Chapter 15 The Perception of Personal Security in Urban Parks: A Comparative Analysis of Research Methods

In: Placemaking in Practice Volume 1
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Miloslav Šerý Palacký University Olomouc Olomouc Czech Republic

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Lucia Brisudová Palacký University Olomouc Olomouc Czech Republic

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David Buil-Gil The University of Manchester Manchester United Kingdom

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Kinga Kimic Warsaw University of Life Sciences Warsaw Poland

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Paulina Polko WSB University Dabrowa Gornicza Poland

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Reka Solymosi Warsaw University of Life Sciences Warsaw Poland

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Open Access

Abstract

Perceptions of personal security significantly affect human behaviour in geographical environments. The way public places are perceived determines their utilization and their attractiveness among urban residents. Various methods have been applied to study perceptions of security and the environmental factors associated with it. Urban environments comprise a variety of places, including those with urban greenery. The main objective of this chapter is to explore and compare different participatory research methods focused on analysing the factors that influence perceptions of security in urban parks, and to explore their potential for placemaking processes. This overview is illustrated with three examples from the Czech Republic, Poland and the United Kingdom. The first case study explores perceptions of topophobia in places with greenery and parks in the town of Šternberk (Czech Republic). It employs cognitive mapping by a selection of local residents, and results are visualized on (by the help of) semantic maps. The second case study explores the extent to which park infrastructure and maintenance levels affect perceived security in urban parks in Warsaw (Poland). The third case study uses data recorded from the crowdsourcing Place Pulse project to analyse the spatial association between perceived security and the tree canopy (including trees in urban parks but also in the streets) in London (United Kingdom). The relation between greenery and perceived safety may be context-dependent and vary across areas. All three participatory research methods use residents’ knowledge based on primary data gathering and digitization and as such offer practical tools for placemaking.

1 Introduction

Urban parks and urban greenery provide inhabitants of towns and cities with psychological, ecological as well as aesthetic virtues, while they can also affect the perceived security of citizens (Maruthaveeran & Van den Bosch, 2014). Perceived security refers to the degree to which urban residents feel safe from attacks and harm against them. Perceptions of security are known to significantly influence everyday spatial behaviour of urban residents (Golledge & Stimson, 1997). For this reason, it is key to consider how residents perceive places with greenery to advance our understanding about the effect of the environment on urban perceptions. This information can be later used by urban planners to design places with urban greenery that enhance perceptions of security. In other words, gaining a better understanding of how urban greenery affects perceived safety is fundamental for evidence-based efforts aimed at transforming public places to improve urban residents’ experiences in parks. From this point of view, bottom-up knowledge production seems to be a crucial leverage for top-down organized/initiated placemaking practices.

Research in the domain of perceived security has often focused on urban environments (e.g. Maruthaveeran & Van den Bosch, 2014; Pain, 2000; Kimic, & Polko, 2022; Polko & Kimic, 2021; 2022). However, there is a gap in the application of participatory research methods as regards perceptions of security in urban green zones and parks. Previous research has primarily focused on inequalities in the accessibility of urban parks across different social groups (Kabisch & Haase, 2014), the importance of parks in the context of environmental, social, health or topo-ambivalent meanings (Konijnendijk, 2010) and on the perception of fear of crime within urban green spaces (Maruthaveeran & Van den Bosch, 2014). Thus, in this contribution, we explore the relationship between security perceptions, participatory research methods and placemaking processes in places with urban greenery. The main objective of this chapter is to explore and compare different participatory methods focused on analysing the factors that influence how urban residents perceive urban parks in the context of personal security, and to show the potential of participatory research methods for placemaking practices. Thus, this chapter contributes to a better understanding of the relationship between bottom-up knowledge production and top-down placemaking processes to enhance perceived safety in urban areas.

We present three case studies that illustrate how a variety of participatory research methods can contribute to knowledge production about perceptions of security in urban parks and urban greenery, and to the subsequent placemaking processes.

The case studies focus on three European municipalities of varying size, thus presenting studies about the utility of exemplary methods in different urban contexts. The first case study focuses on the town of Šternberk in the Czech Republic, which was selected to address small urban settlements. The other two case studies relate to research carried out in Warsaw and London, respectively, and, as such, address large urban settlements. Besides different geographical scales, the selection of cases was also directed by the assumed variety of roles of urban green zones and parks in people’s lives across cities and towns in different regions and areas. Diverse participatory research methods are used for the collection and analysis of primary data. The three case studies presented here will illustrate how these methods can contribute to placemaking processes within the domain of urban greenery and parks.

In the scope of our research, the applied methodologies are based on the recording and analysing of primary data about perceptions. Golledge and Stimson (1997, p. 190) define spatial perceptions as “the immediate apprehension of information about the environment by one or more of the senses, as well as secondary environmental information culled from the media and through hearsay via communication with fellow human beings”. In order to better understand the role of green environments on perceptions of security, we used three specific techniques. First, we employed cognitive mapping, an approach that refers to “a process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, stores, recalls, and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of the phenomena in his everyday spatial environment” (Downs & Stea, 1973, p. 9). Cognitive mapping is a valuable tool for understanding how humans perceive and reflect their environment and therefore is appropriate to gain data that allow identifying security perceptions related to places with urban greenery.

Second, we used a web-based questionnaire to record data about residents’ experiences and perceptions in urban parks. In doing so, descriptive statistical analysis of data recording is used to study the impact of a variety of features on the perception of security by users of local parks. And third, we analysed data recorded from an online crowdsourcing project called Place Pulse, in which participants were presented with two randomly selected Google Street View (GSV) images of urban areas and requested to choose which one looked safer (Salesses et al., 2013). Based on these data, we applied spatial regression models to analyse the relation between perceived safety and places with urban greenery.

This chapter contributes to theoretical explanations and methodological knowledge, and it also provides practical examples for urban planners dealing with deliberate transformations of public places to strengthen bonds between urban areas and their users.

2 Cases

2.1 Šternberk (Czech Republic): Cognitive Mapping as a Tool for Exploring Topophobia in Urban Greenery

2.1.1 Presentation

Gaining insight into the perception of topophobic places in the town of Šternberk is the objective of this research. Topophobia refers to “the expression of negative meanings of a place” (Šimáček et al., 2020, p. 311). Topophobic places are burdened with negative meanings and often subsequently perceived as dangerous, unpleasant and repulsive, and so are consciously avoided. The authors studied the occurrence and spatial distribution of topophobia in the context of a small town in the eastern part of the Czech Republic. Šternberk has approximately 13,000 inhabitants of which 133 residents aged 15 and over were selected following a quota sampling method and asked to share their own experiences and feelings about the town. The applied χ² test (significance level of α = 0.05) relating to age, education, sex and origin of participants confirmed the consistency of the research sample with the total population of the town. The area under study is comprised of continuous built-up areas, including a compact town centre with residential areas and especially places with urban greenery.

The final product of cognitive mapping, called a cognitive/mental map (Golledge & Stimson, 1997), can be visualized, displayed and usefully analysed using different techniques. To express topophobic perceptions, our participants were given paper maps of the area under study. They were asked to indicate places they considered to be dangerous, neglected/in bad condition or places they avoid when possible. Moreover, participants were asked to provide further details about the concrete reasons for their negative perceptions in each place. All maps were subsequently digitized, processed in GIS and analysed using a hexagonal overlay grid.

2.1.2 Placemaking

The use of cognitive mapping enabled us to identify and visualize topophobic hotspots in the town of Šternberk. This method allows for a better understanding of perceptions of topophobia in places with urban greenery. Acquired knowledge about the places perceived as topophobic enables a new practical approach for placemaking processes. The experiences of local actors who are users of urban spaces should be seriously considered by policymakers who are responsible for the planning of urban spaces. In this case study, for instance, residents’ participation revealed places that they avoid on purpose or perceive as dangerous – key information for positive transformation of particular places with a damaged reputation.

Topophobia may be caused by bad conditions of buildings, poor lighting or the presence of people who evoke fear in others, but it often shows similar consequences – it has a significant effect on inhabitants’ spatial behaviour in places with urban greenery and – more generally – on the use of this type of public space. Engagement of residents in placemaking by using cognitive mapping has a great potential and creates opportunities to transform negatively perceived public parks into topophilic places with an opposite positive meaning.

2.1.3 Results and Added Value

Participants highlighted many different topophobic places within the studied area. The most intensive hotspots were defined by 8.28% to 21.05% of respondents (fig. 15.1). Areas containing parks and urban greenery are identified in green in Figure 1. Regarding the extensive area of the town of Šternberk, the authors decided to analyse only continuously built-up areas containing such parks and urban gardens. Urban forests, which cover a vast part of the municipal area, have not been analysed. As can be seen in Figure 1, many places with urban greenery are overlapped with topophobic hexagons. One of the most highlighted topophobic area covers the biggest park in the town –Tyršovy sady – and other adjacent green zones (fig. 15.1).

Figure 15.1
Figure 15.1
Topophobic places identified (2021)

Based on participants’ answers describing reasons of negative perception of these places, we created a semantic map (fig. 15.2). This map displays the reasons for perceived topophobia in topophobic places identified in Figure 1. Larger letters represent a higher frequency of these expressions by participants. The zoomed map clip at the semantic map visualizes the main problems that are causing a negative reputation of the park and adjacent greenery. First of all, respondents named “Romanies” as the reason for insecurities, followed by “fear at night”, “dangerous after dark”, “problematic citizens”, and “lack of light”. Most mentioned expressions are related to fear of crime after dark or xenophobic perceptions towards certain population groups.

Figure 15.2
Figure 15.2
Semantic map of topophobic places (2021)

2.2 Warsaw (Poland): Web-based Questionnaire to Analyse Security Perceptions in Parks

2.2.1 Presentation

This study aims to investigate how park users evaluate their security in urban parks in Warsaw, Poland. The study analysed the effect of a variety of factors on perceived security, including visibility, technical condition, cleanliness, external protection, presence of other park users and mobility facilities. A web-based questionnaire was designed and administered to a sample of 177 randomly selected park users. Interviews took place between March and August 2020. Respondents were probed about the importance of each factor for their perceived security. The demographic characteristics of the sample are presented in Table 15.1.

Table 15.1
Table 15.1
Socio-demographic profile of the research sample

2.2.2 Placemaking

A web-based questionnaire was used to record information on park users’ perceived security. It allows gaining information about the needs and expectations of various groups of park users. Moreover, the findings can be directly applied in the process of planning and designing places perceived as safer. The participation of respondents to identify factors related to their sense of security in places with urban greenery is key for effective, bottom-up placemaking. Taking into account the needs of users representing different genders, age groups and education levels allows designing more friendly and accessible urban parks. Identifying the factors that shape the sense of security of park users is important for the placemaking process and might be considered as an important tool supporting planning and design.

2.2.3 Results and Added Value

All respondents declared that they had access to at least one urban park and were regular users of urban parks (once a week – 29.94 %; 2–3 times a week – 25.42 %; a few times a year – 18.64%; once a month – 18.08%). On a scale from 1 to 5, the average perceived security in parks was 4.22. Many respondents (84.18%) declared a high and very high security perception in urban parks. In contrast, only 3.39% indicated very low and low perceived security.

Nine security-related factors from 5 (of 6) categories had an average score above 4 and were identified as relevant to enhance security perceptions in urban parks: VISIBILITY (bright day and possibility to be visible and to see others); MAINTENANCE (condition of equipment items and pavement condition); EXTERNAL PROTECTION (police patrol and CCTV surveillance); OTHER PARK USERS (users who drink alcohol and disturb), and MOBILITY FACILITIES (presence of park paths). The results of mean perceived security ratings related to all factors included in the survey are presented in Table 15.2.

Table 15.2
Table 15.2
Mean ratings of particular security-related factors according to the research sample

The results of the study show that a diversity of factors affect urban parks users’ perceived security. Our results illustrate which factors are more important for the perceived security of park users and should be taken into account in the process of shaping urban green places. This knowledge should therefore be used by policymakers and urban planners to design new parks that enhance perceptions of security and refurbish existing parks to improve their perceived security, thus making them more inclusive.

2.3 London (UK): Place Pulse Data to Study Perceived Safety and Greenery

2.3.1 Presentation

Place Pulse was an online crowdsourcing project designed to record perceptions of safety, beauty, wealth, liveability, boredom and depression in public places across areas in 56 cities from 28 countries (Salesses et al., 2013). Participants were presented with two randomly selected Google Street View (GSV) images and asked to answer a question by choosing one of the images. For example, the question “Which place looks safer?” was used to measure perceived safety (see fig. 15.3). Participants did not receive any further information about the city of each picture, and thus could only assess the visual elements of each image before selecting one or the other, or clicking on “equal”. More than 1.5 million votes were collected across nine years. While the Place Pulse platform closed in late 2019, the authors were given access to data recorded and granted permission to make the data open access.1

Figure 15.3

2.3.2 Placemaking

Such community-based participatory research allows researchers and practitioners to gain knowledge about citizens’ perceptions of urban areas. For instance, digitized Place Pulse data may be used to highlight areas in each city where perceived safety is relatively low, and to study which environmental features are associated with lower perceptions of safety, beauty and liveability, thus enabling the transformation of public places to promote greater interaction between residents and to strengthen well-being in local communities. Data recorded in Place Pulse was used to study which features of places may foster perceived safety in New York (Salesses et al., 2013) and other cities (Buil-Gil & Solymosi, 2023). These data were also used to analyse the relationship between greenery and perceived safety (Li et al., 2015).

2.3.3 Results and Added Value

The authors studied the relationship between perceived safety and greenery by calculating the average score of safety votes in pre-defined geographic areas, and analysed whether mean safety scores are associated with vegetation cover scores. First, we selected all votes for images from London (n = 24,616). We then mapped the location of the images, and overlaid a hexagonal grid, dividing London into 15,041 hexagons, each 350 metres across. For each hexagon containing at least one image (n = 1,894), we computed the proportion of votes where the image was rated “safer”. Vegetation cover scores were downloaded from the London Open Data Sharing Portal.2 Analytic codes used are available from GitHub.3 Figure 4 shows our scores of vegetation cover and perceived safety.

Figure 15.4
Figure 15.4
Vegetation cover (left) and perceived safety scores (right)

There is a statistically significant, but weak, correlation between areas with more vegetation and those with higher perceived safety (Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient = 0.13, p-value < 0.001). Figure 5 shows a bivariate choropleth map illustrating how both variables vary across our study space.

A spatial lag model shows similar results (direct effect = 0.028, indirect effect = 0.009, p-value < 0.001). However, the relationship between vegetation cover and perceived safety appears to vary across London areas. A geographically weighted regression illustrates that while the coefficients between vegetation cover and perceived safety are positive in most areas, in the north-east area vegetation cover is actually negatively associated with perceived safety (fig. 15.6, left). While it is important to consider the standard errors (fig. 15.6, right), results indicate that the relation between greenery and perceived safety may be context dependent. In some places more green space may lead to higher perceived safety, but the relationship might be the inverse in other contexts. We have not analysed if this association is driven by other variables (e.g. deprivation, architecture), and including these in future analyses may help uncover factors that mediate the relationship between greenery and perceived safety.

Figure 15.5
Figure 15.5
Bivariate map of perceived safety and vegetation cover
Figure 15.6
Figure 15.6
Geographically weighted regression coefficients for relationship between vegetation cover and perceived safety (left) and standard errors (right)

3 Discussion on Outcomes and Results of the Three Cases

In this section, we discuss the main findings of each case study, focusing especially on the advantages and disadvantages of applied participatory methods and their implications for theory and practice in the context of knowledge production and placemaking of public places.

The first case study, which employed cognitive mapping, revealed a signifi- cant perception of topophobia in some places with urban greenery in the analysed town. This application of cognitive mapping showed the potential of this research method for the placemaking process. Cognitive mapping offers citizens the opportunity to participate and interfere in the creation of urban strategic documents which should lead and organize further steps in urban planning and development processes, including placemaking. This approach should subsequently support residents’ sense of belonging to their neighbourhood or city. The advantages of cognitive mapping for studying urban perceptions were also identified in Šimáček et al. (2020), who applied a method of cognitive mapping in several urban environments, including Šternberk, in the Czech Republic when mapping the fear of crime within an urban environment. The Šternberk-situated research revealed a high level of topophobia in several urban parks and other places with urban greenery, which is in line with the results of our case study. The fact that findings from similar research offer suitable content for strategic documents has also been confirmed by Brisudová et al. (2020) and Pánek (2019), whose results were incorporated in strategic documents that led to the further development of studied urban settlements. However, the research method of cognitive mapping applied in this research does not take into account the temporal dimension of perceptions. When defining topophobia in public places, especially in urban greenery, it is important to differentiate between security perceptions during the day and the night, as these are known to vary not only across public places but also in time (Solymosi et al., 2015). Security perceptions are known to vary across hours but also across months and years, which was also confirmed in the above-mentioned study (Šimáček et al., 2020).

The second case study presents the results of a web-based questionnaire and points to important factors determining security perceptions in urban parks amongst their users. It is a practical tool used to expand the knowledge of security perceptions and their predictors (Maruthaveeran & Van den Bosch, 2014; Mak & Jim, 2021). Important factors include those related to visibility, which varies depending on the time of day or season, the presence of artificial lighting, and other related factors, which is also confirmed by the research of Nasar and Fisher (1993) and Van Rijswijk and Haans (2018). The factors related to maintenance of park facilities as well as cleanliness of urban greenery represent the second group of key aspects for security perception, which is also confirmed by Hilborn (2009) and Robinson et al. (2003). The presence of police patrol and video surveillance were also assessed, finding that they also affect perceived safety (Iqbal & Ceccato, 2016). Finally, security perception is strongly affected by the presence of other park users, especially disruptors, alcohol drinkers, etc. The results of a survey conducted in Warsaw urban parks are consistent with other general research (Jorgensen et al., 2013; Kimic & Polko, 2021; Polko & Kimic, 2021). For specific groups of park users, such as seniors or families with young children, mobility facilities are an important factor that impacts their sense of security in urban parks, which is confirmed by other, though limited, studies (Park, 2017). The research results conducted in Warsaw and presented here are in line with the general sense of security of urban park users. At the same time, our findings provide recommendations for urban greenery planners and designers. Thus, they directly support placemaking in places with urban greenery, making them more inclusive by responding to the expectations of the city residents. This approach has become more popular and valuable in recent years.

In our third case study, we analysed crowdsourced data about perceptions of security in London. We observed a significant, but weak, relationship between greenery and perceived security, but this relationship was in fact inverse in some areas under study. The relationship between greenery and crime is known to be non-linear and to vary depending on the level of disadvantage of the area (Hipp et al., 2022). Similarly, studies on fear of crime show that the relationship between green areas and perceived safety is mediated by a series of individual and structural factors that operate on different levels (Maruthaveeran & Van den Bosch, 2014). The relationship between greenery and security perceptions appears to be non-linear and context dependent. Moreover, not all green areas have the same characteristics, which may explain why their association with perceived security is positive in some areas and negative in others. Li et al. (2015), for example, used Place Pulse data to analyse the visual cues of vegetation in images and participants’ perceived safety. The visibility of vegetation higher than 2.5 metres was significantly associated with perceived safety, while vegetation below 2.5 metres had no statistical association with safety perceptions. It is thus key that future studies, which analyse the relationship between greenery and perceptions of security, account for all possible variables that may mediate the effect of vegetation on perceived security. Similarly, urban planners should consider the characteristics of each place with urban greenery before applying one-size-fits-all measures that may work in some areas but not in others. We have shown how crowdsourced data offer valuable knowledge to study urban perceptions at highly localized geographic scales. Crowdsourcing allows the recording of large samples at a very low cost that can be utilized for a variety of purposes both in research and placemaking practice. It is important to note, however, that unlike most crowdsourcing platforms, the Place Pulse data may be affected by measurement issues. Salesses et al. (2013) noted that the majority of participants were males and young, and Buil-Gil and Solymosi (2023) reported that a small proportion of participants was responsible for very large volumes of votes (i.e. “super contributors”). Moreover, some areas are under-represented, and participation decreases over time.

4 Lessons Learned

Our case studies utilized three different methods, the common denominator of which was a participatory approach to gaining and analysing knowledge concerning residents’ perceptions of security in places with urban greenery. The exploration of these methods brings new insights into the relationship between knowledge production and placemaking processes. We formulated the following lessons learned based on the three case studies:

  • In general, the participatory methods presented and discussed above constitute an appropriate tool to gain knowledge that can form the basis for evidence-oriented and top-down placemaking processes. The main advantage of the applied methods, which are based on bottom-up approaches to gaining knowledge about urban environments, is their ability to take spatial context into account.

  • When such participatory methods are used, the geographical scale must be considered. The method used in the first case study seems appropriate for neighbourhoods and towns. In contrast, the method used in the third case study seems relevant to large cities. In general, different methods are suitable for towns and cities of various sizes. It is, therefore, necessary to assess whether or not the application of a certain method is appropriate for the area under study before using it.

  • Our case studies gathered evidence that the relationship between places with urban greenery and perceived safety is non-linear and context dependent. One-size-fits-all policies, such as increasing the number of green areas without further consideration, may contribute to improving security perceptions in some areas while aiding perceived insecurity in others. Further studies are needed to explore the individual and contextual variables that mediate between greenery and security perceptions in each place.

  • A diversity of factors affects personal security. The knowledge of these factors is crucial for different phases of decision-making on places with urban greenery and as such should guide officials who are responsible for managing public places. In general, this knowledge is useful for all top-down activities that are aimed at planning, designing, modernizing and adapting places with urban greenery. Only when this knowledge is taken into account can these activities result in safer and more community-inclusive places with urban greenery.

  • The knowledge gained from methods applied in our case studies can represent a starting point for preparing cities’ strategic documents. The main results and placemaking recommendations emphasized by citizens who took part in the research can be incorporated into municipal developmental strategies. The inclusion of these results in strategic planning documents symbolizes an imaginary bridge that links the theory and practical implementation and may lead to real placemaking processes.

  • On the other hand, it must be stressed that the implementation of this knowledge in planning documents does not necessarily make real changes in the physical settings of places with urban greenery. Although planning documents should guide further urban development, the reality may be different. Any changes proposed in planning documents may not occur in reality.

5 Conclusion

In this chapter, using the examples presented in our case studies, we examined three different methods aimed at collecting urban residents’ knowledge of their living environment. This was motivated by an effort to understand how this knowledge can be used in placemaking processes. Even though the applied methods differ in various aspects, their common feature is their accentuation of the direct participation of city residents. This bottom-up approach, despite some methodological limitations of the individual methods (see discussion), makes these methods seem appropriate for acquiring knowledge about citizens’ perceptions of places with urban greenery. More specifically, these methods have allowed us to highlight the knowledge that city dwellers possess about the security within places that offer urban greenery. This particular knowledge is a necessary condition for placemaking processes, which are essentially aimed at promoting changes in the physical structure of places with urban greenery to increase perceived security in those places. However, it is evident that these placemaking processes must be carried out with a top-down approach. Here we refer to the active involvement of municipal councils. Evidence-oriented placemaking processes are only feasible when the political representation of individual councils is interested in working with the knowledge gained from the methods used. Otherwise, these methods will generate data that will not find application in the planning practice. It is thus important to transfer the evidence obtained from empirical research to policymakers and other stakeholders, especially since the main virtue of the methods described here is their ability to take spatial context into account. Applying these methods does not bring knowledge about urban greenery as a homogeneous set, but about specific places with urban greenery. This enables urban planners and designers to take an individual approach to places with urban greenery, allowing the local specificities of each place with urban greenery to be taken into account.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank César A. Hidalgo for providing access to the data used in the case study of London (UK): Place Pulse data to study perceived safety and greenery.

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Placemaking in Practice Volume 1

Experiences and Approaches from a Pan-European Perspective

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