Designing Safe Spaces: Learnings From The Past, Plan For The Future

While the design should address safety measures to keep intruders away, it should also eliminate spaces that can instigate untoward behaviour amongst the students.

How often do we hear ‘safety first’ in the context of community and educational spaces? It is seen that safe and secure campuses continue to be a priority for owners, architects, engineers and all stakeholders involved with the project. Not to mention, a large segment of the parent community grappling with paranoia and fear – how safe is my child in his/her learning environment?

From a design and planning perspective, how do you approach safety in educational spaces? Fundamentally, there are solutions that are objective - a design that caters to the physical aspects of safety in space and as such, has a direct impact on the built environment. While the design should address safety measures to keep intruders away, it should also eliminate spaces that can instigate untoward behaviour amongst the students. Hence, providing clear sightlines throughout the campus is as important as eliminating dark areas and nooks. Design aspects such as guardrails, lattices and safety flooring- coupled with technology like security cameras and biometrics, seem to be an obvious palette of design considerations for safety. But a lot of these elements such as tall fencing and window grilles, also give the campus a prison-like aesthetic, and on the contrary, has a demoralizing effect on the users. Hence, the larger bearing here is not of a design that is objective, but of design that is subjective; wherein the softer aspects of the built environment have a harder impact on the well-being of a community.

Take the example of a row of classrooms with four walls that are accessed by a corridor and have standard windows looking outside. Consider the same against a cluster of classrooms with transparent walls, classrooms that can be combined and also open into a break-out zone that provides a direct connection to the outdoors. A majority of us would relate to the former typology as a safe haven for children, primarily because we have seen more of it and it strikes us as a less intrusive model. Spaces that make us feel emotionally and socially safe are as important as spaces that make us feel physically safe. In a learning environment, spaces that are visually transparent, physically connected and passively supervised- have proven to create a positive impact on learners as compared to four-walled classrooms. One could argue that too much transparency would lead to distraction, but students engaged in learning activities are less likely to be distracted by the world around them. Ultimately, minimally visible security measures ensure trust and harmony amongst the students.

In the larger context, all of us are part of a global, fluid and diverse society in which we have our own identity- I don’t see why this definition needs to change in schools or universities. Classrooms don’t have to be closed spaces of instruction, but spaces that promote dialogue, collaboration and respect. No matter how safe the classroom is, conflicts and difference of opinions are inevitable and it can be contended that the absence of clashes in a classroom would only hamper imagination and critical thinking. Within their safe boundaries, the goal of educational campuses should be to create effective and inclusive learning environments where there is freedom of expression. It is then imperative in cultivating an identity for students and a sense of belonging within the ecosystem by means of colours, student murals or artwork.

As a takeaway from past experience in the design of educational campuses, we need spaces that are welcoming, transparent, inspiring and agile. We need spaces that are not over-protective and overbearing, but spaces that are free and humble- because, the physical attributes of a space have a direct impact on the kind of relationships that students and educators have with each other and among themselves. In this ever-changing world where we are surrounded by cynicism and overpowering social media, it is only fair to provide an environment for our children that is unbiased and unprejudiced.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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