Around the world, the scourge of streets along which women fear to walk alone is truly to be deplored. The recent deeply shocking abduction and murder of Sarah Everard when walking home alone in south London has led to a bout of profound soul searching and demonstration here in the UK whilst, in Australia, thousands have been marching to demand an end to sexual assault and inequality. This comes hot on the heels of recent demonstrations across India (reputedly the most dangerous country for women) against endemic gender violence (amongst other things) and before that, in early 2019, worldwide protests with the same aim, and not long ago, the ‘me too’ movement.
Here in the UK, the Home Secretary – Priti Patel – echoed the views of all decent people, that “everyone should be free to walk the streets without the slightest fear”. She reminded us (particularly men), first, of the everyday steps that women feel they need to take to protect themselves (avoiding certain locations, dressing down, returning early, not going out, keeping in touch by phone when walking home, walking down the centre of streets, carrying impromptu weapons e.g. sprays, keys, etc), and second, that whilst violence on our streets against women remains rare, it is the tip of the iceberg of unacceptable male behaviours that include harassment, abuse and unwanted attention of all sorts. While a wide range of complex social, cultural, economic and power factors dictate the realities of women’s lives around the world, here in London the Sarah Everard case has led many to ask, what can we do to improve the situation for women. So, for built environment professionals, how can we make our streets safer?
Understand what makes women fearful
First, I would venture, we need to understand the differences in the perception and realities of street use between women and men. This different experience came home to me strongly just recently when I asked two urban design classes that I take this term the same question “what makes you feel unsafe when walking in a city?”. The classes were a large postgraduate class (about 180 students) and smaller undergraduate class (about 50). They were very international, predominantly young, and about 50:50 male/female. The results were captured in separate word clouds for women and men and were revealing.
All four groups: i) postgrad women and ii) men and ii) undergrad women and iv) men had the same basic concern front and centre of their responses – darkness – and the related poor quality of much street lighting. The reality, of course, is that it is not the darkness itself that drives fear, but instead it is what the darkness potentially gives cover to – men. This was particularly obvious in the female students’ word clouds where ‘men’ were specifically identified at the second level down as the thing to fear, along with various male behaviours (at the next level down): cat calling, stares, groups of men, drunk men, etc..
For my male students, by contrast, fears largely focussed on the dangers of traffic, something that hardly featured at all in the women’s word cloud. Interestingly, they also identified dilapidation and up-keep (or the lack of it) as qualities that signal a greater threat. Whilst all students were more fearful in streets that were quiet or deserted, women – living every day with the consequences – were more aware of the features of the street environment that made them feel insecure. Alongside poor lighting, these were: narrow streets, enclosed footpaths, blind spots, empty alleys, lack of visibility, empty streets, physical barriers, feeling isolated, and so on. However, male students, and notably the undergraduates, were more concerned about groups of men and gangs, a very rational fear that reflects the sad statistics that whilst women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted than men; men, and particularly young men, are more likely to be killed on our streets, notably as a consequence or side effect of gang violence.
Designing kinder places
Once we understand what makes people fearful, we can begin to address the issues, although we always need to be mindful of the limitations of any physical interventions. Complex social problems such as violence against women can only, ultimately, be dealt with by removing or neutralising the threat, perhaps by better educating boys and men from an early age about how to interact with girls and women, by dealing with deeply ingrained prejudices in all societies, and perhaps by teaching self-defence to girls in schools. But we can also do some things to make the environment safer, and, just as importantly, to deal with women’s (and men’s) perceptions of insecurity. This is perhaps an even bigger problem than actual insecurity given how (thankfully) rare some of the worst forms of street violence are, dwarfing, for example, the much larger problems of violence against women in the home.
As we have seen, in streets, fear results from (above all) darkness, lack of people, poor visual permeability, and fear of (some) others. Whilst design can’t deal with the last of these problems e.g. fear of gangs, loitering or drunk men, etc., it can address the others. Notably, good design can help to make groups and individuals that make us fearful more visible, and hopefully therefore into less of a threat.
Well-lit streets are particularly important in making users feel safe and secure, with a wide range of studies empirically confirming that better street lighting leads to an increase in perceived and actual public safety and is strongly associated with the greater use of streets and public spaces by law-abiding citizens. As one study examining the experiences of over 3,000 women and girls living in urban communities in the global south revealed, this is particularly important for women, with better pedestrian-focused street lighting amongst the key factors identified for empowering poorer women in cities.
Unfortunately, even the best lit streets may feel unsafe when deserted, and streets in residential areas are often quiet during the day, let alone at night. In such circumstances the temptation may be to move toward more CCTV in urban areas, but the research in this area is much more equivocal about any real benefits, either in preventing violent crime or in making users feel safer. CCTV has its place, but in the main it is for solving crimes (typically property crimes) rather than preventing them, and in dealing with inappropriate and criminal behaviours in busy locations such as shopping streets or on public transport. Instead, we need to remember Jane Jacobs’ arguments from 60 years ago that the peace is kept, not primarily by the police, but instead by the unwritten rules that most of us – women and men – subscribe to about the way civilised people should behave towards each other in cities. To assist us, she laid down some basic prescriptions for safe city streets:
- First, neighbourhoods should be mixed, with different uses offering a flow of people (on foot, bike and in cars) at different times of the day and into the evening
- Second, there should be a clear demarcation between the public and private realms, meaning that streets and spaces in urban areas should be lined with a continuous positive edge of buildings, avoiding left-over gaps, anonymous spaces and dereliction – which we know can raise fearfulness
- Third, there should be ‘eyes on the street’, or streets should be surveilled by the buildings along their length, so that anyone walking (and anyone with criminal intent) feels that they are being observed, even if they are not.
These seemingly simple rules we often forget, but if systematically implemented (or retrofitted) will go a long way, along with decent street lighting, to making streets safer and more comfortable places along which to walk.
Managing public spaces
Of course, cities remain diverse places, and even with the very best design strategies implemented consistently, there will always be places where women (like most men) feel more fearful and sensibly (if unfortunately) choose to avoid. A darker underbelly to urban life is inevitable, and how we manage such places will be key, both in terms of how they are policed, and how we actively plan their transformation, particularly when they coincide with important public facilities such as public transport. In the USA research has shown that bus stops, for example, can be particular harbingers of crime, partly because people are coming and going, but also because too often they are placed in locations that don’t follow the ‘kinder streets’ principles already discussed and which therefore attract crime.
Given that women, on the whole have less access to private transport than men, particular attention should be paid to public transport stops (both bus and trains) and the routes to and from them to ensure that they are well lit, overlooked, monitored (electronically) and attractive so that users feel comfortable using them. Ideally, care should be taken when placing stops in the first place, but given also that most rail stations are already built, and often not ideally positioned, a range of such small-scale interventions can go a long way to making them feel safe at very little cost.
Increasingly, technology might also have a role to play in helping women to feel safer. For example, apps such as Safetipin and Free to Be allow women’s experiences of urban areas to be recorded and geolocated in order to build up pictures of places to avoid and places to go. Developed in India, Safetipin, for example, systematically tracks data on street lighting; openness (sight lines); visibility (activity nearby); people (vitality); security; walkpath (the quality of the pavement or road space); public transport; and gender usage – and allows users to drop pins to denote issues that feel safe or unsafe. Whether technologically driven or not, conducting a women’s safety audit is a good place to start in order to return to where I began, by understanding what makes women fearful as a first step to devising and implementing solutions.
Empowerment or discrimination?
Cities can be places of empowerment or discrimination. Too often streets are fearful instead of life enhancing and design plays a key role in that.
I fear that the tragedy of Sarah Everard will be far from the last such case in the UK, let alone globally. As built environment professionals our role in preventing this is on the one hand limited (we can’t control society’s ills) but on the other hand also significant: simple design and management changes relating to how women move through and experience public space can be amongst the most effective factors in helping to achieve positive change.
It should go without saying that we should do all we possibly can to make public spaces safer and more fulfilling for women. Incidentally, by doing so, we make them safer and more fulfilling for men too.
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL