Originally Published 2013-03-20 00:00:00 Published on Mar 20, 2013
Defining safety in urban spaces as just one of physical protection is self-defeating as it presupposes the existence of only reactive action. The construction of safety in sheer physical terms reduces, and often completely eliminates, the possibility of proactive action.
The four pillars of a safe city
In the backdrop of the daily gruesomeness of various forms of verbal, non-verbal and physical violence that one is exposed to on the streets of an Indian city, it is natural for any discussion on safe cities to be narrowly located within the restrictive framework of law and order. But to define safety in urban spaces as one of physical protection is self-defeating as it presupposes the existence of only reactive action. The construction of safety in sheer physical terms reduces, and often completely eliminates, the possibility of proactive action. A stark case in point is the December 16, 2012 gang-rape of a girl in Delhi, where the main points of contention, debate and discussion centre on the reaction of the Delhi Police, emergency services and lax implementation of transportation norms and rules. But the concept of safe cities has to go beyond law and order. Safety in urban spaces is as much an issue of perception as it is of reality. A city that makes its women, through visible and invisible means, go inside their homes before sunset only creates a perception of safety. But in the emergence of a 'post-sunset' fear, elements of unsafe come out, combine and rule. If one were to look at a safe city from a holistic perspective then perceptual safety has to be necessarily based on a foundation of real safety. This brings us to the question of what exactly is real safety. Real safety is a combination of four factors.

The first is intelligent design and architecting of urban spaces. Cities are essentially about mobility, zoned spaces for work, living and recreation and environment. Together they coalesce into quality of life. A city is a collection of urban spaces and the critical backbone of real safety is the way in which each space blends into the other in a seamless manner leading to a holistic urban experience. A good example would be the transport infrastructure in Paris. Every single mega and minor transport system -from the suburban metro rail corridors to the GPS enabled free cycles -in the city has been designed around open and public spaces so that people have access to different forms of mobility for work, living and recreation. While the Parisian transport infrastructure is an example of intelligent design, the innovative use of the usually dark and seedy street corners in Zurich, Bern and Basel to display public art and allow street theatre groups to showcase their skills, transforms a blind spot -a space of latent fear and violence -into an proactive arena of shared cultural experiences. Closer home, the Ministry of Textiles has taken over the Delhi Metro subways to display traditional hand-woven silks and fabrics. Subways in India are always associated with an uneasy knot in the stomach. But the same subways in Delhi today attract families, especially over the weekends, to look and appreciate the displays.

The second is technology. Big brother or not, the advantages of integrated surveillance solutions far outweigh their disadvantages. Indian cities drastically require an overhauling of their security systems and need a networked blanket of high resolution and high quality CCTVs. Several cities like Delhi, parts of Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad already have CCTVs. But the cameras are poorly networked or not networked at all, and produce images of extremely poor resolution that are practically of no forensic value. A case in point is the poor CCTV images that are hampering the investigation of the recent Hyderabad blasts. In India, CCTVs are still seen in the same light as webcams and the over 30 traffic cams -some are actually modified webcams -installed in the Mumbai suburban areas of Santacruz, Khar and Bandra are illustrative of this mindset. Over half of these cams go down at the hint of any monsoon disturbance or winds, practically turning the police blind in one eye for that period. Contrast this with www.earthtv.com, which broadcasts webcam footage from across the world. Even with the heavy snowfall at the Swiss town of Lucerne the webcam at Chapel Bridge -one of the most popular spots there -keeps broadcasting high resolution footage. But technology is not just about networked CCTVs. It's also about the ability to integrate smart technology solutions in daily life of an individual, from integrating smart transport cards to licenses, identity, debit and credit cards to all-purpose social security cards. In short, the digital footprints of an individual within a city should be available for scrutiny on request.

The third is enforcement of rules, regulations and norms, which we broadly call as law and order. The operative word here is enforcement. In Sweden, for instance, the number plates of cars are barcoded and any traffic violation is captured not only by the CCTVs, but also by sensors that are embedded on the sides of the road that read the barcode and sends a traffic violation ticket to the address of the person. In several cases, the fine is automatically deducted by the relevant Swedish institutions from the account of the violator after a set period of no contestation. Sweden follows the three-strike principal. Three traffic violations of a certain magnitude lead to a confiscation of the license of the driver and the probation period of such a violator for a reissue can last up to 10 years. In short, it is well within the realm of possibility that a Swedish citizen may not be able to get behind the wheels of his car for up to ten years if the Swedish courts decide so. Additionally, the Swedish system asks different things of different violators, from fines to community service, to inculcate a more responsible behaviour. A stark contrast is India, where there is practically no upper limit for traffic violations, confiscated licenses can be easily got back, or new/fake ones made, and there is no concept of community service.

The fourth factor is community. At a basic level, a city is nothing more than a collection of people. Individually each one is unsafe. But network them, and suddenly the concept of safety starts acquiring collective overtones. The concept of community is intrinsically linked with the intelligent design and architecting of urban spaces, the first factor that we discussed. For a community to engage, disengage, debate, discuss and develop deeper bonds, spaces for congregation, negotiation, recreation, relaxation and activities must be available. The public and open spaces of safe city need to be architected in such a manner that the people of a city are able to indulge in the three foundational principles of democracy -debate, dissent and mobilisation. It's only through the integration of public and open spaces with the spaces of work, living and recreation that a vibrant community can be developed. An empowered community is a natural buffer and allows for proactive action to create an enabling environment for all sections of a city to lead their daily lives without fear and violence.

Take out any one factor and the concept of a safe city starts appearing shaky. But put them together and facilitate their coalescence and one would end with a city where safety becomes an integral, yet invisible, part of quality of life. The holy grail of a safe city is when the quality of life naturally and automatically lends itself to creating an environment of empowerment, enablement and safety.

(R. Swaminathan is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and a Fellow at the National Internet Exchange of India. He is the author of Mumbai Vision 2015: An Agenda for Urban Renewal)

Courtesy : Governance Now

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.