In a safe city, all residents can live free from the threat of violence, racist insults or harassment. In addition to physical security, we can talk about psychological security, which refers to a sense of security in everyday life. In practice, this may mean that a city resident can walk in a Finnish Romani costume without worrying about the ethnic profiling of the Police. A person who has been harassed in a nightclub knows that (s)he can report the harasser to the bouncer and be heard. The feeling of safety is also shown by the fact that you can walk home at night without a personal alarm in hand or by making a fake call while walking.
Helsinki residents' experiences of urban security are monitored through surveys every three years, most recently in 2018. The development of urban security experiences has been monitored since 2003. A separate sample of foreign-speaking Helsinki residents was included for the first time in 2015. A total of 4,155 Helsinki residents between the age of 15–79 responded to the latest survey.
About 81 per cent of the respondents felt safe in their neighborhood on weekend evenings, while 13 per cent said they felt insecure. Of the foreign-speaking respondents, the share of people experiencing insecurity was a few percentage points higher both in 2015 and in 2018 than among the Finnish- and Swedish-speaking respondents.
Like many experiences in our society, the feeling of safety is also gendered. Men considered their neighborhood completely safe twice as often as women. In the survey of 2018, 16 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women felt that the center of Helsinki is unsafe on weekend evenings - the same ratio in safety experiences is repeated. The Helsinki subway and local train were considered the least safe means of public transport during the evenings. However, comparing the surveys conducted every three years, it can be said that the general safety experience of the citizens has improved.
How to Improve the Feeling of Security in the City?
There are many ways to improve safety. One key factor is to prevent residential inequalities among different regions. A lot of this work has already been done in Helsinki, however constant attention and comprehensive solutions are needed. All residential areas must have a wide range of rental and owner-occupied housing, quality services and a comfortable environment to spend some time in.
A concrete factor influencing safety is the lighting of the urban environment. Bus routes, outdoor trails, parks, and downtown tunnels should be comprehensively lit. In addition, residents should be given enough of opportunities to report blind spots around the city that are still completely dark on autumn evenings.
The sense of safety is also enhanced by zero tolerance for racism and discrimination. Training of city employees, government officials and police officers on these issues is a priority. They must have the professional skills to deal with different situations and understand the sensitivities associated with, for example, sexual harassment. Victims of sexual violence still face underestimation or nullification of their experience, sometimes even by the authorities. For instance, stickers affixed to public transport, which advice on how to help and act when witnessing harassment, can be effective tool in increasing knowledge.
All the premises of Helsinki should be guided with the principles of safe space. In the Oodi City Library, such has already been defined. All the principles that appear on the information board of Oodi include, for example, tackling inappropriate behavior, the presence of staff and the prohibition of racism and discrimination. The principles of safe space were produced for the library through an inclusive process, and the work community also got its own principles.
The principles of safe space may include requirements for respectful behavior, asking instead of assuming and ensuring accessibility to the premises. Each organization needs to produce its own safer space principles themselves to serve the needs of each actor in the best possible way. The participatory process also commits the users of the facilities to the common rules.
Violence of young people and the role of youth work have been covered and discussed a lot in recent months. Youth street work professionals, such as Aseman Lapset, do important face-to-face youth work, which increases young people’s safety and sense of caring. The proximity and trust of safe adults can reduce the escalation of bullying situations into physical violence.
The pandemic has increased the feeling of exclusion of young people. Therefore it is vital that young people have access to the mental health services of the city quickly and easily. The increased mental health problems among young people must be addressed both through preventive measures and by increasing services. In Helsinki, the Mieppi stations, low-threshold mental health service, has proven to be effective. Mieppi stations should be added to different parts of the city, so that help can be offered to more people. The first answer to contact from a Mieppi station will be received within three days, and the Myllypuro's Mieppi station also has walk-in appointments, which you can enter without a reservation.
A safe city is a city for everyone. In a safe city, everyone has the opportunity to be genuinely heard, and a citizen can be confident that when help is needed, it is also available. A well functioning and inclusive city is also a safe city.
Milja Suihko, Project Officer in the Ministry for Foreing Affairs and a Candidate for the Helsinki City Council
Terhi Ainiala, Lector of Finnish Language and a Candidate for the Helsinki City Council
Text is originally published in the blog of the Green Women of Helsinki the 18th of March in 2021.