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How to build cities safe for women

How to build cities safe for women

The outpouring of stories of street-level harassment prompted by the killing of Sarah Everard should be a spur to action on the built environment, and to address the shocking ways in which it fails women. There is plenty of best practice to follow. What is lacking is political will

As a young girl at school in London, like countless before and after me, I remember the talks: how to be safe on the street, how to avoid unwanted attention, how to fend off an attacker. (Don’t punch, shove upwards with the base of your palm under their chin; knee them in the crotch; send two fingers into their eyes.)

To get to that school, I used to walk down an unlit path through a small wooded area, to the bus stop on the railway bridge near where I lived. There was a well lit alternative: two main roads that surrounded the wood. But I almost always took the unlit path; given the option between two sides of the triangle or a few extra minutes in bed, I was going to take the bed.

Halfway through, I often regretted not taking the long route around. My steps would quicken as I focused intently on the street lamp at the end; I’d subconsciously hold my breath until I got there, at the same time chiding myself for being so scared. 

For a young woman, the tension between what I want to do and what I fear to do has become a regular companion. There is almost always a trade-off: the route I want to take means accepting a tightness in my chest as I walk home; the cab I do not want to take means expecting unwanted comments, looks, intrusions. 

Sarah Everard’s kidnap and killing while she was walking home in south London three weeks ago has sparked an outpouring of grief and anger from women in the UK. Grief and anger for Sarah, grief and anger for all other victims of gender violence in and outside of the home, and grief and anger over this fear of violence that follows us around when we leave our homes. The fear that hampers our free movement in cities, that causes us to constantly manage and measure how we want to behave against what is “street smart” behaviour. 

Tackling violence and the fear of violence against women requires a cultural shift to deter such abhorrent behaviour, as well as reforms in the justice and police systems that punish it. But we should also expect much more from our built environments and the people that design them. If we live in cities where women cannot take their desired route home, or walk with keys in their hands as a potential defence, who, exactly, are these cities serving?

Unsurprisingly, cities chiefly cater to the people who are chiefly responsible for their design: men. According to the World Bank, women occupy only ten percent of senior jobs at the world’s leading architecture firms; in the UK, according to research group BRE, women make up only around 35 per cent of urban planning roles. On average, women account for only 14 per cent of the UK’s built environment workforce. 

Given that half the population does not have a proportionate number of seats at the table – real and metaphorical – it is hardly surprising that half the population frequently feel that their environments do not meet their safety needs. Depressingly, it seems that the same problems persist as when Janice Monck and Susan Hanson wrote their famous 1982 essay: ‘On Not Excluding Half of the Human in Human Geography’. From blueprints all the way through to blue plaques, women’s experiences and opinions are not sufficiently represented in our cities. 

Monck and Hanson’s essay was an essential contribution to a school of feminist criticism in the 1970s and 1980s that demonstrated how human geography, urban theory and planning (particularly rebuilding after WWII) were geared towards men. The dominant culture created environments that reinforced patriarchal heternormative families, and the division of labour by gender and other stereotypes, while neglecting the needs of marginalised communities. 

On a macro level, this was most apparent in the “zoning” of cities, which divided them into areas for different “uses”: residential, commercial, industrial, and so on. By separating schools and homes from workplaces, the centre from the suburbs, women who wanted to work not only faced cultural barriers, but also physical and logistical difficulties because of the care work that tied them to residential zones. 

As Dolores Hayden, urban historian and professor emerita at Yale University, wrote of the US in the 1980s: “‘A woman’s place is in the home’ has been one of the most important principles of architectural design and urban planning in the United States for the last century. An implicit rather than explicit principle […].”

On a micro level, women’s day-to-day movements and needs were impaired by cities’ design. Space for cars – more likely to be driven by men – took priority over the width of pavements, more likely to be used by women on foot. Housing blocks were designed without on-site childcare and laundry facilities; stairwells and lobbies were too cramped to manoeuvre a pushchair. In public toilets, the area available would be divided equally between men and women’s facilities, despite the fact that more urinals can fit into a space than closed cubicles, that women go to the loo more frequently than men, take longer to undress when they do, and are also more likely to be carrying more belongings or have children with them. 

That criticism persists today because these problems also persist today. As the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who coined the term “global city”, said to me last year: “We are a bit stuck with a certain type of city that was made for men to take trains to work and women to stay at home… We are stuck with an enormous amount of cement.”

Consider London, a city that is still very “zoned”, and that still prioritises radial public transport routes for commuting in and out of the centre, while neglecting orbital suburban links that are predominantly used by women for care work and other forms of unpaid labour. (It is important to point out that, in redressing these imbalances, the aim is not to make it easier for women to shoulder this labour or to reinforce gender stereotypes, but to more equally distribute the former and dismantle the latter.) 

In the 1940s, Le Corbusier designed the “Modulor”, a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things”. But that anthropomorphic scale was based on the height of a six foot tall man with his arm raised – the implications of which still influence the height of furniture, and the proportions of buildings, such as the UN headquarters in New York that Le Corbusier helped design. The list goes on. 

Because women are excluded from so much decision-making, cities also neglect women’s safety. Women experience their environments in vastly different ways to men, and women from different racial or socio-economic backgrounds, of different sexuality, age, and disabilities also experience spaces differently.

Many are quick to point out that women’s fear of violence is disproportionate to the statistical risk. It is true that actual abductions such as Sarah Everard’s are incredibly rare, and that men are more likely than women to be victims of violent crime or homicide. But the broader psychological impact of such attacks is huge.

Nothing physically violent ever happened to me on that path through the woods. But I was scared because the daily, low level harassment women experience is a constant reminder of what is at stake and the threat that we disproportionately face: the situation that escalates beyond this, to sexual violence. 

Catcalling, wolf whistling, unwelcome touching, unwanted sexual advances, verbal abuse, predatory looks and stares – we all have so many examples of harassment that they blur into a collective memory. According to a report published by UN Women UK this month, 97 per cent of women in the UK aged 18-24 have been harassed, while more than 70 per cent of women of all ages have been sexually harassed in a public space. Any one of these instances could be the one that turns into sexual violence, that threatens to take so much more from us than a phone or a wallet. In a world littered with potential threats, we tread carefully all the time.

This is why we need to take women’s perception of safety as the starting point for change. We need to ask what makes women feel unsafe, why, where, and what can be done to change it. 

There are a number of success stories from around the world that show us how to do this. In the late 1980s, the Metropolitan Toronto Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children developed the first women’s safety audit, a data gathering exercise informed directly by women’s experiences.

In Vienna, gender mainstreaming (a pledge to give equal consideration to different gender perspectives at every stage of urban design) has helped rank the city as the most or second most liveable in the world since 2015. In the Austrian capital, public parks have been redesigned to include spaces for sports more likely to be played by young girls, such as volleyball, badminton and rollerblading. Pavements have been widened, street lighting improved, seating increased, and city departments have to report on how their spending has benefited men and women. In the UK, the Women’s Design Service improved the design of buildings and public spaces, influencing the provision of baby changing facilities, as well as lighting around housing blocks for elderly women – until the collective was mothballed due to lack of funding in 2012.

More recent examples are found in Barcelona, where feminist cooperative Col·lectiu Punt 6 assists the government with the legal requirement for gender perspective to be included in urban design. The group’s recent projects have focused on removing adverts that sexualise women from billboards and public transport, while raising awareness about how their presence makes women sitting beneath them feel objectified and vulnerable. Safetipin, a women’s safety audit app built on user input, has formed partnerships with cities around the world to help tackle gender violence and harassment. In Mexico City, the government plastered a #NoEsDeHombres (“It’s Not Manly”) campaign on billboards and public transport to change men’s behaviour and victim-blaming. 

Nearly all of these projects have drawn similar conclusions: that women’s safety audits, followed by women-led implementation of solutions – such as improved lighting and visibility, reduced isolation and enclosed spaces, and more mixed-use areas that encourage “eyes on the street” – can improve women’s safety and our perception of our safety. 

With this wealth of research, best practice and real-life examples available the UK government’s knee jerk response to concerns raised by women after Sarah’s killing has been even more pitiful. (It has been bitterly ironic to hear the Prime Minister pledge “to drive out violence against women and girls”, given that, as London Mayor, he scrapped the post of women’s advisor, then held by Anni Marjoram.) Doubling the Safer Streets kitty, which funds improvements such as the installation of better street lighting and more widespread CCTV, is welcome. But piecemeal measures are useless unless they are part of a coordinated strategy that involves listening, data gathering, and women-led implementation. 

The government should instead learn from studies such as the report published in March 2020 by academics at University College London, which includes specific recommendations for making London safer for women and girls: reinstate the Women’s Design Service, originally established in 1987 to improve women’s safety in the built environment (or a body like it); implement gender mainstreaming – the process whereby all policy decisions take account of the needs of both women and men – and use gender-disaggregated data; employ existing initiatives such as the Women’s Night Safety Charter to conduct night safety audits; and build on existing public awareness campaigns.

Urban planning can, of course, only go so far in addressing violence and the fear of violence against women and girls. Sarah Everard’s killing has reinforced our grim understanding that gender violence occurs even in environments that are notionally “safe”.

But while the reform of cultural, political and justice structures is, by definition, a lengthy process, enlightened urban design led by women can provide relatively fast, tangible, confidence-building results. Existing initiatives in the UK, such as work by UN Women UK, should not be overlooked in the response to recent outcry. Otherwise, as Sakia Sassen said, for as long as women remain on high alert, adjusting our behaviour accordingly, what we face “is a kind of torture”.

Antonia Cundy is a freelance journalist. Previously, she’s worked as an investigative reporter and a companies reporter at the Financial Times, and as an undercover reporter for Channel 4’s Dispatches.