The hidden dangers of risk aversion
21 May 2007
Our study explores how streets and public spaces are in danger of becoming bland and standardised because of over-sensitivity to risk.
Streets and public spaces are in danger of becoming bland and standardized because of over-sensitivity to risk, arising from misplaced fears of a rampant compensation culture and unquestioning interpretations of health and safety regulations.
Living with risk: promoting better public space design studied 10 public space projects across England in depth and surveyed 16 key organisations from local councils and insurers to the Health and Safety Executive. CABE's new report found that intelligent and creative designs with multiple benefits can face a frustrating battle to be accepted. Over-cautious designs with limited uses or opportunities, however, are less likely to be challenged. The report aims to give designers and councils the confidence to challenge risk-averse decisions.
CABE believes that many public spaces are designed for the worst case scenario rather than normal behaviour. Yet the vast majority of people are perfectly capable of assessing risk for themselves and acting accordingly.
When organisations become over-sensitive to risk, they consider most or all hazards as risks that need minimising. This can lead to a disproportionate response where relatively small risks are treated like major threats. In Dover, for example, a proposal to turn a busy rat-run into a safer Home Zone - a street with reduced traffic speeds and increased space for pedestrians - was rejected because of fears about access for emergency services.
CABE believes that public spaces should be exciting and varied, and a clear design vision can manage, or even celebrate, risk rather than try to eliminate it. Evidence shows that where an element of risk is allowed in schemes for streets and public spaces, people become more aware of their surroundings and take greater responsibility for their own safety. When Kensington High Street in London was redesigned, the barriers originally installed to 'protect' pedestrians and separate them from traffic were removed. As a result both pedestrians and motorists became more aware of each other and accident figures have fallen.
Groups perceive risk in different ways, and CABE's report strongly recommends striking a balance between everyone's views. Most planning applications should now include a design and access statement to explain the thinking behind the scheme, and show on how everyone, including older people and disabled people, will be able to use the place that is being built. CABE is also preparing a briefing on humanising streets, looking at the balances to be achieved through shared spaces.
Sarah Gaventa, Director of CABE Space, says that through Living with risk CABE wants to encourage a balanced approach to risk, rather than designing as if the public was stupid. 'This doesn't mean we want dangerous or insecure environments, but we do want to avoid creating a generation of bland, bleak and barrier-ridden public spaces'.
Living with risk is supported by the Health and Safety Executive, ALARM (the national forum for risk management in the public sector) the Landscape Institute and Zurich Municipal, the largest insurer of local authorities.