One reason people walk less than decades ago is that we fear what’s outdoors more than we used to, despite the reality that in most places it is safer outdoors than it used to be. The sources for this disconnect are legion. We hear more about low-risk threats – Mad Cow Disease! West Nile virus!—and we drink in more fear-mongering shows – Cops! Law and Order: Special Victims Unit!24/7 crime news from around the world brought directly to your living room!
Meanwhile, we spend more time in houses, cars, and offices and have less real understanding of what the outdoors is like.
As a result, overall, being in outdoor public places is now more feared than is warranted by reported crime statistics, particularly among women and children. It is one of several paradoxes surrounding contemporary fears. Others include: Men generally experience more physical violence than women, but fear violence less. Women fear strangers more than acquaintances despite most attacks coming from people they know. Women tend to fear being out in public spaces when most attacks occur in private spaces.
A real and reasonable fear is coping with motorized traffic in anything other than a car, which is why designating and building separate walkways and bicycle lanes is necessary. The irony here is that a major cause of death in otherwise healthy middle aged people is driving or riding in a car.
At the same time, designers are doing things like increasing light levels at night time, when greater lighting causes no noticeable decrease in crime and in most cases no significant reduction in the perception of danger.
The resulting problem is that fearful people tend to avoid areas of perceived danger, limiting their mobility and prompting fewer people to be present outdoors, promoting yet greater fear, leading to a spiral of diminishing outdoor walking. Nevertheless, design can reduce fear by generating well frequented places and by offering obvious escape routes and minimizing areas of concealment for offenders, especially in hot spots known for activating fear, such as little frequented parking lots at night.
Landscape preference studies confirm that fear for one’s safety, usually fear of crime, is highest in areas with many refuges for potential offenders and few escape routes for potential victims. Such fear-producing areas include bridges, parking garages, alleys, and long paths with tall, close borders. Secondary causes of concern are areas with many places for concealment, blocked sightlines, and the absence of other people. These factors prompt the fear of entrapment.
More generally, the presence of uncared for grounds and uncaring people prompt worry. Broken windows and litter, the homeless, drunks and the mentally ill all prompt detours or a return indoors.
The good news is threefold: First, quality placemaking can overcome fear of walking by creating places that are inviting, interesting and active. Second, that when people do choose to walk and linger outdoors, others follow. The upward spiral of outdoor usage is self-reinforcing, just like the downward spiral. And, third, good uses of the outdoors tend to drive out bad uses. As a result of this win-win-win, perceived safety leads to real safety.
Still, our need for security has limits. No area should be so safe, so tame, so domesticated that it conveys no countervailing values of mystery, intrigue, or even a ripple of danger. We all accept—even seek—some level of exposure to danger, especially where we are certain we can escape it. Indeed, landscape forms called sublime in the eighteenth century were those that inspired awe and touches of avoidable danger—cliffs and mountains, hanging woods, or waterfalls. As one British commentator put it, “The nearer we get to a bit of disaster without getting hurt, the better we like it.”