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THE August 2013 issue of Seminar on Safe Cities was an interesting compilation of observations on the ways in which cities can be made safer and more livable spaces. It problematized the concept of safety and expanded it to encompass any risk to an individual, including but not restricted to the debate on women’s safety. A number of articles discussed commuter safety, especially that of pedestrians and public transport commuters. Two noteworthy observations, discussed below, help break through the clutter of the global debates which are often characterized by repetitive, rhetoric-driven technological solutions.

Bo Grönlund in the piece titled ‘Reducing fear’ discusses the question of the starting point towards creating safety: the prevention of real crimes versus reducing the threat perception of crimes. Grönlund makes a compelling argument for the need to reduce fear of potential crimes as a means of reducing the ‘real’ incidence of crime. It is important to add to this discussion that even within ‘real’ crimes there exist ones that go unreported and unquantified.

In this sense, looking at psychological fears or the threat perceptions of potential crimes can help escape the hierarchic ranking of cities on common physical safety parameters across the country or even the world. This in turn helps go beyond the problem-solution mode, where crime is seen as a problem and the mere reduction of incidence as the desired solution. Since the fear of crime is highly subjective to the person, place and time, it constantly reconfigures itself and cannot be easily quantified or ranked. The notion of vulnerabilities thus becomes a useful prism to discuss physical as well as psychological fears that will always vary according to the situational context.

Dunu Roy’s article titled ‘Whose City?’ questions the overemphasis on the idea of mobility in the planning of cities, noting that while experts and planners look at making increasingly efficient the mobility on roads, people often do not associate roads with mere mobility but also livelihood. This is an important argument and can be extended further – in that roads are not mere passages of movement for all people, they are workspaces for hawkers, public spaces for public protesters and indeed homes for the homeless. This is a dynamic relationship and roads can potentially carry all four simultaneous meanings (transit routes, livelihoods, homes and public spaces), for instance in the case of street performers who work and live on the pavements.

A selective definition of the function of the road narrowly frames the idea of safety on the road. This risks the exclusion of the various users of the space, rendering the attempt to reimagine/remake the city infructuous by perpetuating the exclusion that it aimed to fight in the first place. It is an outcome of the discursiveness of the modernist principles of urban planning that dictated the separation of industrial, residential, governmental and commercial spaces. This principle of functional separation is equally evident in enclaves differentiated on the basis of ethnicity or caste, as also the gated enclaves that are the abode of higher classes. These invisible boundaries perpetuate the ideas of difference by keeping interactions to a minimum, thereby enhancing fear of ‘different’ people and neighbourhoods.

For example, the Supreme Court recently revoked the ban on dance bars in the city of Mumbai, triggering a renewed debate about the right to livelihood of the girls employed in these establishments. The discussion extended to the idea that these bars are spaces that attract ‘lumpen elements’ that disturb the ‘social decorum’ of society (Madhu Kishwar, ‘My neighbourhood’s right not to have a dance bar’, The Indian Express, 20 July 2013). The construction of dance bars as spaces where ‘wrong’ things happen embed them with suspicion and fear. Consequently, wishing them away is a perfect example of endorsing the value of zoning different people into different spaces, albeit in this instance in the name of enhancing safety for others.

The analysis of the ideas of ‘fear’ and ‘social exclusion’ by Grönlund and Roy respectively help build a more complicated understanding of safety as one that cannot always be quantified or solved by direct action. Further, it brings out the idea that safety is not the same thing for everyone. One’s relative position vis-à-vis the socio-economic make-up of a society dictates not only one’s vulnerability to crime, but also one’s access to the interventions aimed at creating safety. Further, even one individual would have multiple overlapping areas of concern for his/her safety. Take for instance the case of the skywalks that have been built in some cities of the country to facilitate pedestrian movement and prevent friction with vehicular traffic. However, many women choose not to use the skywalks because of their perceived sense of fear, or lack of sense of safety, owing to low footfalls on the skywalks and their enclosed physicality. They prefer crossing the road with a crowd, despite the risk of an accident. An effort to reduce one kind of vulnerability may sharpen another kind, as seen in this case.

This brings us to question whether cities can create or make safety in the first place. Many would argue in the affirmative, asserting that planning interventions can help regulate urban space, thereby aiding in the reduction of crime. It is true that one can create milieus that reduce vulnerability – by lighting up streets, increasing police presence and ‘eyes on the street’ or making stricter regulations for driving. However, safety seen as a more nuanced and subjective concept leads us to understand that safe cities cannot be an absolute aspiration. Safety would always be relative just as crime is relative. In this sense, creating safer cities must first focus on the differences in the understanding of the ideas of safety in the first place rather than employing blanket planning guidelines. The micro interactions of different people with different urban spaces can help build a richer and locale-specific matrix of lived fears and safety as well as perceived vulnerabilities and securities. It is this understanding that must form the basis of any interventions aimed at creating societies where people do not feel vulnerable or socially excluded – or in other words, relatively safe.

Maansi Parpiani

Fellow, Observer Research Foundation