With more people living in cities than ever before, it is imperative that our cities support healthy populations. The coronavirus has highlighted the importance of physical activity among urban populations to reduce known comorbidities including diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

Physical activity, safely socially distanced should be encouraged, and the design of the built environment has a role to play in facilitating physical activity in cities. Research provides consistent evidence supporting the link between pedestrian-friendly urban environments and lower levels of obesity. It also indicates a direct causation between city sprawl, which is associated with increased car use, and limited opportunities for physical activity.

But, an increase in the use of active spaces in cities must also come with improved security. Addressing people’s security needs is essential in encouraging them to undertake physical exercise. We understand the need to incorporate accessible public space into our design, but how often are we considering the security that should come alongside this?

Do we feel safe enough in public spaces to exercise?

Fear of violence and crime in outdoor areas is reported to be one of the most significant factors that deter people from engaging in physical activity in public spaces. Workplaces that do not have a secure space for people to store their bicycles could mean they are more likely to avoid cycling to work, even if it is a practical option.

A variety of measures can improve accessibility and the quality of opportunities to be active, from the design of dedicated and well-connected pedestrian and cycle routes to the cultivation of attractive spaces to encourage people to exercise outdoors.

Lighting pedestrian routes to a daylight-equivalent level can increase their usage by up to 38% compared to if left unlit. The same applies to cycle paths, and can increase their usage by as much as 62%. Such findings reiterate the role of security in reducing the fear of crime and encouraging dwell time in public spaces.

People-centred security design 

Built environment stakeholders need to make the investment in enhancing urban environments through understanding public perception of risks within these spaces, alongside an informed risk assessment. 

Through analysis of threat and risk environments, visual audits of a site's surroundings and a review of the proposed design, spaces can gain recommendations to help identify appropriate ways to ensure security risks are identified and mitigated - so that they benefit the public.

Risk assessments that determine what risks may exist, to what level these risks can be mitigated and measures that should be put in place will create safer cities and public spaces. That means engaging with local security stakeholders and other specialists to tailor the project to the local context. 

Recent security and crime incidents in our cities have shown the need for security to be considered to improve the wellbeing of users of those spaces.

Richard Bond

Associate, Arup

Understanding risk to increase activity

Cities are increasingly becoming denser, and our urban spaces more than ever need to cater to and encourage exercise. We have an opportunity to encourage physical activity in the urban public realm by designing, creating and operating safe and secure spaces that also facilitate social distancing.

The benefits of safe urban environments are both physical and mental, and while improving our health and wellbeing a reduction in the sedentary population can also offer economic benefits in the form of reduced health risks and healthcare costs. 

Those involved in shaping our urban public realm should apply people-centred security design early in the design process. This will be a catalyst in providing sustainable, healthy and prosperous cities.