Safety first applies to paths. Only an open space allowing for a walk precedes in importance the need for feeling safe as a prerequisite for our taking a walk. Heading for a critical destination feeling safe is desirable; for taking a stroll feeling safe is imperative.
We read as pre-eminent signs of safety the existence of a path, lengthy views, a memorable route, evidence of maintenance, and the presence of other people.
A sidewalk or a beaten track is an initial sign of a safe route. It is an assurance that we will find our way, it is an invitation to proceed, and it is evidence of an escape route if we should need one.
Beyond the path itself, we choose routes that offer long and wide views because they offer the earliest warnings of possible danger.
Long views also help orient us, and we appreciate anything else that helps us find our way. Long, relatively direct routes from start to finish help us in this way. Direct routes are especially helpful if they line up north and south or east and west.
Distinctive places help us learn a route and can announce who controls the area. Along street and building edges physical demarcation of public and private areas contributes to security. Low walls, raised beds and planters, hedges, gates, canopies, and railings defining private terraces and yards announce who controls the grounds to either side. Amorphous open spaces outside tall buildings are “no man’s lands,” where few feel safe.
Evidence of maintenance is evidence of human caring, a real comfort to passersby.
Both path and maintenance proclaim the presence of others, a primary source of feelings of safety. Even when we seek out a natural setting, we prefer to see something manmade. “In many studies …,” the Kaplans have noted, “the scenes that receive the most favorable ratings are ones that include both a natural setting and a clear human influence.”
Among people sharing our path, we distinguish among reputable, neutral, and disreputable. Pedestrians tend to be made uncomfortable by panhandlers, transients and people sleeping on the streets. Since good use drives out bad use, unlike Robert Frost most of us choose the path that is more traveled.
In cities, others walking or watching constitute the natural surveillance “eyes on the street” and serve are one of the greatest sources of security.’ If others along the path appear strong and welcoming, we imagine their helping to cope with any threat that might arise. If they are young, old, or weak, we imagine they would not be here if there were any real danger.
As a result, we are drawn to places where people congregate. “This suggests a ‘flywheel effect,'” note researchers from University College London, “that once some people start walking, others may follow.”
The flywheel effect is multiplied when people are not just walking, but also standing, chatting, window shopping, sitting. We love to watch others and we know the area’s safe. That’s why pedestrian-friendly downtowns are so full of people. They aren’t just doing business, they are also lingering to enjoy the other people and their activities.