Finding Comfort In the Urban Condition


Urban design has the responsibility to make residents feel secure in their community. This has been evident throughout time. In medieval times, such security could be felt simply by putting a wall around the city, thus creating a relatively private and manageable environment. As time progressed and cities expanded, however, walls had to come down, yet the density of the cities was not changed. In response, architects opened to space, such as Haussmann did to Paris, to provide more light and more visibly public areas, creating a relatively heightened sense of security. In present day, with the urban fabric of large cities becoming more and more difficult to modify, planners must use strategic placement of security devices, such as cameras and officers, to create a sense of security amongst cities with millions of residents. Thus urban design has the responsibility to engender a sense of security by defining public and private space and utilizing the panoptic principle to discourage criminal activity

Fortified Cities of Medieval France: Mont Saint Michel and Paris, 1500-1700

Fortified walls were used in the small cities of Europe from the 16th through 18th century and were the easiest way to create safety form barbaric outsiders. After the fall of the Roman Empire it was a free for all, where anyone attacked everyone to get what they wanted. Cities needed to reorganize themselves to ensure the safety of their people. Walls where erected around every city keeping invaders from entering and endangering its citizens. Isolation was the theme for the medieval city. For example, Mont Saint Michel was built on an island that can only be accessed at low tide. The solitude provided peace of mind to the ones who occupied the walls. When the British invaded the country, Mont Saint Michel was the only place that they could not capture. People found comfort in the division of the city and country because the major threats were outside the walls. Although external threats were not a problem, crime on the interior of the walls was self governed. Police were not prevalent in these cities, only a small group under the king enforced the law, but they could not catch much (Ross). People were supposed to govern themselves in order to keep the city safe. As the cities expanded, the streets narrowed and impeded on the public space. Looking at the development of Paris you can see how, as the population grew, the public spaces got tighter and lost there openness.  This created roads where not much could be seen and crime could easily occur without anyone knowing. The streets of Paris became a perfect place for crime because when someone committed a petty crime it went unnoticed.  Once the medieval feuds died down, populations expanded, the threat is no longer what was outside the walls but instead the dangers inside the walls must be better addressed.

PARIS 1500

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PARIS 1600

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Reconstruction of Paris: Paris, 1853-1870 Haussmann

Paris during the early seventeenth century has often been compared to a medieval city. When observed, the reasoning for such comparisons is obvious: the streets were cramped and terribly lit, buildings were not well kept, and a sewer system was nonexistent. Subsequently, conditions in Paris were poor, in regards to both hygiene and crime. Even security forces would sometimes feel too threatened to be in one of the many poorly lit alleys after dark (City Planning).

After becoming emperor, Napoleon III realized these conditions, and decided something needed to be done to improve the city, especially to reduce crime. The main strategy for doing so was to construct wide boulevards to ease congestion and destroy many of the crime-ridden alleys. Many social issues, such as the large percentage of poor citizens in Paris, were also considered, as Paris was known for being a detrimental city to political regimes due to the thin and well shaded streets, which could easily be barricaded to prevent military movement. The rebels successfully used this technique during the revolution (Kirkman). Thus wider streets and less compact living conditions would improve the lives of both Napoleon III and the people of Paris.

To handle the job of remodeling Paris as he envisioned, Napoleon III promoted Georges Eugene Haussmann to be Prefect of the Seine in 1853. Haussmann had previously proven his loyalty to Napoleon III, and was very good at getting objectives done. So with his new title, Haussmann made a plan that took into account everything Napoleon III wanted, and thus got full backing by the Emperor. Haussmann began by making the massive boulevards within the center of Paris. To do this, he fully utilized the authoritarian way of things that Napoleon III had put in place. Haussmann wanted to make boulevards with widths ranging from 16 to 30 meters, which was unheard of at the time (Kirkland). In the process, thousands of homes would have to be demolished to make room and it was done, and all uproar was ignored.

Though Haussmann’s work was destructive to these homes and businesses, the benefits to his work were important and still define Paris to this day. The destruction that came with his plan also destroyed most of the dark alleys and dead-ends, and left the city much less congested. This created a more comfortable city, in which citizens could see much farther down the road and look for strange behavior. He also created public spaces at the intersections of some of the major roads, providing large, safe spaces for Parisians to be, which had not existed for the public before. When his plan was finally complete, Haussmann required that the image of the new Paris be upheld by setting requirements, such as requiring the cleaning of facades at least once every ten years, that kept the city looking clean (Lipstadt). With this healthier looking city and greater visibility, it was much more difficult for criminals to commit a crime without being seen. Citizens could now feel more secure while walking through the streets. Haussmann’s changes allowed room for Paris to expand without expanding the threat of crime, and have remained part of the backbone of Paris’s infrastructure.

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Revitalization of New York City: 1970-2000

Subways are the most popular form of public transportation. They used to be covered in graffiti and run down, resulting in an unsafe environment for the public. The New York Transit Authority completely overhauled the subway system throughout most the of the early 1980’s replacing almost everything. Graffiti, a type of art synonymous with crime, smothered the cars. Street Art was more prevalent and easy to understand then actual station signs around it (Feinman 1). The human mind is influenced heavily from the world around it. If graffiti is prevalent then a person jumps to the conclusion that it is a unsafe space to occupy. The criminal feels more comfortable to commit crimes because it feels like a proper environment to engage in these activities . The New York Transit Authority cleaned up all the graffiti as well as making the subways “resistant” to tags. The Metro felt unsafe not only because of street art but also the state  of disrepair the system was in. All the trains in service were from the 1940’s and broke down on average every 620 miles compared to 1500 a decade earlier (Feinman 2). They looked as bad as they ran. Spaces that look run down generally feel unwelcoming. The initiative in the 1980s changed all of this with replacing or renovating all the trains and stations. The new clean stations and railcars gave a new sense of security to the subway. The spaces clear of the the claustrophobic graffiti and decay allowed passenger to breathe again. Following this change, crime dropped dramatically in subways and by the 1990’s was a relatively safe space to occupy.


New York during the seventies and eighties was regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, but at the turn of the century people stopped committing crime. Ideas of the panoptic principle prompted the change. Franklin Zimring, a professor of law and chairman of the Criminal Justice Research Program at the University of California at Berkeley, states, “You send three cops to 125th and 8th Avenue and the criminals just go to 140th Street or you send a lot of cops on Tuesday, and the robbers strike on Thursday instead,” (Rogers). Criminals won’t commit crimes where they know police officers are located. Officers don’t have to physically be there but they have to make it seem like they are watching. The authorities just have to create a pattern. If the police sit there multiple weeks on the same day then if one week they are not present the criminals are less prone to strike because they have the feeling that the officers are present. This can then be applied to different locations in the city, making it a safer place. The concept follows the form of the roundhouse or panopticon prison by Jeremy Bentham; it is the threat of someone watching that matters not the actual act. Once fear is instilled on the criminal population the streets of New York became safer. Police do not need to govern a space to keep it safe but there presence always needs to be felt in a public space to make it safe.

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Throughout time, crime has been combatted by urban design’s ability to make a space feel more comfortable and secure. From the condensed, walled cities of medieval times to massive, modern cities such as New York, urban design has played a vast role in making sure its residents feel as if they can walk freely without being threatened by crime. A common solution to creating comfort is properly defining public and private space throughout the city. Depending on the time period, this division has been viewed and used very differently. While kings used privacy from the outside as a way to increase the sense of security, the government of New York City half a millennium later uses publicity to do the same. Why has the use of public and private changed so drastically? When overpopulation was not a problem, having a wall protect a city from the unknowns of outside its boundaries seemed efficient and logical. But as cities expanded, walls became impractical and impeded the growth and development of cities. And as Haussmann did with Paris, many designed the city to embrace the openness as opposed to avoiding it. By introducing large roads and wide open public spaces, planners moved the congested population from unmanageable back-alleys to far more manageable public squares and avenues. This advancement of public space and public knowledge as a tool for comfort has can be attributed partly to the panoptic principle, in that a public space, anyone around you, and especially law enforcement, could be watching your actions at any moment. The fact that one could always be spotted doing illegal activity, and thus could easily be caught and punished, has been used as a common and mostly successful strategy for urban planners and architects to discourage criminal activity and ultimately make cities more secure and comfortable places to be. WIth these two principles being used around the world, cities everywhere are becoming more safe and secure.


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Jason, Jesse, Yigal, Andrew, David, Margaret, James, Bram, Edgerton, Gelb, Haughwout, Lagakos, McConnell, Orr. “Neighborhood Revitalization in New York City in the 1990s.” working paper., 2003.

Kabak, Benjamin. “Scenes from New York’s Subway past.” Second Ave Sagas RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013. <>.

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Kirkman, Emily. “Haussmann’s Architectural Paris – Architecture in the Era of Napoleon III – The Art History Archive.” Haussmann’s Architectural Paris – Architecture in the Era of Napoleon III – The Art History Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. < Architectural-Paris.html>.

Lipstadt, Helene. “Housing the Bourgeoisie: Cesar Daly and The Ideal Home.” Oppositions. (2013): 96-107. (accessed October 7, 2013).

Rogers, Tomas. “What really cleaned up New York.”Salon. (2011). (accessed October 7, 2013).

Ross, David. “Medieval England – Daily Life in Medieval Towns.” Medieval England. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. < Townlife.htm>.

“The Reformed Francophobe.” The Reformed Francophobe. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <


Wikipedia. 2013. s.v. “Mont Saint-Michel.”

Mont_Saint-Michel (accessed October 7, 2013).

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