Placing women’s safety at the heart of urban design
- A consultation on the safety of women and girls found that 71% of all women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces.
- Improving the safety of women and girls means placing positive societal values at the heart of urban planning and building design.
- New approaches to planning and developing safer environments could ensure improved outcomes for women working and living in urban areas. This would have a positive impact on how women feel about returning to the office.
“All over the world, women’s experiences of insecurity are so common that they are normalizing. This year, we must do more to prevent violence and harassment, as they have a ripple effect on health, economic empowerment, autonomy and freedom. – Claire Barnett, Executive Director, UN Women UK.
In addition to being a huge public health problem, harassment and violence against women limit their economic and migration freedoms.
If women do not feel safe commuting to work, what impact will this have on the number of returns to the office?
Will women give up commuting in favor of working closer to home or working entirely from home?
How will this affect their career and earning potential? Therefore, will there be a gender imbalance in workplaces in cities?
The ‘dangerous’ experiences of women and girls have encouraged architectural firms, local planning authorities and urban developers to create initiatives around safety. A recent conference hosted by Urban Design London (UDL) highlighted some of these initiatives and provided insight into how future designs could impact safety.
“Actively listening” to women to improve urban safety
At the UDL conference, Julia Thrift, Director of Healthier Place-making, TCPA (Town & Country Planning Association) talked about the built environment and the impact it can have on people’s physical and mental well-being.
Julia emphasized the need to actively listen to women talk about what makes them feel safer.
She acknowledged that there is a limit to what building designs can achieve, but believes that a more prescriptive approach to creating safer buildings is needed – one that focuses on designs that will deliver the most results. most desired (health and safety being paramount).
Improving security should not just focus on installing closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems and improving poor lighting. Sometimes these interventions can actually discourage women from walking in certain areas. The presence of CCTV cameras and bright lighting can make the place seem unsafe (why would it need so many security measures?).
Dinah Borat of ZCD Architects, believes that when looking for solutions for hazardous areas, we should completely remove lighting and CCTV. Dinah believes there needs to be a cultural shift in terms of thinking about what is desirable and necessary in our urban spaces.
Why women don’t feel safe in urban areas
Women’s experiences and recommendations should be an integral part of the design process.
Marina Milosev, Senior Planning Officer at London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) agrees that it is essential to understand why women do not feel safe in the first place. Marina believes in inclusive planning that takes into account data showing that a disproportionate number of women do not feel safe in urban areas.
In the night economy, there is a predominance of roles performed by women (for example, night nurses). Many of these women said they felt unsafe traveling to and from work. LLDC findings Consultation on the safety of women and girls reveal that 71% of all women in the UK have been sexually harassed and that young women are the most harassed (86% of 18-24 year olds).
It is also common knowledge that some communities of women are less safe than others – for example, trans women, black and ethnic minority women, and those with disabilities.
Perceptions of security are just as important as experiences of insecurity.
36% of women said they did not feel safe walking around their neighborhood at night. The consultation also asked women to identify specific areas where they do or do not feel safe – leading to the discovery of common patterns between places where women feel safe and unsafe.
These statistics and other results of the consultation are very significant. They could potentially inform research and enable any future building design and development to explicitly take security concerns into account and adopt measures to allay security fears.
Improving women’s safety in urban areas – next steps
So what should city planners and developers consider when looking for solutions to improve levels of safety for women in urban areas?
There is no “one size fits all” approach – planners must determine what is needed in their locality and go from there.
- Warm lighting is preferable to harsh street lighting. Light can evoke a range of feelings and the presence of light can impact people differently at different times of the day or night.
- Cognitive cues such as CCTV can impact how people feel about a space and how they move through it. These signals can often send the wrong message and discourage people from entering a particular area.
- The development process can create temporary spaces that are in a constant state of flux. These spaces can make people anxious.
- Interstitial spaces (not a real, defined place) and those at the interface between public spaces and adjacent land can also appear dangerous.
- Some spaces may seem fun and quirky during the day, but at night they take on a more sinister character. These spaces must be redesigned in terms of improving perceptions of security.
- Spaces where women feel anonymous and isolated (for example, being in a building where you have no idea who you are working next to) can also reduce feelings of safety.
Architects, developers and urban planners must ensure that women and girls participate in building safer environments. Men should also contribute to the process and demonstrate their commitment to improving the experiences of women working and living in cities.
Without real change, gender imbalances in the workplace could ensue, possibly leading to an even wider pay gap. Hopefully there is enough momentum to ensure that safety is paramount and that economic and health outcomes for women improve in every city around the world.