How the Culture of Fear threatens Nature

Would you walk down this path alone?


Those of us who spend a lot of time in nature would say yes, of course! We feel comfortable in shadowy forests because we’re familiar with them. We’d probably feel safer in an urban forest than on a city street.

But, some city-dwellers would probably be wary of a place like this, even on a bright sunny day. If someone has never spent much time in nature, it might not feel safe at all.

Making our urban parks “safe and welcoming” is one of the main goals of the Seattle Parks Department. So, how do you make an urban forest safe and welcoming when those concepts are so subjective?

What one person sees as scary, another might find intriguing.

Does a hollow tree make you think of monsters in the closet – or shelter for woodland creatures?

I’m not saying it’s silly to be afraid. It’s perfectly natural to be wary of new environments—without a fear-response, our species would have died out long ago.

The problem is that fears can overwhelm us—they can become irrational and blind us to reality. Worse, they can be exploited:

“Don’t go into the woods…or the Boogeyman will get you. “

If you’re not used to the woods – every shadow can take on a sinister form.

Or, perhaps the worst of all: “Don’t go into the woods…until we make it safe.”

There is a relatively new concept out there called “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” or CPTED for short. If you hear these words being applied to a natural area, be afraid.

Be very afraid.

CPTED was conceived in the 1970s by a criminologist as a crime-prevention tool, but has been revised over the years by police departments, land managers, and others. The central idea is that public spaces are safer when they are open, well-lit areas with clear sightlines and populated with lots of people. Vegetation should be removed between 3 feet and 8 feet off the ground.

Doesn’t sound much like a forest, does it?

CPTED was designed for city streets and highly urbanized parks—not natural areas— but it is sometimes applied to urban forests, too. According to Green Cities: Good Health; University of Washington Urban Forestry, some law enforcement like it because it is easier to maintain a “defensible space” where there are no trees or shrubs to block the view.

Ironically, CPTED in natural areas is intended to reduce perception of crime, not actual crime. Perhaps that is because the actual crime rate in natural areas is already really low. In my view, natural areas are among the safest places in Seattle. How many times have you heard about crime in city streets, private homes, shopping malls, schools, or wide-open places like parking lots and highly urbanized parks like Westlake or Cal Anderson? In Seattle, it happens with regularity. By comparison, crime in natural areas is rare—at least if you go by what is reported in the newspaper.

My own theory is that criminals avoid natural areas because nature is difficult. First of all, they’d have to hike in—and out—on foot. It seems much easier to stick to the streets where they’d have access to a get-away car. What better place to stake out a victim than from inside—or behind—a car. I’d bet money that most reported “crime in parks” happens right in the parking lot, or near the street.

We need to help people connect with nature in ways that don’t make them uncomfortable. But, we should be honest about it, and not play on anyone’s misperceptions of danger. Yes, it’s a dangerous world—and crimes in nature do happen, and we need to be smart about where, when and how we visit an urban natural area. But we are far more likely to be mugged on the street, or killed on the freeway, or by our own bad habits. The real dangers are not hiding in the bushes waiting to pounce on us.

Finally, people’s fears of nature should not be manipulated and used as reasons to develop natural areas rather than preserve them intact. If you convince enough people that the woods are dangerous, and that they must be made “safe” by clearing out understory, lighting-up, adding attractions to increase visitor-numbers, then our urban forests are not going to be natural for long.

That is truly scary.


Happy Halloween!

4 thoughts on “How the Culture of Fear threatens Nature

  1. Congrats on another fabulous post on SNA website. You are a great writer. CPTED is a pet peeve of mine. The natural extension is to make our open spaces look like the prison yards the police wish they were. The properties of ‘enclosure’, screening, garden ‘rooms’, privacy, and ‘intimate spaces’ are ruined by this ridiculous notion. And it is ruining nice landscaping all over town. 

    That said, vandalism, drug dealing, gang activity, crazy people, dumping, and unpleasant homeless people are the complaints used by the public–especially the public in undeserved communities that really need more public green space (they’ve got plenty of vacant lots, for now)–to lobby against having open spaces.

    I have concluded that in order to acquire new open space many of the properties should be enclosed by an attractive wrought iron fence with large gates which can be closed at night. It smacks of elitism, and part of a war on the homeless, but I believe the choice is not between new parks that are open to the public at all times of the day and ones that are closed at night, but between parks that are closed at night or no new parks at all in high density or undeserved neighborhoods. 


    1. Thank you Cass! I like your idea of the secured greenspaces. If we want to have natural areas—and we need them—we have to think of ways to make them work. I also think that police patrols on foot and/or bike would be a great idea. In any case, the Use should fit the Resource, not the other way around. The resource should be the primary consideration. It is the thing that should have permanency.

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