Marshalls | Design for the dark

Marshalls | Design for the dark

Architects and designers are being urged to consider a set of key design principles so people feel – and are – safe in shared spaces such as housing developments. Johanna Elvidge, head of design at Marshalls, reports.

A new white paper – Creating Safer Spaces – reveals that four out of five people feel more unsafe when it’s dark in public spaces and are, on average, 12 times more likely to avoid such areas than in daylight hours. The white paper, published by Marshalls, highlights the significant difference between how the public view areas at different times of the day and outlines a series of design pillars that the industry should consider to ensure safety is better integrated into public spaces.

As part of the research, it was found that residential streets were considered the safest of all spaces, yet nearly a quarter of people said they still avoided them after dark. It also found that parks and gardens were viewed the least safe spaces when it’s dark, with 80% of people avoiding them during this time – 40 times higher than in the daytime.

Reasons for the heightened awareness of safety in dark hours included poor visibility as an issue, where potential dangers or hazards are concealed or out of sight. A lack of ‘social presence’ from less use of spaces by people when it’s dark was also raised as a reason for safety concern.

Translating perceptions into actions, the results showed people commonly change their behaviour to improve their perceived levels of safety when out in public. The most frequent modification was walking a longer route that is busier and/or better lit, followed by crossing the street to avoid others. Further changes included only wearing one earphone or listening at a lower volume and carrying a personal alarm.

To support the industry in creating shared spaces where people feel safe from day through to night, we have outlined seven best practice design pillars within the white paper. Covering principles from vision and wayfinding to acoustics and technology, these considerations should be used by industry to provoke fresh thinking and debate.

Simple design choices such as the height of a hedge or the use of textured materials, for example, can have a big impact on whether people feel and are safe in our shared spaces. However, at present principles such as designing wayfinding and acoustics for when it’s dark are often overlooked when planning schemes. By considering safety during the feasibility and concept stages, the principles of ‘designing for dark’ can be seamlessly integrated and even enhance other key principles including biodiversity and accessibility with compelling consequences.

As well as evidencing the effects of perceived safety at an individual level, Creating Safer Spaces also explores the macro consequences of when, conversely, spaces are designed and built with safety, at all times of the day, in mind. These range from improved mental and physical health, impact on climate change and economic growth.

If people don’t feel safe in when it’s dark then it can limit their opportunities in life; from education, training and employment, to fitness, socialising and access to cultural activities. Not only does this impact them as an individual, but it has knock on consequences to their local communities, society, the economy and environment.

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