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Perceived insecurity in Helsinki is spatially concentrated

- explaining the area differences

Since 2003, Helsinki has regularly surveyed residents’ perceptions of security. Perceived insecurity is more of a problem for women than for men, and exposure to violence or threats quite understandably increase people’s sense of insecurity. Similar findings have been obtained in numerous studies internationally. In addition, there are large differences in perceived insecurity between districts in Helsinki. In this article, we try to find background factors for these differences.

Safety in the urban public space can be studied in many ways. Polling people’s sense of security is one way – a justifiable way because perceptions do not always correlate directly with crime statistics. According to the so-called fear paradox, the population groups with the most frequent experiences of violent crime, such as young men, are also the least afraid (Stanko 2000).

The fear paradox does not, however, allow the conclusion that perceived insecurity would be an unjustified or less important approach than crime statistics. Insecurity is in itself a strong experience that reduces the quality of life of the perceiver, and safety and security are seen as key factors for wellbeing (Johansson 1979). Subjective experiences may also have rather concrete consequences. Perceived insecurity makes people avoid places and situations that make them feel unsafe, thus limiting their usual environment but also changing the user profile of the places in question (cf. Koskela 2009). Perceived insecurity influences urban space also in the sense that it reduces residents’ satisfaction with their neighbourhood (Basolo & Strong 2002) and increases their propensity to move away (Kortteinen et al. 2005).

The issue of perceived insecurity can be approached from the angle of individual factors. Survey after survey indicates that perceiced insecurity is particularly a problem for women (Pain 2001; Ceccato 2012). Research evidence is less conclusive for other individual-level factors such as age, socio-economic status and personal experience of violence (cf. Pain 2001; May 2010). Since there are great differences in perceived insecurity between neighbourhoods (i.e. districts in this study), we should also look at the characteristics of neighbourhoods to gain an understanding of perceived insecurity.

It seems unlikely that selection is at play here, in other words a situation where those people who feel more insecure than average would be concentrated in the same neighbourhoods. Our focus must cover not only personal characteristics but also the characteristics of neighbourhoods, and we must examine what features in neighbourhoods may feed differences in perceived insecurity. In this article, we analyse experienced insecurity using a number of individual-related variables from the research data of the 2009 Security Survey in Helsinki, as well as three neighbourhood-related variables.

The Security Survey has been conducted in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012 (the data for 2012 were being collected at the time this article was written). One of the key findings is that people’s perception of security in their own neighbourhood has remained approximately at the same level in all surveys – with a slightly positive trend. Men and women differ markedly in terms of perceived security: 24 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men had felt unsafe in their own neighbourhood in 2009. The most relevant finding for the present question is that the levels of perceived insecurity in some districts may be many times higher compared to other districts, and that these differences have become structurally rather permanent.

Research design

Our dependent variable was insecurity perceived by respondents in their own neighbourhoods. The explanatory variables were of two kinds: individual-level and neighbourhood-level variables. The explanatory variables at individual level were also of two kinds – concerning respondents’ background or their experiences. The background variables were gender, age and education. Experience-based variables were experiences of violence by respondents and witnessed violence in the neighbourhood (so-called indirect exposure to violence). The data on respondents’ housing and tenure status is technically (as obtained from the survey) a personal-level variable, but it also describes the nature of the neighbourhood.

Dependent variable:

  • Perceived insecurity. The question asked in the survey was how secure the respondents felt when they walked alone in the neighbourhood late on a Friday or Saturday night. The replies classified as expressing insecurity were ‘rather insecure’, ‘insecure’ and ‘I dare not go outside’.

Explanatory variables at individual level:

  • Gender, age group and education

Experience variables at individual level:

  • Experiences of violence or threats over the past year, as reported by respondents
  • Violence observed or seen in the neighbourhood (assault and battery, fights)

Neighbourhood-level variables:

  • Housing tenure and type of building
  • Police intervention by district (February 2010 – December 2011) with the following titles:
  • Intoxicated persons, disturbing behaviour, vandalism
  • Male unemployment rate in the district in 2009
  • Proximity to a rail station: the respondents who live in a sub-district surrounding a station

Variables at district level are data on police intervention, male unemployment rates and whether or not respondents lived near a metro or railway station. These data describe the properties of districts.

Our assumption was that police interventions would be an objective indicator of unrest in a neighbourhood, and we surmised it would also show in perceived insecurity. Male unemployment (or low employment) rates have in earlier studies been found to correlate with the occurrence of perceived insecurity. Railway or metro stations are, by our assumption, hotspots of anti-social behaviour.

Gender and experiences of violence were decisive

The most crucial finding of the Security Surveys, namely that perceived insecurity is primarily a problem for women, has been corroborated by many studies. This also applies for Helsinki, and therefore when we look at the effects of other perceived insecurity factors, men and women are analysed separately, and comparisons are always made to the average of male and female perception of insecurity.

Thus, the differences between the perceptions of insecurity of men and women (women 24%, men 11%) do not appear as such in Figure 2. Only the difference with regard to the average of male and female perception does. To give an example, 15- to 24 year-old-men experience slightly over two percentage points less insecurity than the average of male respondents. The level of perceived insecurity in the youngest women, on the other hand, is six points higher than that of the female respondents overall.

Over 65-year-old women feel noticeably less insecure than younger women. As Heiskanen points out (2002, 184), research findings on the effect of age on experiences of insecurity have been varied. Those of the Helsinki Security Survey are probably influenced by the fact that one of the reply alternatives was ‘I don’t go out at night’, which was ticked by over 30 per cent of 65-year-old or older female respondents. We may assume that without this alternative, the proportion of elderly women feeling unsafe would have been larger.

The impact of educational background on perceived insecurity is not strong, but we may generalize that those with a low education level more often feel insecure than the higher educated. Men and women with only a basic education experience more insecurity than average, whilst those with a tertiary education have fewer such experiences.

The variables expressing individual experiences strongly influence perceived insecurity. In both men and women, personal experience of violence or threats, or witnessed violence in the neighbourhood, significantly increase perceived insecurity. In fact, witnessing violence has an even stronger impact than personal experiences of violence.

This finding is puzzling, because we might assume that personally experienced violence or threats are stronger experiences that make people feel more insecure than does the witnessing of violence. There are, however, two plausible explanations. Firstly, experiences of violence are most common with young men, who may be more used to violence in their daily life (also as perpetrators of violence), and therefore less prone to get worried about it. Another reason may be that the survey question concerning violence and threats also concerned respondents’ workplaces and homes. These experiences did not necessarily relate to their own neighbourhood.

A conclusion close at hand for those who have witnessed violence in their own neighbourhood is that violence can happen to anyone, even in the proximity of one’s home. Moreover, the question seems a very reliable gauge that is not, for example, tinged by perceived insecurity. Men more often than women reported having witnessed violence, which seems a very plausible reflection of everyday reality.

Neighbourhood matters

Scarce economic resources are a background factor often related to perceived insecurity (cf. Hale 1996, 103). The security surveys in Helsinki have not contained questions on income and assets, but questions on housing may partly be used as a compensating variable. Those with high incomes and wealth more generally live in owner-occupied homes, and in fact, tenure status does correlate clearly with the occurrence of perceived insecurity, in an expected way. Both men and women living in single-family houses felt less insecure, and those living in subsidized housing felt more insecure than average. The question remains what this difference tells us about. Do financial resources generally protect people against insecurity in life, or does the difference stem from differences in everyday life between single-family neighbourhoods and areas dominated by subsidized housing.

The occurrence of public disorder in a neighbourhood – as measured through police intervention – is an easily interpreted district-level variable. In a way, it is an indicator parallel to violence witnessed by respondents. The impact is consistent and it concerns both men and women. Without such correlation between the number of police interventions and perceived insecurity in a neighbourhood, the whole concept of insecurity would have to be reconsidered.

Vaattovaara and Kortteinen (2012, 64) find that low employment rates and perceived insecurity among men are found in the same areas in the Helsinki Region. They point out that experiences of insecurity are an incentive for selective migration from an area. In the present study, concerning Helsinki, we found an expected correlation between male unemployment rates and perceived insecurity. Juha Kääriäinen has noted that it is possible that in neighbourhoods troubled by unemployment, where other social problems are often also present, people have to encounter situations that arouse fear. Public disturbances caused by drunks, or fights in neighbouring families may be examples of such situations (Kääriäinen 2002, 19). We shall return to these questions in our conclusions below.

We included in the explanatory variables the question whether respondents lived near a railway or metro station for the reason that Helsinki’s Central Railway Station is the most prominent concentration of uncivil behaviour and violence in Finland. Therefore we ask whether smaller rail stations also constitute concentrations of perceived insecurity in a city. According to our findings, living near a railway or metro station increases experienced insecurity in both men and women – slightly more so with men.

Such a station in a residential neighbourhood is a strong physical-functional element channelling pedestrian traffic to and from public transport. The spatial structure of the stations takes pedestrians over bridges and through tunnels or fenced-in platforms, which causes crowds. Stations tend to attract groups of troublemakers – as mentioned by Kääriäinen – and the crowds encounter them or rather try to walk by. Stations are special environments because traffic safety aspects limit people’s movement in many ways and they stand still for long times waiting for trains.

A complex whole

The first answer to the question of who has the most experiences of insecurity is women and young women especially. Men are essentially less concerned, at least when the question is put directly. This is also easy to understand intuitively. Furthermore, education – and above all the highest education – appears to reduce insecurity. However, this correlation may stem from differences between districts: those with a higher education rarely live in subsidized housing. Being exposed to violence will increase people’s sense of insecurity, which is also easy to understand.

Indirect exposure to violence, that is, witnessing violence in one’s own neighbourhood is, however, the strongest factor triggering perceived insecurity. To see real violence happen is a shocking experience to most people. The present findings endorse this. Although witnessing violence is an individual-level variable in our analysis, it also has a strong district-related dimension. In areas where violence is most frequently witnessed, perceived insecurity is also more frequent. There is a strong local correlation (0.86) between perceived insecurity and the witnessing of violence. It is also easy to understand that in neighbourhoods with a high frequency of police interventions people feel more insecure.

Our interpretation of the impact of rail stations is that it is a matter of their physical-functional structure, on the one hand, and their social dimension on the other. In other words, stations (for instance, the heated facilities in metro stations) attract groups of troublemakers. If something happens, violence will be remembered by many people instead of just a few, multiplying the impact.

In her work Pelkokierre (“The Fear Spiral”) (2009, 79–80), Hille Koskela suggests that men and women feel insecure in different kinds of places. Women are afraid in places that are hard to escape and where no help is at hand when needed. Men, on the other hand, typically experience insecurity in crowded places late at night: in front of bars and in different kinds of queuing situations. At a certain stage of drunkenness men easily start to squabble. In a way, rail station areas provide the environment for both situations. They may be at least momentarily – late on Friday nights, for example – crowded enough with drunken revellers to provide opportunities for social conflict. Also, smaller stations in particular may also be deserted and thus provide no social support. In a situation of distress, a surveillance camera cannot compensate for real social control.

But it is less obvious how we should interpret the significance of certain district-level variables of perceived insecurity. With men, higher rates of unemployment and living in subsidized housing increase insecurity. But exactly how this correlation works is partly unclear. In the geographic socioeconomic pattern of Helsinki, many dimensions of deprivation are concentrated in the same neighbourhoods. In other words, deprivation accumulates locally.

The correlation between deprivation and higher perceived insecurity does not, in itself, tell us anything about the causality of the relationship. We might, for example, draw the conclusion that immigrants cause insecurity, because they predominantly live in areas marked by deprivation. However, this could be an erroneous conclusion, since we know from the open answers in the questionnaires that immigrants are relatively seldom mentioned as a cause of insecurity.

At this stage, we may at least state that perceived insecurity seems to provide an additional dimension to traditional indicators of deprivation in the geographic socioeconomic structure in Helsinki. Also, a neighbourhood-level analysis of perceived insecurity has a natural link to the debate on differentiation between neighbourhoods. Considering the importance of security and safety to everyday wellbeing and to modern society at large (cf. Koskela 2009), there is reason to study to what extent perceived insecurity influences households in their choice of neighbourhood. One of the qualities most frequently mentioned in polls on housing preferences is peace and quiet (Asukasbarometri 2010). Since the well-to-do have better opportunities to choose their neighbourhood, insecurity may play a part in the process of spatial segregation.

Figure 1. Perceptions of insecurity by district in Helsinki, 2009.

Figure 2. Relationship between individual-level variables and perceived insecurity.

Figure 3. Relationship between district-level variables and perceived insecurity.

Martti Tuominen and Henrik Lönnqvist are researchers at City of Helsinki Urban Facts. Teemu Kemppainen is doctoral candidate at Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki.

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