Safety in the eye of the beholder: Individual susceptibility to safety-related characteristics of nocturnal urban scenes

van Rijswijk, L., Rooks, G., & Haans, A.

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van Rijswijk, L., Rooks, G., & Haans, A. (2016). Safety in the eye of the beholder: Individual susceptibility to safety-related characteristics of nocturnal urban scenes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, 103–115.

Environment-person Interaction , Environmental Perception , Individual Differences , Perceived Safety , Prospect-refuge Theory

What determines whether people consider an environment to be safe or unsafe? In two studies, we employed a multi-level model to examine how safety-related environmental characteristics and individual characteristics influence people's perception of the safety of night-time urban environments. Both studies support previous findings highlighting a key role for environmental appraisals of entrapment (perceived escape possibilities), prospect (perceived overview over a scene), and concealment (perceived environmental affordance of hiding places). More importantly, the studies provide a systematic investigation of person-environment interaction in the safety appraisal process. Our results reveal substantial individual variability in susceptibility to safety-related environmental characteristics (Study 1) and identify an interaction between individual characteristics and appraisals of environmental characteristics (Study 2). Additionally, while both studies replicate an effect of biological sex on safety appraisals, we show that this effect is mediated by trait anxiety, a psychological variable reflecting the propensity to experience anxiety.

Main finding
This study explores physical characteristics in relation to safety perceptions in night-time urban environments. Results indicate that (a) increased prospect (e.g., visibility) is associated with increased perceived personal safety, (b) increased entrapment is associated with decreased perceived personal safety, and (c) men are more inclined to interpret an environment as safe than women. However, the study also reveals differences at the individual level as responsible for a large portion of the variance (~30%) in safety perceptions.

Description of method used in the article
Two studies with nearly identical designs. Study 1 (N = 83) and Study 2 (N = 216) consisted of mostly university students who viewed photos of nocturnal urban environments and gave appraisals of perceived personal safety in each. Each of the 43 photos were previously judged for prospect, concealment, and entrapment. Study 2 included additional variables related to individual differences.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression
Physical types
Geographic locations