- 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 is about putting positive societal values at the heart of urban planning and building design.
- New approaches to planning and developing safer environments could ensure that outcomes improve for women who work and live in urban areas. This would have a positive impact on how women feel about returning to the office.
“Across the globe, women’s experiences of unsafety are so frequent that they become normalised. This year, we need to do more to prevent violence and harassment because it has a knock-on effect on health, economic empowerment, autonomy, and freedom.” – Claire Barnett, Executive Director, UN Women UK.
In addition to being a huge public health issue, harassment and violence against women limits their economic and migratory freedoms.
If women do not feel safe on their commute to work, what impact will this have on the numbers returning to the office?
Will women drop the commute in favour of working closer to home or to work entirely from home?
How will this affect their career and earning potential? Consequently, will there be a gender imbalance in workplaces across cities?
The ‘unsafe’ 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 listen” to women to improve urban safety
At the UDL conference, Julia Thrift, the Director of Healthier Place-making, TCPA (Town & Country Planning Association) spoke about the built environment and the impact it can have on people’s physical and mental wellbeing.
Julia emphasised 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 normative approach to creating safer buildings is required – one which focuses on designs that will provide the most desired outcomes (with health and safety being paramount).
Improving security should not only focus on installing closed-circuit television systems (CCTV) and improvements to poor lighting. Sometimes these interventions can actually discourage women from walking in certain areas. The presence of CCTV cameras and harsh lighting can create the perception of somewhere being unsafe (why else would it need so many security measures?).
Dinah Borat, from ZCD Architects, believes that when seeking solutions to unsafe areas we should take lighting and CCTV off the table entirely. Dinah believes that there needs to be a cultural shift in terms of thinking about what is desirable and necessary in our urban spaces.
Why women feel unsafe in urban areas
Women’s experiences and recommendations should be integral to the design process.
Marina Milosev, Principal Planning Officer at the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) agrees that it is vital to understand why women feel unsafe in the first instance. Marina believes in inclusive planning that takes into account data showing that a disproportionate number of women feel unsafe in urban areas.
In the night-time economy, there is a prevalence of roles taken by women (for instance, nurses on night duty). Many of these women have reported feeling unsafe when travelling to and from work. Findings from the LLDC’s Safety of Women and Girls Consultation reveal that 71% of all women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment and that younger women experience the most harassment (86% of 18–24-year-olds).
It is also common knowledge that certain communities of women are less safe than others – for example, trans women, black and minority ethnic women, and those who have a disability.
Perceptions of safety are just as important as experiences of being unsafe.
36% of women stated that they feel unsafe walking in their local areas at night. The consultation also asked women to pinpoint specific areas where they do or do not feel safe – which has led to the discovery of common characteristics between places where women feel either safe or unsafe.
These statistics and other findings from the consultation are highly significant. They could potentially inform research and enable any future design and development of buildings to explicitly consider safety issues and adopt measures to allay safety fears.
Improving safety for women in urban areas – next steps
So what should city planners and developers consider when seeking solutions to improve levels of safety for women in urban areas?
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach – urban planners need to determine what is needed in their locality and start from there.
- Warm lighting is better than harsh street lighting. Light can evoke a range of feelings and the presence of light can have a different impact on people at various times of the day or night.
- Cognitive cues such as CCTV can impact how people feel about a space and how they navigate it. These cues can often send out the wrong message and discourage people from entering a particular area.
- The development process can create temporary spaces which are in a constant state of flux. These spaces can cause people to feel anxious.
- Spaces that are interstitial (not a real, defined place) and those at the interface between public spaces and adjacent land can also feel unsafe.
- Certain spaces might appear fun and quirky during the day but at night they take on a more sinister character. These spaces need a rethink in terms of improving perceptions of safety.
- Spaces where women feel anonymous and isolated (for example, being in a building where you have no idea of who you are working next to) can also reduce feelings of safety.
Architects, developers and urban planners must ensure that women and girls are involved in building safer environments. Men should also contribute to the process and demonstrate their commitment to improving the experiences of women who work and live in cities.
Without real change, gender imbalances in the workplace could ensue, possibly resulting in an even wider gender pay gap. Hopefully, there is enough momentum to ensure safety is paramount and that economic and health outcomes for women will improve across cities everywhere.