Ever hesitated to walk alone at any given time during the day? That is the reality for women all over the world. “Poor street design, disparate land use, time constraints, lack of personal safety—all of these conspire to force women off their feet and into cars. We have built a transportation system that discounts women’s travel needs, and women—and our communities—are suffering for it.” - Katie Matchett, urban planner. We explore what makes cities unsafe for women and what can be done to ensure women’s safety in the urban environment.
Author: Siphilele Magagula
Image: Courtesy of Rene Asmussen via Pexels
Walking in public as a female is daunting and dangerous across the globe as women are often targets for sexual harassment and abuse. In London, 43% of young women reported experiencing street harassment in a year, while a 2013 study in France found that 1 in 4 women fear walking alone in public spaces and 1 in 5 was verbally harassed while walking on the street.
This has a huge impact on women's ability to engage in many aspects of urban living. Hostile urban environments affect everyone, however women more acutely. City design and policies have a role to play in ensuring women’s safety by making cities more accessible to women and children.
How Hostile Urban Environments Affect Women’s Health
There are both environmental and social factors that contribute to women and children not feeling comfortable walking in public. Dark, narrow empty streets, insufficient access to public transit, inaccessibility to amenities in low income areas, as well as street harassment make it extremely uncomfortable for women to walk in city streets, especially after hours. As women are primary caretakers, they often travel with children, making safety paramount. To ensure their safety they often resort to driving or using public transportation instead of walking, regardless of the distances they have to travel which promotes inactivity.
A recent study investigated the physical activity patterns between men and women of over 700,000 people in 111 countries by collecting smartphone travel data. Results showed that in countries with high activity inequality, women were much less physically active than men, which leaves them at risk of obesity.
1 | Walkable Cities Are Women-Friendly Cities
Why do some countries have higher activity inequality than others? According to the study women are more physically active in walkable places. A study set in three London neighborhoods found that the following made women feel safer:
Walkability: Walkable cities give pedestrians priority by minimizing the need to use vehicles. Infrastructure for walkability can include:
Wide, well-lit, tree-lined sidewalks and walkways to accommodate strollers and deter prowlers;
Safe and direct pedestrian crossings and connectivity with mass transit.
General Maintenance: Maintaining clear sight lines on pathways leading to public spaces by cutting back shrubbery. The study revealed that public places that were not well maintained made women feel unsafe.
Image courtesy of Vinta Supply via Pexels
Safer Public Transportation: Women-friendly transportation infrastructure ensures that women have equal access to all parts of the city - well lit and surveilled parking areas as well as public transportation stations (train, bus and cab stations).
Cycling Infrastructure: To promote an active lifestyle, cycling infrastructure is a crucial element. Bicycling infrastructures are often designed with men in mind - men are comfortable cycling with traffic, whereas women are less willing to take such risks. The Women's Cycling Project further reports that separated off-road cycling paths, wider lanes on roads, good connectivity and more direct routes result in greater numbers of women bicyclists.
Images courtesy of Pexels
2 | Including Women In The Urban Planning Process
Although there have been great improvements in female representation in the build environment industry, currently most architects, planners and policy makers are still men, with women in more supporting roles. It is a simple as this - if women are in decision making positions in the built environment fields, women will be accounted for in all aspects of urban design. “I think it’s important to have women not only at the table, but women running the meeting, setting the table, bringing voices in and leading” explained Lynn Ross, former vice president of Community and National Initiatives (CNI) program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Vienna is a good example as the city has developed more inclusive planning strategy since the early 1990s. The city’s project called Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City), saw a major improvement in the urban landscape - green spaces were integrated into living spaces, which were built in close to kindergartens schools, pharmacies, and doctors offices were included. The city also improved connectivity to public transit. The project also extended outside of living spaces, city planners widened sidewalks, lit paths and alleyways, and redesigned public parks - creating a much safer city for women.
Image courtesy of Tim Gouw via Pexels
3 | Designing Tech Solutions for Women’s Safety
Policymakers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are currently working on identifying safety risks in 10 of the city’s largest slums by partnering with women & young girls in these communities. Their strategy is to use smartphones to map safety risks which include insufficient lighting, obscure walking routes and defective infrastructure in order to assess and improve accordingly. These improvements will protect the safety and wellbeing of women in these areas.
Rio favelas | Image courtesy of CatComm
UN Habitat in collaboration with developers has designed an App called ‘Safetipin’ that provides women with information regarding safety in their cities. Safetipin is collecting data on a large scale to equip city authorities with information they can use for better planning and governance. Through the App a user can conduct a safety audit, pin places where they feel unsafe or have faced any form of harassment. The App relies on crowd sourced information, so women are able to see information that has been uploaded by other women and make informed decisions when navigating their city. Current focus areas for this project are – Bogota, Nairobi and Delhi. This will city governments to collect data and address women’s safety in their districts.
Safetipin | Image courtesy of T3 Middle East
Women are the backbone of every economy therefore we cannot afford to leave them out in the designing of cities. All the highlighted findings show the need for global public health policy, urban planning policies as well as collaboration with other disciplines to improve in order to ensure safer cities for women and children and improving physical activity and health.