Perceived Safety & Equitable Access: An Investigation of the Northwest Arkansas Greenway

by Jessica Shearman, Associate ASLA

Context map (detail) / image: Jessica Shearman, Assoc. ASLA

Urban connectivity via green corridors that also integrate habitat is a tool for promoting resilience. Other than functioning as sustainable design and development, these areas can also serve people when combining green corridors and public space. With these types of public spaces, the function expands to not just habitat and ecology, but also reverberating social systems into equitable and just spaces.

As designers and planners, we view public space as the lifeblood for sustainable and democratic places, and policymakers are also catching on, with the United Nations’ 2017 Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development concluding that urban spaces are important for addressing global challenges. While prioritizing regional ecological connections with increasing access to public space seemingly accomplishes a range of objectives, a conflict around the public’s perception of safety in these spaces may arise.

Perceived safety can be defined as an awareness and emotional reaction to space and place based on one’s background and experiences. It can be directly linked to equitable access and the universal right to mobility and public space regardless of gender, race, sexuality, age, abilities, and resources. A lack of perceived safety considerations often inhibits certain communities and groups from accessing public or green spaces, thus limiting their quality of life. While creating public spaces that are ecologically resilient can promote green connections, these spaces can also be a barrier for some marginalized communities accessing space. These issues provoke questions around how we can reconcile potential conflicts and create resilient green space, perceived safety, and equitable access.

Context map. Click here to view at larger scale. / image: Jessica Shearman, Assoc. ASLA

Razorback Greenway

Complex processes and relationships between public space and the social, built, and natural environment are visible in the growing metropolitan region that I have grown up in over the past 21 years. The Northwest Arkansas (NWA) metropolitan statistical area (MSA) was ranked the 13th fastest growing MSA since 2010 by the United States Census. The area has added around 800 new residents per month over the last three decades. This population growth has brought an increasing diversity into the region, now home to most of Arkansas’s Hispanic population and the nation’s largest Marshallese populations outside the Marshall Islands. This growth can be linked to the presence of three Fortune 500 companies’ headquarters—Walmart, Tyson, and JB Hunt—along with the growth of the University of Arkansas, the state’s flagship university.

While the area is growing as a metropolitan area with a diverse culture and substantial economic growth, it is not without its challenges. Flooding events are becoming more frequent due to increasingly severe weather and urbanization, and the region’s continued reliance on auto-centric transportation and land use patterns calls for better and more equitable access to active transport. With these emerging conditions and a constant influx of new residents to NWA, we need to consider how the region’s populace use public space, specifically active transportation networks and equitable access to sustainable and resilient corridors.

As the NWA region’s suburban towns have grown into a diverse metropolis, the Razorback Regional Greenway—a 40-mile trail system connecting residents to each other, downtowns, natural waterbodies, prairies, creeks, and other regional ecosystems—has become a critical connector, while raising questions over the relationship between culture and public preference on one hand, and ecological capacity and connectivity on the other.

On-site sketching / image: Jessica Shearman, Assoc. ASLA

Razorback Greenway Perceived Safety Analysis

The challenge to reconcile public space, perceived safety, and green resiliency has made the Razorback Greenway a fascinating case study for landscape architectural research. In undertaking ongoing studies, three key questions arose:

  • how is the Razorback Greenway perceived by the public currently;
  • how do these perceptions affect the equitable access and use of public trails or active transportation facilities; and
  • what on-site characteristics of the Greenway lead to a perception of safety or unsafety to access?

From these questions, I concluded that three methods of study would need to be conducted:

  1. On-site ethnographic study and assessment of representative lengths of the 40-mile Greenway
  2. Questionnaire (English and Spanish)
  3. Geographic analysis of both results with demographic data.
Collecting input at a farmers’ market / image: Jessica Shearman, Assoc. ASLA

Through literature review of theories and concepts surrounding perceived safety (e.g., Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the street,” Oscar Newman’s “defensible space,” Jay Appleton’s “Prospect and Refuge,” Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design), I have created a weighted framework based on qualities of perceived safety or lack thereof. This framework is tested both on-site and through the survey. The survey consists of questions on how and when users use the trail, what factors led to a feeling of safety, and demographic information of the 230 respondents. These questions provided me with the needed data to understand what factors lead certain demographics to use a specific section of the trail, even if it is not the closest and easiest access to their home. For instance, the most used section of the trail (and assumed most perceived as safe) is closer to downtowns where there is more lighting, presence of people, and minimal vegetative visible obstructions. At the same time, the closest trail access to where I live has minimal lighting, and a presence of screening understory, despite the residential location. Based on my background and experiences as a woman, these qualities have a significant bearing on my perception of safety, and my appraisal of use options.

image: Jessica Shearman, Assoc. ASLA
The Greenway at night / image: Jessica Shearman, Assoc. ASLA

If a regional network trail is perceived as unsafe, even despite adjacencies to homes and suburban amenities, then it is limited in its potential to truly become a resiliency asset.
Even at this early part of my study and, indeed, my career, this highlights the sometimes-contradictory nature of sustainable design. Where must the balance between preference and ecology lie? And to what degree is community research a reliable measure of where this tipping-point lies? My research has already revealed that many individuals believe their background (gender, race, age, etc.) affects their perception and relationship with public space. Here I cannot offer solutions, but can share that this work is ongoing and, I’m sure, resonates with the planning, design, and research experiences of many others.

Growing up in Northwest Arkansas, Jessica Shearman, Associate ASLA, realized the critical issues of climate, equity, urbanization, and justice in her community. Receiving a degree of Landscape Architecture at the University of Arkansas and working in long-range urban planning, she is interested in understanding the intersection of policy, planning, and design on an international scale. She plans on working and gaining further education abroad, eventually coming back to the Midwest to foster change and advance climate justice through land use planning, policy, and design.

One thought on “Perceived Safety & Equitable Access: An Investigation of the Northwest Arkansas Greenway

Leave a Reply