Unlocking culture: Could design prevent street violence?

By Kelly Jirsa

Kings Cross at night. Image by Luke Reynolds, CC BY-SA 2.0, www.flickr.com/photos/luke_reynolds
Kings Cross at night. Image by Luke Reynolds, CC BY-SA 2.0, www.flickr.com/photos/luke_reynolds

Alcohol related violence is a pervasive issue for many cities. In Australia there is an ongoing battle between those who would like late night venues shut down and those who believe late night culture is not the cause.

Kees Dorst, Director of the Designing Out Crime Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney suggests that the sometimes deadly alcohol-fuelled assaults “pose much deeper questions regarding our approach to some very complex societal problems.”

Dorst suggests that the focus on law reform, especially in the case of the NSW Australian government’s approach, overlooks the broader causes and limits the effectiveness of tightening regulations. He says, “NSW’s 2014 lockout laws were successful in reducing inner city violence but have led to the closure of many of Sydney’s treasured venues.” As a consequence of the lockout laws, people in the suburbs are reporting an increase in alcohol-related violence and fear for their communities.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the violence that was seen in the city is simply being displaced to suburban areas: “In the 10 months following lockout laws, neighbouring suburb Petersham had a 375 per cent increase in alcohol-related violence (from 4 to 19 attacks), and Glebe had an increase of 31 per cent (from 22 to 29 incidents).”

A new approach through design

Following one of many fatal incidents of alcohol-fuelled violence in Australia, the NSW Attorney General and Police called for the establishment of the Designing Out Crime research centre (DOC) at the University of Technology Sydney.

They aim to use deign innovation to help address “complex crime and social problems.” Their team includes researchers in the fields of design, architecture, criminology, psychology, philosophy, urban planning and sociology.

The centre looks at city infrastructure with a fresh multidisciplinary approach that involves promoting positive use of space, rather than attempting to solve the problem by treating partygoers as would be criminals. Their work on Sydney’s Kings Cross area saw them looking at the issue as they would if they were a music festival event organiser.

The amount of people pouring into the once vibrant area of Kings Cross is equivalent to the numbers at a large-scale live music festival. When you look at the numbers from this perspective you begin to see how the infrastructure of a small city area could be inadequate for the purpose of enjoyment. The DOC believes that it is a focus on safety and enjoyment that will ultimately deter crime and violence. They focused their attention on two design themes: “distraction and extraction.”

Distraction addresses the issue of there being no public spaces for people to take time out. “Patrons were forced to transition quickly from a fun indoor environment to an outdoor ‘void’ atmosphere where there was nothing to do, and nowhere to sit down and sober up. It was a recipe for tension.” They saw that there was a need for a safe distraction, the researchers suggested softer outdoor lighting, and food stalls, seating areas and street entertainment to “promote a process of ‘unconscious sobering’.

The researchers observed that a great deal of tension and violent behavioural issues arises where there is difficulty for people to get home. Extraction addresses the need for more public transport options, access to amenities and guides at peak times “to ensure partygoers were well informed and feeling safe”. These measures are still in place as a part of the Safe Space initiative although as Dorst states “the legislative measures imposed since have transformed Kings Cross into a less active area.”

What the DOC and other research is highlighting, is that the issue of keeping people safe and happy whilst out at night is not an easy nor simple one.



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