When Public Space Becomes Unsafe

With a spate of recent daylight murders garnering national attention–a female jogger and golfer in Iowa and another jogger in New York City–one wonders whether the concept of “Take Back the Night,” an effort to to end violence, especially against women, should be revised to “Take Back the Day.”

A recent Gallup poll shows close to 40 percent of adults–45 percent women, 27 percent men–believe the immediate area around their home may be unsafe to walk alone at night.

Daylight violence is disturbing because of its brazen disregard for witnesses. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “the number of violent crimes committed by adults increases hourly from 6 a.m. through the afternoon and evening hours, peaks at 10 p.m., and then drops to a low point at 6 a.m.”

Violent crimes by juveniles hit a high point between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., the hour immediately following the end of the school day.

Many variables affect our perception of safety. As the website “Safe Communities” posits, factors include life experiences, beliefs, type of community, age, socioeconomic status, type of job and employment status, to name a few.

For insight, we might look to the philosophy of social activist Parker J. Palmer who wrote that the most public place is the street where people send a message through the channel of their bodies in real place, acknowledging that “we occupy the same territory, belong to the same human community.”[1]

Cited in Interpersonal Divide, Parker discusses how suburban sprawl changed our notion of community. For instance, in the 1980s, mega malls replaced Main Street, which later was deemed unsafe. Then malls were deemed unsafe.

In his 1981 book, The Company of Strangers, Parker made this prophetic statement:

When people perceive real habitat to be unsafe, they withdraw from it, and it becomes unsafe. “Space is kept secure not primarily by good lighting or police power but by the presence of a healthy public life.”[2]

Perhaps it is time for society to assess whether increasing use of technology has played a role in the withdrawal from community as Parker had envisioned it, a communal and, in many ways, vibrant space. If we opt to spend more time in virtual rather than real habitat, even as we walk the digital streets, we may lose sight of what it means to occupy the same territory with neighbors and our moral obligation to nurture and monitor our collective interactions there.

It is also important to note that use of technology may mitigate risk. New digital products–wearables like Athena and Safer Pro–have been developed to send emergency alerts with GPS tracking to friends and loved ones.

[1] Parker J. Palmer, The Company of Strangers (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 39.

[2] Palmer, p. 48.

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