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Safe parks start with good design – and smart lighting can help

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Parks play a special role in community life. They attract people and businesses, promote physical activity and foster a sense of belonging. Or at least they have the potential to do all these things — as long as people feel safe to use them. So what can authorities do to create a sense of park safety? In fact there’s a lot, especially with the help of intelligent lighting.

A fair amount of research in the last few years has focused on the benefits associated with public parks, from psychological, social and physical health to stronger communities. Those benefits and more make neighborhoods with parks highly prized by homeowners. Park areas and walking and jogging trails ranked among the top five neighborhood features for U.S. homebuyers in 2021, and being located near a park can boost a home’s value by anywhere from eight to 32 percent.

But to deliver maximum value, parks need to be used. And to be used, they need to be seen as safe — with that word “seen” turning out to be surprisingly important. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, “Perceptions that a park is unsafe are as important as actual safety.”

When do people perceive parks as potentially unsafe?

If parks “...are not maintained, have signs of disorder, and/or are unattractive, residents may have concerns about safety,” reported one 2019 research paper — adding that those concerns can affect park use.

Separate from physical conditions, crime, homelessness and drug and alcohol use may also fuel perceptions that parks are not safe. The most extreme forms of crime have a particularly marked impact. A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that a single gun-related violent crime for every 10,000 people reduced park use by up to 15.8% overall, and even more so among seniors and adults.

Increased policing may seem like an obvious way to reduce crime and reinforce the impression of safe parks, but overt interventions like “stop and frisk” practices have actually been found to keep people from using parks, not to mention that few police services or bylaw enforcement departments have personnel to spare.

Fortunately, even the most resource-constrained parks departments can take steps on their own to improve real and perceived levels of safety — to create safe parks — through good design and maintenance practices supported by the right technologies.

“Perceptions that a park is unsafe are as important as actual safety.”

Safe parks are smart parks

The National Recreation and Park Association has been focused on park safety for years. Its issue brief on the topic outlines a wide variety of measures parks departments can implement to make parks be — and feel — safer, including good lighting and visibility, active monitoring, good maintenance, and access to communications.

The practical question is how to adopt such measures with limited staff and budget. Intelligent infrastructure helps by making it possible to scale capabilities across an entire park system without adding headcount.

Good lighting is an obvious essential for safe parks, since people feel safer when they can see and be seen. Adding intelligence to the park lighting system enables exceptional control over lighting conditions — for instance by switching lights on and off automatically according to ambient lighting conditions and dawn/dusk cycles, or by dimming or intensifying individual lights to provide targeted illumination where needed.

Real-time audio and video monitoring allow park use to be overseen remotely — around the clock — so that if unwanted activities take place such as violence, vandalism, noise infractions or people sheltering inappropriately in public facilities, park staff or law enforcement can be dispatched immediately. While too much “preventative enforcement” can deter people from park use, seeing that rules are being upheld contributes to visitor perceptions of safety. At the same time, video and audio streaming can be configured in ways that respect and protect citizens’ privacy.

“Intelligent infrastructure makes it possible to scale safe park capabilities across an entire system without adding headcount.”

Video monitoring also enables more responsive maintenance and park upkeep, keeping spaces and buildings in good condition so that visitors feel safe and comfortable using them. Fallen branches, overflowing trash, broken furniture, graffiti and other issues can be spotted and addressed immediately.

Finally, since people feel more secure when they know they can communicate with friends, family and officials wherever and whenever needed, using the same intelligent infrastructure to host in-park public Wi-Fi can go a long way — and enrich the park experience.

Lighting the way to safe parks

Building a technology infrastructure from the ground up to support safety-enhancing solutions is beyond the means of most park authorities. Yet the majority of parks already have light poles that can be converted into multi-purpose IoT platforms and provide intelligently controlled lighting at the same time.

Using existing light poles speeds up the time required to deploy intelligent technologies, while bringing costs down dramatically. Because light poles are already wired up and connected to the grid, they can power any add-on devices and provide park lighting at the same time.

To maximize flexibility and further minimize cost, an intelligent lighting-based solution should fit almost unnoticeably into the existing park lighting infrastructure, preserving the aesthetics of the environment — including any decorative fixtures. It should support the full range of IoT applications and offer a management platform so that all the data generated can be centralized, with analytics applied to identify trends and generate actionable insights.

Ubicquia’s intelligent infrastructure solutions check all of these boxes. According to our research, an all-in-one smart city platform costs up to 42% less than separate applications for counting people and vehicles, video analytics, networked lighting and more.

Parks departments have the frontline responsibility for ensuring that community parks are well used and deliver the full benefits they’re capable of providing. With the right design approaches, practices and technologies working hand in hand, they can do so today better than ever before.

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