Effective design of urban social space helps to reduce antisocial behaviour and criminal activity in the area while promoting a sense of community and safety.

Walking alone in a vacant city space commonly provokes feelings of fear. In general, people tend to flock to where there are more people in order to feel safe.

William Whyte, urbanist and author famously once said that “(w)hat attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

This concept has become especially important in the urban design of public spaces to ensure that cities are making the most of available public space, not leaving dark, abandoned and uninviting areas which can foster criminal activity.

Unfortunately, many communities have largely evolved into areas that promote a sense of isolation. Gated private properties coupled with little public space for community engagement results in many urban Australians not knowing their neighbours.

North Wharf Aerial View

Aerial perspective with Yarra’s Edge precinct rear left

While poorly-designed neighbourhoods and public spaces promote isolation and criminal activity, well-designed areas encourage community involvement and promote a sense of self-worth.

Michael Barnett, associate landscape architect at Arcadia Landscape Architecture says this can be termed ‘placemaking’, a bottom-up approach based on creating comfortable, inviting spaces.

“These public spaces should endeavour to facilitate civic engagement and community interaction,” he sais.

Barnett says the way the built environment is integrated into the surrounding landscape is an important component of successful urban spaces as well as its ability to be usable and adaptable.

North Wharf Profile

As envisaged from South Wharf

“The fear of crime is more significant than its incidence in most cases, but the quality and structure of the local environment is a major contributory factor in the level of fear,” said Leon Yates, an urban designer with City of Melbourne.

Yates said there are several factors that contribute to poor design of the public spaces within our neighbourhoods.

“Planting is often overgrown, pedestrian routes through the neighbourhood are often dark and unwelcoming,” he said. “Local facilities, shops and community centres are provided in small arcades that are themselves visually unattractive.”

As possible solutions, Yates suggests that the creation of distinct neighbourhoods with individual character will allow people to associate with neighbours. He also suggests the promotion of mixed-use development, part of towns remaining open after dusk, and defensible space.

North Wharf With Trees

Trees feature prominently in the landscape design

Key arguments for delivering safer neighbourhoods and considerately designed urban space:

  • Strategies for the public realm should incorporate all players involved in designing the urban environment
  • Safety and crime prevention should be paramount for authorities during planning process
  • People derive a sense of self-worth from the condition of the physical environment around them
  • Design that effectively reduces fear and incidences of crime is a necessity
  • Local authorities must ensure good urban design principles are embedded in plans put together by external partnerships including proper housing layouts, master plans and regeneration schemes
North Wharf Eastern Area

Close-up of the eastern area

Many elements of the recent Docklands development in Melbourne have been criticised for lacking any sort of community feeling and failing to bring life into the quiet precinct.

Developer Asset1 recently began a wave of revitalization and refurbishment projects for the North Bank and Docklands precincts to offer safe public spaces with increased connectivity with surrounding areas.

The aim to create a new connection between Docklands and South Wharf will potentially activate a largely inactive area of the city sitting on prime real estate.

Oculus Landscape Architecture has introduced vast amounts of greenery into the park and promenade linking the Yarra River to several pedestrian links in the area. The landscaping creates a relaxing green space which is rare in many other parts of Docklands.

North Wharf Shed Internal Foyer

North Wharf – Shed Internal & Foyer

As part of the Victorian government’s attempt to assist in the urban renewal of Docklands, several new municipal open spaces are planned for the precinct within the Docklands Public Space Strategy.

Proposed Docklands Implementations:

Water promenades

  • Additional protection for waterfront routes and/or alternative routes
  • Additional greening of waterfront

Civic Parks, squares and waterfront

  • Integrate NewQuay Central (Waterfront Piazza) into a new civic park
  • Introduce a civic square to Victoria Harbour
  • Strengthen interfaces and edges to public spaces with complementary activities, buildings and elements (trees/water)
  • Rejuvenate Harbour Esplanade as civic waterfront hub
Busy and safe urban public space

Busy and safe urban public space

Local parks and squares

  • Introduce recreation and sporting activities to public spaces
  • Improve comfort and convenience
  • Introduce pocket parks and local squares to the public realm network

Municipal open space

  • Integrate a new municipal open space with structured sporting facilities to foster a sense of community

Hopefully the amount of effort being put into the rejuvenation of the Docklands precinct will result in a safe, well-designed community with plenty of inviting public spaces that promote a feeling of belonging and self-worth for those that frequent it.