Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mr. Sherlock Holmes Holds Forth on Safety in the Built Environment

I have had reason recently to think again about safety and the perception of safety in particular places.

At one point, very early in The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, I discuss some of the difficulties of ethical deliberation, especially when other people are involved.
Making decisions through critical ethical inquiry is difficult, to say the very least. People who come together to make a decision may find not only that they judge particular situations and actions differently in reference to different standards, but that the standards themselves are informed by very different views of what it means to be a human being and to live a good human life. This is plain to be seen in any divisive social issue, from abortion to immigration, when the two sides often seem as though they were living in different worlds. (p. 4).
While debates over the built environment are usually less heated than debates over these particular social issues, they can still have their roots in a basic divergence of perception and meaning.  This comes out clearly in perceptions of particular places, such that:
one person can look at a picture of an urban street and see a vibrant economic and cultural life, while another can look at the same picture and see only filth and the threat of being mugged or swindled; each might think the other is deluded. (Ibid.).
Later on, after I have introduced the framework, I go into a little further detail about the value of safety in the built environment. I point out that
A wrinkle in the question of safety is that perception is sometimes more important to people than the underlying reality: we often want to feel more safe even if, statistically speaking, we are not in fact more safe. Perception of risk can be influenced by prejudice and fear of difference. So, people may feel endangered when they find themselves in places unlike those they are used to and confronted by people who are unlike themselves in some way they perceive as relevant, even if the risk of harm is actually very low. They may also overlook actual risks in more familiar surroundings. (on p. 77).
Thinking about this again, my mind was drawn back to one of the hidden inspirations for these passages: "The Copper Beeches" from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on a train to Winchester, riding to the aid of Miss Violet Hunter, who has taken on the position of governess at an estate, The Copper Beeches, some five miles out of town.

In true Victorian fashion, Watson rhapsodizes about the bucolic charms of the countryside.
It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street. (p.322)
Watson's effusions ring of pastoralism and the picturesque tradition: he is gazing on a Romantic landscape painting framed by the train window. There's even a hint of anti-urbanism here, with his reference to "the fogs of Baker street."
But Holmes shook his head gravely.

"Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

“You horrify me!” (p. 323)
What could be more counter to the pastoral sensibility than this? Surely the city is the den of corruption! It is to the country we must go to be cleansed of city filth and city wickedness, purified by a vision of nature and art in delicate balance, all overhung by blue skies and fleecy white clouds . . .

No wonder Watson is horrified.

In his reply, however, Holmes prefigures the work of Jane Jacobs:
“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser. Had this lady who appeals to us for help gone to live in Winchester, I should never have had a fear for her. It is the five miles of country which makes the danger.” (p. 323)
The two men are ostensibly looking at the same landscape, but they are investing it with very different meanings, as though they were perceiving different worlds. By the time the case is resolved, Watson may see more clearly the basis of Holmes' assessment, but at the moment of their conversation on the train it's difficult to imagine how their two perspectives might ever be fully reconciled.

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