How data can make parks safer

Mechelen (BE)

Fabian Massart, Belgium National URBACT Point, shares with us how data can make cities more secure using the example of Mechelen (BE).

Every evening city wardens pass along the 18 public parks of Mechelen (BE) to close their gates. No entry is allowed until the next morning. This ritual is an attempt to prevent the well-known nuisance, vandalism and even litter, which so often affect parks. Even if annoying, unpleasant or obnoxious behaviour can persist throughout the day, the municipality has decided to tackle the roots of the problem.

 

City practitioners soon realised they needed to take a closer look at the issue by improving knowledge on why, what, where and how does the nuisance occur. Only then, they could reflect on how to transform such information into actions. During this process they have explored a wide range of possible angles – the design of the park, the type and location of its furniture, the means to influence behaviour, among other aspects.

 

Luckily, back in 2019, the city of Mechelen has found the perfect opportunity to further work on this matter by joining the URBACT UrbSecurity Network. This Action Planning Network aimed at designing solutions and measures to prevent segregation and anti-social behaviour, and, consequently, to improve citizens’ quality of life. The overall goal was to increase the inhabitant’s perception of urban security and safety.

 

Through this adventure, Mechelen was accompanied by eight cities: the city of Pella (EL), the municipality of Madrid (ES), the Szabolcs 05 (HU), the city of Lonford (IE), the municipality of Parma (IT), the Union of Romagna Faentina (IT) and the city of Michalovce (SK). The municipality of Leiria (PT) led all these partners through this journey.

 

For the medium-sized city of Mechelen, URBACT was a unique occasion to be inspired by good practices and strengthen local and international partnerships, while tackling existing urban challenges. The public and political will to enhance the municipal parks was already there, UrbSecurity merely allowed the necessary enabling environment for change.

This journey required data collection and, then, adding some “science” to the project. Since 2018, the city had already been gathering consistent data about frequentation, complaints and cleanliness in public parks. This has been done to better direct efforts and to assess the effects of existing policies. Furthermore, studies were carried out to check feasibility tests to reduce nuisance, in addition to attempts to influence decision-making based on behavioural science experiments by nudging.

 

These methods have proven to useful in several contexts and have been well documented. Particularly for nudging locals, the municipality created different signs and banners in collaboration with neighbouring pubs. The idea was to guide people to public toilets, public ashtrays and to avoid littering. Satisfied with these experiences, the city of Mechelen took advantage of the UrbSecurity partners meeting that took place in-site to share these ideas with the other cities.

 

 

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During this meeting, local stakeholders from Mechelen – who were also member of the URBACT Local Group – were also invited to a “nudging for dummies” session. Pieter Raymaekers, from the University of Leuven, who is considered a national authority in this field, delivered this training. The idea was to put into test these methods in a park where data, information and ongoing projects would help to assess the produced effects. This was one of the first local achievements from UrbSecurity.

 

“The first pilot we ran under the Action Planning Network, as a small-scale action, was the installation of hard-& software allowing us to have a clear view and useable data on when and how many people visited the park. The counting system was setup in January 2021” says Coeman Erwin, Communication Officer for the municipality of Mechelen. Once this device was installed, the Hofke Park became the perfect place to run experiments.

UrbSecurity solar-powered smart benches in Mechelen

Furthermore, another city department already picked up a redevelopment for the revitalisation of this park, a timely intervention for the UrbSecutiy partners to create a safer environment. Informed decisions were taken to replace the former football field by a smaller better equipped one with a softer surface, thus, creating more space for a new adventurous playing area – including a climbing wall, a trail to follow and natural game elements for kids of different ages. Shaded and hollow benches have also been installed near the playground, the tree hut and a fantasy corner with an outdoor kitchen.

 

With inputs from experts and the findings from the action-planning journey, nudging elements will be gradually incorporated to the park. Likewise, maintenance and management will be organised in participation with youth organisations and prevention workers to stimulate the co-ownership feeling of this park. Creating a sense of commons is the most effective way to reduce vandalism. As a matter of fact, the UrbSecurity Network has also installed sustainable solar-powered smart benches, with wi-fi connection and the possibility to charge phones and tablets, which gives more reasons for locals to care for this place.

 

Through the work done upstream and the actions taken during the process, the Mechelen UrbSecurity’s staff embraced a great learning curve. As newcomers to URBACT, they had to catch up with other participants who were already familiar to the programme and the URBACT Method. Nevertheless, with the support from the city of Leiria, the experimenting period that followed brought significant results.

 

While urban safety and security in public parks was already in the political agenda of the municipality of Mechelen before the last URBACT call for Action Planning Networks in 2019, UrbSecurity offered a coherent framework to gather knowledge, people, and test new solutions. It gave a real boost to the local initiative and enabled the municipality to move forward with new projects, while trying out pilot actions.

 

Indeed, the small scale actions turned out to be a real success, strengthening the bonds between all involved organisations and engaging people to follow the entire process. It also helped to draw local politicians' attention on the challenges the city face and the importance of vertical and horizontal collaboration. Nudging gave cheap, quick and playful tools to the city practitioners, which confirms the importance of liaising with experts and academia who are knowledgeable on this technique.

 

Data has clearly played a role in this whole story and it remains a must for Mechelen. As one participant from the project said, “we can assume a lot but the only way to make sure of a conclusion with arguments is to have data”.

 

During this meeting, local stakeholders from Mechelen – who were also member of the URBACT Local Group – were also invited to a “nudging for dummies” session. Pieter Raymaekers, from the University of Leuven, who is considered a national authority in this field, delivered this training. The idea was to put into test these methods in a park where data, information and ongoing projects would help to assess the produced effects. This was one of the first local achievements from UrbSecurity.

 

“The first pilot we ran under the Action Planning Network, as a small-scale action, was the installation of hard-& software allowing us to have a clear view and useable data on when and how many people visited the park. The counting system was setup in January 2021” says Coeman Erwin, Communication Officer for the municipality of Mechelen. Once this device was installed, the Hofke Park became the perfect place to run experiments.

 

Furthermore, another city department already picked up a redevelopment for the revitalisation of this park, a timely intervention for the UrbSecutiy partners to create a safer environment. Informed decisions were taken to replace the former football field by a smaller better equipped one with a softer surface, thus, creating more space for a new adventurous playing area – including a climbing wall, a trail to follow and natural game elements for kids of different ages. Shaded and hollow benches have also been installed near the playground, the tree hut and a fantasy corner with an outdoor kitchen.

 

With inputs from experts and the findings from the action-planning journey, nudging elements will be gradually incorporated to the park. Likewise, maintenance and management will be organised in participation with youth organisations and prevention workers to stimulate the co-ownership feeling of this park. Creating a sense of commons is the most effective way to reduce vandalism. As a matter of fact, the UrbSecurity Network has also installed sustainable solar-powered smart benches, with wi-fi connection and the possibility to charge phones and tablets, which gives more reasons for locals to care for this place.

 

Through the work done upstream and the actions taken during the process, the Mechelen UrbSecurity’s staff embraced a great learning curve. As newcomers to URBACT, they had to catch up with other participants who were already familiar to the programme and the URBACT Method. Nevertheless, with the support from the city of Leiria, the experimenting period that followed brought significant results.

 

While urban safety and security in public parks was already in the political agenda of the municipality of Mechelen before the last URBACT call for Action Planning Networks in 2019, UrbSecurity offered a coherent framework to gather knowledge, people, and test new solutions. It gave a real boost to the local initiative and enabled the municipality to move forward with new projects, while trying out pilot actions.

 

Indeed, the small scale actions turned out to be a real success, strengthening the bonds between all involved organisations and engaging people to follow the entire process. It also helped to draw local politicians' attention on the challenges the city face and the importance of vertical and horizontal collaboration. Nudging gave cheap, quick and playful tools to the city practitioners, which confirms the importance of liaising with experts and academia who are knowledgeable on this technique. Data has clearly played a role in this whole story and it remains a must for Mechelen. As one participant from the project said, “we can assume a lot but the only way to make sure of a conclusion with arguments is to have data”.

 

 


 

 
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