‘Jaywalking Is a Fantasy Crime’: The Sad Story of De-Risking the City

Krish Nathaniel | Artist and Principal Urban Designer, London Borough of Harrow, UK

This paper explores the relationship between the public realm and exposure to ‘risk’ as
experienced by citizens in contemporary major cities. The aim of the paper is to explore and
evaluate how elements of the public realm have been successively ‘de-risked’ by
municipalities, state and private actors, limiting and in some cases criminalising mobility,
autonomy and enfranchisement to the detriment of residents in the city.

The paper begins by defining ‘risk’ in the city as an essential component of urban living,
providing opportunities to test social boundaries and exercise autonomy. This definition of
risk as it applies to urbanism is partly drawn from free and adventure play theory, where it is
considered an intrinsic part of psychological and social development. The paper then moves
on to explore case studies, firstly considering the adoption of jaywalking as an illegal act in
the United States in the 1920s and its legacy of car-centric urbanism, before moving on to
examine the use and subversion of the public realm to further social justice in the Paris riots
of May 1968. Lastly, the critical gaze is turned to London and the privatised public spaces of
the City of London and Granary Square, King’s Cross. Each case study presents a varying
degree of erosion and resurgence in urban autonomies, freedoms and the use of the public
realm, the legacies of which are still being experienced today.

Drawing on the limitations and curtailments of risk present in the above examples, the third
part of the paper proposes a solution to address this deficiency through the application of
‘loose parts’, a concept again drawn from free play theory and centred on embedding a high
degree of variables in a physical environment. Translating ‘loose parts’ as an urban design
strategy involves the expansion of individual and collective autonomy, control and
ownership in the public realm and the development of extensive and reconfigurable
opportunities for heterogeneous interactions. By incorporating ‘loose parts’, a pro-risk public
realm may allow citizen actors to resist the imposition of oppressive surveillance cultures
and facilitate autonomous, citizen-led interventions in the public realm.