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Designing for safety

One of the founding principles of TDI is that everyone has a role to play in reducing the risk of sexual offending. Acting on this principle often involves us talking to people who interact directly with offenders or would-be offenders – prison officers, employees of housing associations, people supervising leisure sites and members of faith communities. These are people in a position to intervene as offences are developing to prevent them.

At the same time though, there are other people removed in time and space from the location of an incident who are able to reduce the chances of offences occurring. These include architects and interior designers. As part of our Leisurewatch program, we audit sites like swimming pools, shopping centres and libraries to help those working there to think about potential areas of vulnerability. It is surprising how often new sites have built in opportunities for offending through their design, and how often existing sites have failed to make small adjustments which could reduce risk.

From our experience at sites across the UK, we have put together some best practice guidelines for people designing or managing public spaces which are available to the members of our Leisurewatch scheme. Some of the general principles on which they are based are summarised here.

Providing opportunities to offend

Offenders need opportunities to offend. This is the same for preferential offenders, who seek out such opportunities, and for situational offenders, who offend when presented with unexpected opportunities they are unable to resist. If these are not provided, preferential offenders will go elsewhere to satisfy their needs, and situational offenders will not be placed in a position where they can offend.

An easy question to start you off thinking about whether your site has such opportunities designed into it is to ask ‘what can people see without themselves being observed?’. For example, we have recently seen an increasing number of newly-built gyms and swimming pools which have large open windows facing onto car-parks or residential streets. It is very easy for offenders to commit voyeuristic acts, and for preferential offenders to watch for vulnerable individuals as potential victims, from the safety of their vehicles or homes. Simply frosting the glass or planting outside the window would resolve this.

Places such as bathrooms and changing rooms can also inadvertently provide opportunities for offenders. Although, for obvious reasons, we have been unable to check this, a contact in the Police assures us that the internet has large numbers of videos secretly shot in male toilets. These are possible because there are no privacy boards between urinal stalls, or the boards between them are too short or low-down. Changing rooms are often similarly open, without cubicles which would protect users from both voyeurism and exhibitionism. This is sometimes even the case with showers.

The inverse question is also useful, ‘what can’t be easily seen?’. Are there any dark or secluded places which would offer an offender cover? These might not always be obvious; there was a case reported in the media some time ago of a couple who committed an indecent act in a shopping centre, shielded by an ornamental plant. Had the plant been a little closer to the wall, they would have found things a lot more difficult.

Humans as part of design

There will always be some situations which cannot be physically designed out: escalators, for instance, provide opportunities for photographic voyeurism which can’t be prevented. Similarly, some changing rooms are open plan. Once staff are aware of these, however, they are able to act to reduce risk by being vigilant and pro-active. Making users of a site aware of restrictions on photography, and patrolling to ensure that these are enforced, discourages both preferential and situational offenders. The former will go elsewhere to places where offending is easier, the latter will not be placed in a situation where they might offend. Being vigilant and communicating vigilance can be thought of as institutional design, accompanying physical design.

These comments are brief and general, and a fuller version is available in the Members’ Area of our website. As part of the Leisurewatch programme, we are able to discuss more specific pitfalls to those designing new sites or modifying existing ones.

We are indebted to Brian Herron (@bherron51) for his help in writing this blog.

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