Risk Aversion: The Curse of Modern City Planning?
Communities around the world that have embraced placemaking have found simple collaborative solutions to perceived risks
Modern cities have plenty of facilities which did not exist in the previous centuries and one of the prime developments is that cities are now better equipped to be safe. But are the cities of today really safer and better as we think? Have planning approaches adopted in the recent decades ameliorated pressing prevailing urban issues? If there is a distinct and increasingly strong belief which has gotten more pronounced through city planning in the modern times, it is risk-aversiveness.
Risks are requisite challenges embedded in our built environments which are vital to our development into stronger, smarter and more confident people. Removal of risks from our environments is a repercussion of the modern hyper protective culture pervasive in urban spaces today. Avoiding risks as a protective measure ends up being an over-protective measure which doesn’t benefit anyone in the long run.
Like with most things, children are the first victims of this thought process, and sanitizing childhood experiences of the younger generation has now become a common theme of what is considered, ‘good parenting’. Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, advocates against new-age zero risk playgrounds, driven by helicopter parenting of the present, as they stunt children’s risk assessment skills by infantilizing them and thereby preventing them to learn from their own mistakes. According to architect Takaharu Tezuka (popularly known for designing Fuji Kindergarten) it is becoming harder and harder to design spaces that respect children’s rights when the prevailing culture is so risk averse.
It is crucial to note that risk averse design isn’t referring to barrier free design, which is vital and necessary everywhere around the world, so that persons of varied abilities have access, agency, mobility and more importantly independence. Risk averse design and planning works towards mitigating the slightest possibility of risks, which can negatively impact our lives. After all, human bodies are built to develop a stronger immune system through exposure to what may be considered ‘risks’ when encountered the first time.
Since ecologically destructive development has been consistently practiced, people have become conditioned to not see disappearing green spaces as an ominous sign, rather prefer lesser and ‘tamable’ amounts of vegetation around them. Despite contradicting findings in studies relating to crime rates and environment, many communities believe that more urban vegetation, esp. numerous trees, foster anti-social criminal behavior as that environment provides many hiding spots. It is rather worrying that we have reached a point to perceive trees as risk magnets.
While trying to understand risks in terms of city planning and design, we also need to consider people of our society who were (and still are) rendered ‘risky’ and therefore sidelined through the design process. Racist beliefs that led to segregation in the U.S., got amplified when cities were restructured and designed to facilitate racial segregation. Around the world cities are developed keeping in mind an average model citizen, which almost always is construed to be a member of a privileged section of that society.
Marginalized communities have long been seen as “undesirables” and therefore have been wrongly perceived as risks in urban spaces. The recent hike in the spate of xenophobic incidents around the world, is an example of how poor, disenfranchised, undocumented people are othered and perceived as risks. Cities designed to invisibilize persons on the basis of them being ‘risky’ to others validate the violent oppressive structures that marginalized such persons in the first place. Examples of this range from denying trans persons access to public toilets, to denying lower caste persons access to public amenities (still practiced in South Asian cities).
While risk continues to be overtly racialized and classed across the globe, what isn’t addressed enough is how risk aversion also perpetuates ableism while it should be making things easier for disabled persons. Many risk averse design measures only take into consideration certain types of visible disabilities, that does not work in the favor of the whole community.
Disabled persons are discriminated as they are not considered as standard model citizens by designers and planners, and barrier free design elements are retrofitted into urban spaces as an afterthought. Using abled neurotypical people as a benchmark harms the demographic that does not share the same abilities with them. Such designed exclusions fan the prejudices of people against disabled persons who are already distressed in a hostile environment.
Surveillance, which has become the quickest response to risk management calls of this era, isn’t just inefficient but also counter-productive as it stokes more phobia, leading to a more risk averse environment. Being wary of risk aversion is not an advocacy for stressful high risk environments, but a call for understanding that managing risks is a healthier approach than completely eliminating risks. As 2007 publication ‘Living with risk: promoting better public space design’ states that it is easier to justify risk averse design than to use risk creatively. It is important for us to understand that, what constitutes as risk varies from person to person, based on our views, beliefs and understanding, all of which is based on our individual experiences and expertise.
“Placemaking is a balanced approach to city planning through community engagement, where equal weightage is given to people’s opinions and issues”
Cities and citizens need to become more risk-aware, for which we need to start making space for and listening to, the issues, adversities and perceived risks of the lesser privileged, who have lesser agency and immunity and therefore live at higher risks in our cities. Authorities need to conduct risk assessments in collaboration with people from varied backgrounds (not just various professionals who can pool in their expertise, but other users and inhabitants of the spaces as well), to aid the planning process.
Placemaking, thus is a positive alternative approach, where authorities consult all stakeholders from various backgrounds in the design process to reach innovative solutions, so that risks are creatively managed and not eliminated altogether. Placemaking is a balanced approach to city planning through community engagement, where equal weightage is given to people’s opinions and issues, to reach a common ground of understanding of what is best for the community as a whole.
Communities around the world that have embraced placemaking have found simple collaborative solutions to perceived risks in their common spaces, which has lowered intra-community tensions and nurtured the sense of well-being. Through such active processes of debate and dialogue, it is possible to examine our accepted standards, values and priorities, and plan spaces that are conducive to the healthy growth of our communities and cities.