Safe Space

Joe Holyoak

I was recently on a panel which reviewed a development proposal by University College Birmingham. As well as substantial demolition of old buildings in a conservation area, and their replacement by new buildings, it proposed to take over ownership of a street running between the buildings. The street would be gated, and open only for university access during academic hours.

The privatisation of public space is a modern phenomenon which is now very familiar, although more usually in retail and office developments than in universities. My attitude towards it is that it is almost always to be deplored. The public realm is an invaluable resource which we should protect and not allow to be diminished. Where it is part of an historic district, in which the grain of streets is part of its character, there is in addition to the argument about public utility also an argument about environmental quality.

What was unusual about this instance was that the university justified its proposal by reference to the principle of safeguarding. Safeguarding is a topic of which I have become vaguely aware only in the past few years. But while I have not been paying attention, it has grown into an extensive discipline and generated at least two Acts of Parliament. The principle of developing a methodology by which vulnerable members of society (predominantly but not exclusively children) can be protected from danger is obviously good. But in the case of this university development it appeared to be taken to a degree of absurdity.

The rationale seemed to be that the university had a duty of care towards its students, to keep them safe as they approached or left the university’s buildings. The public street was seen as inherently a place of insecurity, therefore it had to be brought within a secure compound over which the university had control.

In the meeting I described this attitude as sinister, which upset the vice-chancellor on the other side of the table. Like many urban designers, I have spent a lot of time, in different fora, both defending the untidy democracy of the urban street and also considering how it can be made safer. I have come to the conclusion that through good design and management we can reduce risk, but that there is no such thing as a safe street. This degree of safeguarding could only be achieved by eliminating people. That seemed to be the objective of the university in this case.

It was clearly absurd as well as sinister, because the university’s control could only extend to the one street immediately outside its front door. Before reaching that street, the students have to walk through other unsafeguarded streets, and travel on unsafeguarded trains and buses. The city is by definition unsafe.

When the fear of what other people may do results in a reduction or devaluation of public space, then we all lose. Another example: students at South and City College in Digbeth regularly hang about in small groups on the wide pavement outside the front door of their college. This seems to me normal and acceptable behaviour, and a positive social use of public space.

I suggested to the college principal that we might organise a design project among his students, to design a shelter over part of the pavement which could enrich the public-private threshold, and accommodate the students’ social interaction more comfortably. He was very opposed to the idea, and said that in fact he was considering closing this door on the main street and making students use a more restricted entrance on a side street. He did not want to encourage hanging about, as he had had complaints from female students of sexual harassment there by male students.

A real and serious issue, of the kind that a safeguarding policy is there to deal with. But surely the solution is to tackle the problem at its source, which is the social and gender attitudes of some male students, not to blame the innocent physical space of the street. There are badly-designed streets which, if they don’t actually encourage anti-social behaviour, at least put few deterrents in its way. Neither of the streets I have mentioned is in this category. They are straightforward places with a clear distinction between public space (outdoors) and private space (indoors). But they have been found guilty by the educational institutions whose buildings adjoin them, who instead ought to recognise and value the urban settings of their institutions.

Stop press: the UCB planning application has been withdrawn.

URBAN DESIGN 141 Winter 2017 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 141 Winter 2017

Want to read more like this? If you're not already an Urban Design Group member, why don't you consider joining?

Students congregating on the pavement outside the South and City College front door


Holland Street, proposed for privatisation by University College Birmingham


Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation .

He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.