How “eyes on the street” contribute to public safety
Pedestrians walk along Rua XV in Curitaba, Brazil. Photo by Dylan Passmore/Flickr.

Pedestrians walk along Rua XV in Curitaba, Brazil. Even among strangers, eyes on the street provide safety in public spaces. Photo by Dylan Passmore/Flickr.

Nossa Cidade (“Our City”), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Every month features a new theme. Leaning on the expertise of researchers and specialists in WRI’s sustainable urban mobility team in Brazil, the series will feature in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, gender, resilience, and other key themes for sparking more sustainable development in our cities.

Cities are not only sets of statistics. They are homes to people, who develop relationships and communities in which their everyday experiences unfold. Public spaces are central to the dynamics of city life: they are meeting spaces, and the perceptions that people have of these areas are directly related to how they use them.

Both the quality of public spaces as well as the surrounding environment determine how people use them. If they are accessible, attractive, and safe, they can inspire a range of uses and activities. In contrast, when public spaces are abandoned or neglected, they can cease to be places where people feel safe.

Over fifty years ago, writer and journalist Jane Jacobs famously studied and wrote about this relationship and developed the concept of “eyes on the street”. For Jacobs, one of the main characteristics of a thriving urban center is that people feel safe and secure in public spaces, despite being among complete strangers.

The logic is simple: the more people in the streets, the safer they become. Their “eyes on the street” provide informal surveillance of the urban environment. For residents to move safely through the streets, other people need to be present, contributing to an atmosphere of safety. Here are some of the key elements at play in this relationship:

Ample room for walking

street safety public space 1

Wide sidewalks allow for more pedestrians. Photo by Mariana Gil/WRI Brasil | EMBARQ Brasil.

street safety public space 2

Streets with a steady flow of pedestrians tend to be safer. Photo by Robin Jaffray/Flickr.

Contact between buildings and the street

street safety public space 3

High walls obstruct views of the street, contributing to a lack of security. Photo by Daniel Lobo/Flickr.

street safety public space 4

When people inside buildings can easily observe street life, streets are safer. Photo by Max Bashirov/Flickr.

Attractive Spaces

Quality public spaces

Quality public spaces are attractive to people. Photo by Alejandro Castro/Flickr.

street safety public space 6

And the more people in these spaces, the safer they become. Photo by Bee Collins/Flickr.


Road Safety Public Space 7

Efficient lighting throughout the day and night ensures that public spaces are consistently safe. Photo by Pete/Flickr.

All these elements help open our eyes to the street.

Urban security is not simply a matter of policing: it is directly related to the quality of public spaces and their ability to attract people onto the streets.

Public spaces, like people, are not islands, isolated from the surrounding environment. Public spaces are connected to collective identity, everyday life, and the ways that we interact and meet one another. Cities gain their vitality from their residents—beyond the walls of buildings and in public spaces at the essence of urban life.

This article was originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil.

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