When planning to develop an outdoor playspace or school grounds, many practitioners are concerned about out of hours visitors and the possibility of vandalism to their area.
Last month, I listened to an interesting presentation by an Architectural Liaison Officer (ALO). The guy was a police officer but his job is to advise planners and others who need input when considering where to site a play area within a community. His job is to ensure crime prevention through environmental design. From his perspective, a children’s area will tend to be a compromise between needs, wants and safety. A badly designed play area can result in increased incidences of vandalism, graffiti, fire raising and youth disorder.
Let’s begin with natural surveillance. Have a look at your outdoor space and see where the hidden corners away from sight are, and those which are open areas. What sort of buildings or features surround your playspace? For example, a school situated in the middle of a downtown office area may have less people around at night time. Those in a residential area may have people who can see the playground from their overlooking windows. Are there any CCTV cameras already installed and do these work?
Lighting is the next consideration. The natural light does not necessarily need to be high. However the lighting installed or nearby street lights should not create areas of light and dark shadows. Uniformity is important and makes people feel safer regardless of whether a threat is real or perceived.
Territorial issues need some thought too. Who owns the area? This goes beyond title deeds, but considers the community ownership. If the local community, including children of all ages, have been consulted and involved in the development of an outdoor space in a participatory and ongoing way, then there is a great sense of ownership over that space.
The ALO was keen to stress that high barriers such as walls and solid fences can inhibit the natural surveillance of an area. Low fencing and soft landscaping features help as often boundaries are as much psychological as physical. The less sterile a playspace looks the better. How a playspace can be accessed is interesting. In theory, the less access routes, the less escape routes there are! Also the layout can make a difference to wind blown litter accumulating.
The ALO also raised the maintenance matter – the Broken Window Theory. If vandalism does occur, it’s important that this is fixed promptly. For example, if a window gets broken, then if immediately replaced, it is highly likely that other windows will get broken thereafter. For schools and nurseries, it is worthwhile having a little bit of cash set aside, to allow for maintenance work and repairs to happen on an ongoing basis.
I usually suggest having a plan too, so that if, for example, staff and children arrive one morning to find newly planted trees ripped up, then everyone knows what action will be taken. This might include a quick planting of any trees that aren’t too damaged, reporting the incident to the police and press and tidying up the area so it looks nice again.
Finally when planning big changes to your outdoor space, it is worth contacting your local Architectural Liaison Officer. Tell them about the location, natural surveillance, intended use of the area in relation to the age groups and whether there are facilities nearby for older youth. The officer should know local issues with regard to crime. For example in one area of Aberdeen, putting wooden equipment into school grounds is fine. Two miles away in a different part of Aberdeen, wooden equipment may be set on fire. Having a shelter is fine, but if you know teenagers and young adults may hang out there, then put it in a visible place and a bin for bottles, etc. can help with littering.
I would be interested to hear your views and experiences of crime in local play spaces and school grounds. Is it an issue where you live and work? What solutions were found within your community?