Marti Fooks explores the intersections of safety, Queerness and public space. Outlining the challenges of CPTED, she argues for new approaches that embed those most at risk within design processes from the very beginning.

In early 2021 I hosted the Parlour Instagram account. I had no idea that it was going to be such a cathartic and formative exercise. Instagram for me is a playful and social space to interact with friends and family. It’s a platform where I share and engage both my passion for landscape architecture and queer identity. This intersection often creates some interesting dialogues, crossovers and learnings. As it would turn out, a lot of queer people seem to have a strong affiliation with gardening and plants, while landscape architects seem more and more understanding and create space for queerness.

Then Parlour invited me to convert the image and captions into a written summary. As my posts were self-reflections, I feel I need to give a bit of background.

I started Landscape Architecture at RMIT, straight after completing high school in a small country town in North West Victoria. For the first couple of years, I embraced city life, and preferred to spend my time at gay bars, doing queer performances, embracing my new-found community and expressing my identity freely.

So, after dragging myself through the first two years of study, I jumped at the opportunity to study in Berlin. Surprisingly though, I didn’t head straight to Berghain and ditch the studies all together. I studied gender theory and Queer history at Humboldt University. I immersed myself in discourse that dismantled the gender binary and simultaneously created a world I could live in. I learned about performative intersections of identities and transformatives ideas of space. I familiarised myself with theorists such as Kate Bornstein, Judith Butler and Katarina Bonnevier.

Back in Melbourne, I embarked on my Major Design Project (now Masters) entitled Queer Feminist Landscape Architecture. I didn’t know how, but I believed it was possible to intersect my studies in Berlin with the practice of landscape architecture. I worked hard through design testing, confusions and endless worry that what I was exploring wasn’t valid. After six months of design research, a lecturer at RMIT  disregarded my work with one dumb question. He demanded to know what queer is.

It undermined me and it hurt, but his question spurred me to keep going, to challenge the very structure that he was trying to force on to my work. The project received the highest accolades.

The infinite value of Queerness

Integral to queerness are concepts of community, inclusion, beauty, playfulness and safety. Queerness is asking questions and challenging structures that perpetuate homophobia, transphobia, racism and sexism.

As a practitioner I found myself working on large, complex, multi-disciplinary projects in two major Australian cities. On these projects, I actively participate in discussion around safety and inclusion. These conversations raise many questions and many challenges.

  • Do normative practices of managing crime reduce a sense of safety and exclude people from place?
  • Is the way we manage the risk of crime actually reducing a sense of safety?
  • By applying theories of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design are we simply ticking a box and perpetuating the structures that exclude the voices that most need to be heard?

Most importantly, can we challenge the normative structures of managing and designing public places to create equitable cities? Because currently we are working in a context full of paradoxes – the people who are least at risk of crime in public space still feel the most unsafe, those communities that are at risk are rarely consulted or included in design and decision-making processes, and fundamental decisions about our public spaces are frequently made by those with little design knowledge or skills.

Safety and public space

According to the statistics, women* are afraid in our cities (unfortunately the analysis does not reflect the actual diversity of gender in our community). Yet, the data also tells us that violence is much more likely to occur in private environments. In the most recent data on incidents of physical assault by a male, women were most likely to be physically assaulted by a man that they knew (92% or 977,600). The location of these incidents is most likely to be their home (65% or 689,800).[ref](ABS Personal Safety Survey, 2016)[ref/] So, if the majority of harm is occurring in the home, why are women less likely to use public space?

The data tells us that between 2005 and 2016, men were more likely to walk in their local area alone after dark than women (68% of men and 39% of women in both 2005 and 2016). There could be many reasons for this. It could be that women are bringing their experiences from their home to their experience of public space. This means that 71% of women are not gaining the benefits that come with open space after dark – for example, taking a walk with the dog, getting some fresh air or visiting friends. They are less likely to gain the health and wellbeing benefits from public space.

Landscape architects play a key role in the design of urban environments. Visioning, planning and designing all types of places: laneways, streetscapes, plazas, play spaces, open spaces. So, how can we understand more of our responsibility for safety and access for women* and queer people? What new processes can ensure the voices of those most at risk are heard?

Unfortunately, in current government planning and design processes, often unqualified professionals make poor recommendations and decisions that affect urban environments under the guise of safety. Where people are inappropriately qualified, it becomes more likely for their own opinions to seep through. On many projects I have heard some quite problematic opinions impacting design outcomes.

On one project, the lighting scheme of one side of the development was to deter occupation and on the other side lighting was ambient and welcoming. This came from a security consultants’ observations during one night-time site walk of Aboriginal people ‘loitering’ in public space. The light levels in our urban environments are informed by subconscious bias of the people who design them.

It makes me think that when groups of people of colour enjoy public space it’s perceived as loitering, when they are queer it’s perverted but when they are white and/or cis-normative it’s site activation.

The challenges of CPTED

The most prevalent framework for understanding safety and public space is Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). It takes five days to become a CPTED practitioner and the course is run by the New South Wales Police. Victoria does not run similar training. Following the training, professional security engineers, planning, lighting design, architects, police and community members become CPTED auditors, who are capable of preparing design review and risk assessments.

CPTED principles and practices shape the design of our public spaces in many ways, yet their origins are in control and incarceration. The first generation of principles derived in the 1970s were designed to control inmates. They were not intended to make people feel or be safer. CPTED theories have evolved over the years; however, they still often go directly against my expertise as an urban designer and landscape architect. The challenges include:

  • The historic background of CPTED design principles is to control people, not make them feel or be safer.
  • The voices of people from diverse backgrounds, culture and identity are underrepresented in the process.
  • Physical outcomes ignore social, environmental, economic and cultural factors of site.
  • Acts of crime are determined by the State and may not be consistent with community ideals.
  • CPTED places a focus on persecuting the offender after the crime/harm has occurred.
  • Physical modifications are often delivered by representatives who may not be suitably trained.
  • Insufficient attention is paid to research evidence about the effectiveness of certain techniques, and strategies are not sufficiently evaluated.

Can this problematic structure be rewritten or should we start again at square one?

Where to from here?

Design alone won’t make our cities safer, but designers must play a key role. As landscape architects we design and plan public spaces, but the problems facing women* and queers’ communities are not exclusively in the public realm. I don’t know exactly what comes after Safer by Design, CPTED, but we do need new ideas. I lead a research seminar at RMIT University titled Neon Signs, New Ideas for Safer Cities in the Master of Landscape Architecture. It aims to explore how landscape architecture and designers could rethink the design principles and risk assessments to respond to contemporary pressures on our urban places while putting the safety of women*, LGBTIQ+, people of colour at the forefront.

I believe we need new tools. Designers need new processes that embed the people who are most at risk within the design process. To create safer cities, we need new ways to understand and evaluate actual risks and perceived risk. While we are working on new process, designers also need to stop seeing safer design as a tick box exercise, or as something which they can post rationalise in their design. I don’t care how many pathways there are in and out of your development, if you don’t truly care about creating safe cities and have this commitment embedded in your process then you are safe washing.

So, this is a call out, to call it out. If you hear unfounded assumptions creeping through in project processes, say something. Demand that the project invests in a proper process. If you want to make a place safe, then we need to ask who it is safe for and from….

Marti Fooks is a Director at Outerspace Landscape Architects.