Encountering the unfamiliar: intimidating spaces in Wuppertal

Dr. Tim Lukas, Head of the Object Security Department at the Chair of Civil Protection and Disaster Relief researches solutions to intimidating urban spaces

Dark subways, unclear multi-storey car parks, overgrown parks or dodgy areas. All of these are described by experts as intimidating spaces by experts. And these problem areas also exist in Wuppertal. Sociologist Dr. Tim Lukas investigates these spaces in numerous projects and suggests concrete solutions through recommendations. In the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Safety Engineering, Lukas heads the Object Security Department at the Chair of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BUK). His main topics are security and security perception in public spaces. These complement the projects of his colleagues, who mainly deal with large-scale emergencies such as the recent flood disaster. As a result, the chair works very interdisciplinary and allows a broad view of security and insecurity from very different perspectives.
"In general, intimidating spaces are places," Lukas explains, "that are avoided by certain people because of their location, building structure and usage, as they feel a heightened sense of insecurity there." The 45-year-old uses findings from criminal geography to evaluate these spaces. He explains that these experienced a heyday in the 1970s, when so-called dragnet searches were introduced in the wake of RAF terrorism to identify places where terror suspects might be staying. "In a scientific sense, so less in police terms, criminal geography is the science of the distribution of crime in space. That is what I am interested in." He is always occupied with the following question: what conditions lead to crime being concentrated in some places or insecurity being particularly perceived in some places? And in practical terms: What can be done to increase security and the perception of security in public spaces?

The transformation of public space

"Urban crime prevention originally comes from the emancipation movement and is something that has been implemented increasingly since the 90s. At that time, it was mainly about intimidating spaces for women," the scientist reports. These were, for example, dark parking garages or unclear parks. Their urban planning analysis led to recommendations that have meanwhile been established. More lighting and transparent greenery have been provided in many places.
Feelings of insecurity also arise in neglected or littered places, since they give the impression that no one takes care of them. We have to prevent such places from arising in the first place, Lukas explains. This can be achieved through skilful architecture, the maintenance and redesign of public space and the associated revitalisation and social mixing of places.

Uncertainty through securitisation

The security society perceives more and more risks in everyday life and, as a result, becomes even more insecure. This is a social ambivalence, Lukas emphasises. "But at the same time it is also the uncertainty that leads to the discovery of more and more new risks. In this context, we also speak of securitisation, since more and more social problems are perceived as security problems or security risks. Of course, it is always a question of not creating new insecurities through the implementation of these measures, when we think about security measures or preventive measures. And that also applies to the feeling of insecurity. Lukas explains it with a current example from Düsseldorf's city centre. "There, as in Wuppertal, is a situation that is experienced as unsafe around the main station. There are a number of public spaces and the drinking scene had established itself in one of these spaces. Due to residents' complaints, this space was redesigned. It has now become a very open space, but it no longer offers any quality of stay. It is a place without benches, with thin little trees that do not provide any shade, and the area is covered with paving stones that get insanely hot in the summer. Nobody stays there any more. The scene that stayed there before is now in another place, where the drug scene was before. And now the drinking scene and the drug scene meet. This creates new insecurities, because both scenes have different ideas about how to behave in public space." Conflicts are unavoidable, and the security of the complaint group has lasting consequences for those affected by it. Therefore, the possible consequences of a measure must always be considered in advance.

The slab at the Köbo house

Lukas heads the Wuppertal project Kooperation Sicherheit Innenstadt/Döppersberg, or KoSID for short. This projects showas that marginalised groups can also be integrated in a different way into the cityscape. "The issues are not always about fear and insecurity, but also about the fact that these places are also qualitative," he firmly says. "Last semester, we sent our students to the Döppersberg and the Berliner Platz. We had them map out what they noticed by creating sketches and photos. And we then summarised everything in two subjective atlases. It became very clear that the students did not only focus on the insecurity, but also on the qualities of these spaces. It is also necessary to constructively emphasise the positive in order to counteract the often-diagnosed fear society. "Many users found the passageway far too dark at the Köbo House. As part of KoSID an inspection was helt. And afterwards, the WSW improved the lighting situation. And the problem of wild peeing was also solved by a portable toilette." This has calmed down the situation. A lot can also be achieved by small measures. It does not necessarily always have to be expensive. "That is what I like about Wuppertal," Lukas sums up appreciatively. "It may not always look nice, for example the scene in front of the Köbo house on the so-called Platte (slab). But the fact that the city is now going to reopen Café Cosa (the day centre for addicts on the Döppersberg) is saying: 'These are people who also have a right to the city. They belong to our city and society, and we do not want to hide them in the back corner', I think that is a good decision." Wuppertal is taking a path that has something to do with justice in the city as well. This is a guiding principle of urban development that can be followed in urban competition. In surveys, the majority society often expresses fear of homeless people and addicts, but naturally, they, too, have fears. "For this group, the place means security, because they meet their friends there. For them it is a communication space. They have a supply infrastructure there. It is also a space of retreat, a shelter, and this perspective must be kept in mind.

Every person perceives a space differently

People's fears are often different. And a city has to also take this into account. For Lukas, who comes from Oelde, a small town in Münsterland, the move to the big city has had a liberating effect. "I really appreciated this anonymity, the diversity and also the encounter with the unfamiliar, with deviant behaviour, because that is also what characterises a city. To want to eliminate all deviance is also to eliminate the city as such." For example, the scene that stays in certain places may frighten some people, Lukas explains. But it is confirmed again and again that the violence, if it takes place, is usually internal to the scene. The possibility of being attacked as a passer-by is extremely unlikely. "Intimidating spaces are basically not crime-ridden, they just convey a feeling of insecurity," a feeling that usually does not arise in other places, such as the pedestrian zones of city centres. "That is where we usually go to with a good feeling. We go shopping there, and we like to spend time there. But the probability of having our handbag or wallet stolen is much higher in these spaces.

Security needs many players

Security needs many players. Therefore, Lukas has many institutions on board for his projects. In the case of the KoSID project, he lists: "We have the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the Savings Bank, the Elberfeld Retailers' Interest Group, we have social work, the Diakonie, addiction support, the police as well as the Social Welfare Office, the Public Order Office, the Wuppertal Transport Authority and Deutsche Bahn! And that is important. We believe that only through cooperation between different partners, which involve different perspectives, measures can be coordinated that, in the end, can be successfully implemented."
A German proverb says: Doing right by all people is an art that no one can do. Luke puts it more authoritatively: "One tries to do justice to all users in some way. Everyone should find his or her place. It is not about creating togetherness for everyone, you will not be able to achieve that, but a coexistence of different social groups is possible." Less conflict means more protection for the entire population. And that is what it is all about.

Uwe Blass (Interview on July 22, 2021)

Dr. Tim Lukas is Head of the Object Security Department at the Chair of Civil Protection and Disaster Relief in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Safety Engineering at the University of Wuppertal.

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