice or, of increasing
pertinence, where their installation might be deemed by a court
of law, enjoying the benefit of hindsight after an accident, to be
Fear of legal liability, in the event of an accident, on the part of
those responsible for decisions to install, or not install, all or
part of the clutter shown in our pictures, is no longer baseless
paranoia. At the time of writing there are six road accident
cases outstanding that could lead to prosecutions of the
authorities responsible for the roads on which they happened;
all involved fatal accidents where the police concluded there
was no driver error and no problem with the vehicle.11 And the
risk to those planners contemplating a departure from
established practice appears likely to increase. Also at the time
of writing the government is consulting on a draft bill to reform

42 Streets and the culture of risk aversion

These experiments
have been based on
the antithesis of the
traditional highway
engineers view of
motorists and
pedestrians as
obedient automatons

Headrow, Leeds

13 Accidents involving vulnerable

road users have decreased, but
because parts of the scheme have
been in place for less than three
years officers still advise caution in
the interpretation of the accident

the law on manslaughter to include an offence of corporate

killing the intended effect of which is to increase the
likelihood, in the event of a fatal accident, of someone in senior
management going to jail for conduct falling far below what
can reasonably be expected of the corporation in the
In London the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has
recently transformed Kensington High Street by stripping out
guard rails and much excessive signage and signalling hugely
improving its appearance. Early signs are encouraging; as in
Denmark and the Netherlands, no adverse effect on safety has
been reported.13 So far, so good. But inevitably on such a busy
street the law of averages dictates that someone some day will
be killed. One can imagine a queue of no-win-no-fee lawyers
forming to represent the bereaved, and arguing that removing
the guard rails constituted conduct falling far below what could
be reasonably expected of a safety-conscious planner. The
growth of the blame-litigation-compensation culture14 makes
this a real and inhibiting prospect for those tempted to abandon
the obedient automaton theory of road-user behaviour. As
motorised traffic continues to grow, and pedestrians and
cyclists continue to retreat, the pressures on planners and policy
makers to play safe will increase.
There are numerous urban designers and organisations who
have been challenging the traditional assumptions of highway
engineers for many years. But they are swimming against a
powerful current. The opportunity to innovate and reconfigure
streets to balance users needs exists but fears of risk and
litigation only serve to undermine it. Fundamentally, the most
important impediment to the development of more attractive
towns and cities is the growth of traffic. Large volumes of
motorised traffic cannot co-exist with safe and attractive
pedestrian environments. Throughout Europe all the best
exemplars of urban design are becoming small islands of
civilisation surrounded by a rising sea of car-dependent

43 Urban streets and the culture of risk aversion


Charles Landry
Further suggested reading:
Beck, Ulrich. (1992) The risk society:
towards a new modernity. London,
Furedi, Frank. (1997) A culture of fear:
risk taking and the morality of low
expectation. London, Cassell.
Furedi, Frank. (2004) Therapy culture:
cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain
age. London, Routledge.
Giddens, Anthony. (1991) Modernity
and self identity: self and society in a
modern age. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Luhmann, Niklas. (1993) Risk: a
sociological theory. New York, de

John Adams
1. Department for Transport. (2003)
Transport Statistics for Great Britain
3. Hilman, Mayer, Adams, John,
and Whitelegg, John. (1990) One
false move: a study of childrens
independent mobility. Policy Studies
4. Adams, John. (2004) Darling, meet
the 800-pound gorilla!, Local
Transport Today, 26 August 2004.
[Available online at
5. Department for Transport. (2004)
Transport White Paper 2004.
7. See reference 3.

Iain Borden
1. Borden, Iain. (2001) Skateboarding,
space and the city: architecture and
the body. Oxford, Berg.
2. Chance, Julia. (2001) Connections
could be made there in The New
Babylonians, Borden, I. and
McCreery, S. (Eds) special profile no.
151, Architectural Design, Vol. 71 (3),
June 2001, pp36-43.
3. Common Place exhibition. The
Lighthouse, Glasgow, 22 March 11
June 2003.

8. Adams, John. (1988) Evaluating

the effectiveness of road safety
measures, Traffic Engineering and
Control, June 1998.
[Available online at
9. Hamilton-Baillie, Ben. (2004)
A street revolution, Green Places,
Issue 06, June, pp20-23.
10. Jacobsen, P. L. (2003) Safety in
numbers: more walkers and
bicyclists, safer walking and
bicycling, Injury Prevention 2003,
Vol. 9, pp205209.

Printed by Ernest Bond Printing Ltd
to ISO 14001 environmental standards
on Revive Uncoated paper (80 per cent
recycled content).
Front cover: Thanks to Parkour for
providing the inspiration.
Page 4: Blue Carpet, Newcastle.
Designer: Thomas Heatherwick.
Andrew Hendry.
Page 9: Exchange Square, Manchester.
University of Newcastle.
Page 17: Windmill Hill, Bedminster, Bristol.
Nick Turner, Countryside
Agency/Doorstep Greens.
Page 21:Bluewater Shopping Centre.
Iain Borden.
Page 24: Skater in public space.
Matthew Worland.
Page 25: Pocket park, New York.
Iain Borden.
Page 27: Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam.
Designers: Adriaan Geuze and West 8.
Adriaan Geuze.
Page 28: Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam.
Designers: Adriaan Geuze and West 8.
Adriaan Geuze.

11. Local Government Chronicle,

2 September 2004.

Page 32: Carrascoplein Shadow Park,

Amsterdam. Designers: Adriaan Geuze
and West 8.
Adriaan Geuze.

12. The Times, 29 November 2004.

Report on legal action to sue rail
companies for not fitting seatbelts on

Page 36: Kew Bridge, London.

English Heritage/Save our Streets.

14. Adams, John. (2003) In defence

of bad luck, Spiked, 22 December
2003. [Available online at

Page 40: Road junction, Gloucestershire.

English Heritage/Save our Streets.


Page 39:Marble Arch, London.

English Heritage/Save our Streets.

Page 43: Headrow, Leeds.

English Heritage/Save our Streets.

Charles Landry
Charles Landry is the founder
director of Comedia. He has worked
in over 30 countries advising city
and cultural leaders on how to
develop their cities in imaginative
ways. He is the author of The
creative city: a toolkit for urban
innovators (2000), Culture at the
crossroads: culture and cultural
institutions at the beginning of the
21st century (2001), and Riding the
rapids: urban life in an age of
complexity (2004).

Dorothy Rowe
Dr Dorothy Rowe is one of the
worlds leading psychologists and
authors. Her books on depression,
life and happiness such as Beyond
fear (1987) and The successful self
(1988) are published around the
world and read by millions. She
writes frequently for national UK
newspapers and magazines and
makes regular appearances on TV
and radio. She lives in London, UK,
but spends a considerable amount
of time every year travelling and

Iain Borden
Iain Borden is Director of the Bartlett
School of Architecture, University
College London, where he is
Professor of Architecture and Urban
Culture. An architectural historian
and urban commentator, his wideranging historical and theoretical
interests have led to publications on,
among other subjects, the history of
skateboarding as an urban practice,
boundaries and surveillance, gender
and architecture, body spaces and
the experience of space, and
Renaissance urban space.

John Adams
John Adams is Emeritus
Professor in Geography at
University College London. His
first book, Transport planning:
vision and practice, and his
subsequent commentaries in the
press and on radio and television
established him as an influential
voice in debates about transport
policy. His second book, Risk and
freedom: the record of road
safety regulation (1985) and his
third book, Risk (1995), have
radically altered thinking about
risk management both on and off
the road.


The Tower Building

11 York Road


020 7960 2400

020 7960 2444