Last edited 25 May 2020

Privacy in the built environment

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In very general terms, privacy refers to the ability to remain unobserved or undisturbed, or to control access to personal information.

In the built environment, privacy typically refers to issues such as visual or speech privacy, that is the ability not to be observed or heard. This is an abstract, context specific and personal concept. For example, a person may feel the need for less privacy on a beach than they do in their home. Here there maybe a distinction between ‘public space’ or ‘social space’ and ‘private space’. There may be boundaries between these types of spaces, such as doors, walls, fences and so on.

The term ‘personal space’ refers to the physical space surrounding a person, within which, encroachment by others can make them feel uncomfortable, or even threatened. The extent of this space can vary by person or by situation.

Some aspects of privacy may be fixed, for example the location of a room next to a public entrance, whilst other aspects can be changed, for example by locking a door or closing curtains. In addition, technology now means that whilst we may be within a physical space that could be considered ‘private’ we can simultaneously be in a digital environment that is public.

Buildings and other spaces may provide layers or zones of privacy. So, for example, spaces that have less need for privacy may be located near an entrance, facing onto a street, or at ground level, whereas spaces requiring more privacy may be placed higher up or in a more secluded location. There may be a range of different degrees of privacy in spaces between the two extremes.

Robinson defined a gradient of privacy:

[Ref Julia W. Robinson, 2001, Institutional Space, Domestic Space, and Power Relations: Revisiting territoriality with space syntax, University of Minnesota, Proceedings . 3rd International Space Syntax Symposium Atlanta.]

The need for privacy can conflict with requirements for access, security, safety and so on. For example, there may be a conflict in schools where there can be both a need for private spaces, and also a need for supervision and safeguarding. In some situations, privacy may be equated to secrecy, and there is an increasing trend in public architecture to create ‘transparent’ buildings as evidence that an organisation has nothing to hide.

Some aspects of privacy may be beyond the control of a single development. For example a new building may be constructed that overlooks an existing property, compromising its privacy.

Privacy increasingly relates to the right of individuals to control access to, or retention of, information about them. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduced in 2018 was designed to harmonise data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens' data privacy and to reshape the way organisations across the region approach data privacy. GDPR gives the public more say over which organisations have access to their data and what they do with it. For more information see: GDPR.

This has implications for any organisations that collect information about people, whether online, or in the built environment, for example in relation to mailing lists, signing in processes, CCTV recordings, smart buildings, the internet of things and so on.

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