Safety is a basic human need. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, young community leaders are building it with placekeeping, using creativity and design to bring neglected public spaces back to life.
Sanctuaries for unwinding and healing. Murals with messages of community strength. Clubhouses decorated by young people for youth events.
Those are some creations of the young community leaders we brought together in Brownsville, Brooklyn. After spending weeks listening to what others in the community had to say, they put their heads together to figure out how to transform areas that many people felt were unsafe.
It’s a shining example of something called placekeeping, where residents work together to bring neglected or abandoned public spaces back to life.
"What placekeeping does is takes these environments that might be scary to people and it just makes them 110% more welcome to come here. People just want to be united when you share a space together."
— Asia Selby, Brownsville Youth Leadership Council
Safety is a basic human need, just like food and shelter. Going without it does real damage to our physical and mental health. Children struggle to learn when they don’t feel safe, impacting their ability to benefit from education. And communities can suffer economically from feelings of unsafety, making it harder for local businesses to thrive.
But traditional public safety strategies—policing, arrests, incarceration—have put the safety of many Black and Brown people at even more risk. When we rely solely on strategies like these to prevent crime—strategies that feed into a legal framework of oppression—we arguably do even more harm to crime victims. And unlike placekeeping, these strategies have done nothing to create more healing, belonging, or community in Brownsville.
What people in the community have known all along is that safety is more than an absence of danger. Safety can’t be measured just by looking at crime statistics. Genuine safety is something much more concrete: families and friends hanging out in Osborn Plaza; children laughing as they splatter paint on a moving “Release Room”; colorful murals that read “Brownsville Stronger Together.”
That’s the kind of living, tangible safety that Brownsville’s young leaders are helping to cultivate more of in their neighborhood. You can hear from them and see their work in the video below, or read more about the project in the NYC Public Design Commission’s booklet Designing New York.