How city planners could help women feel safer

Stories of female harassment are all too common, but people are looking more closely at the design of cities and asking if certain features make women more or less vulnerable in public spaces.

India, Austria among countries looking to improve public spaces

The accounts of rape and murder of women in India have given rise to widespread protests as well as research into ways to make public spaces more safe. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

A few years ago, when my oldest daughter was 12 or 13, she and I headed out for a walk in the centre of Rome, where we live.

As we ambled along a narrow sidewalk with a high wall on one side, chatting, I noticed a sudden change in her gait. Her shoulders slouched forward, she brought her arms closer to her body and picked up her pace.

Then she nudged me and under her breath said, “Let’s cross.”

Puzzled, I looked around. Up ahead, I spotted a small group of teenage boys standing at a street corner, smirking at her.

With a sinking feeling, I thought, A-ha, so it begins: initiation into the world of the male gaze – and the possibility of comments, harassment or worse – and the shrinking effect it can have on women and girls anywhere in the world.

A lot has been said about the social and political causes of men harassing women in public. The horrific gang rape – and subsequent death – of a young physiotherapy intern in New Delhi in 2012 touched a deep, angry chord in a country that had long tolerated harassment of and violence against women.

Recently, however, more women around the world are looking closely at the design of cities and asking if these features help or hinder women in public spaces.

Taking action

In India, these are questions the women’s right group Jagori has been asking for more than a decade. In the early 2000s, inspired by trailblazing work done in Toronto by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), Jagori led neighbourhood walkabouts in New Delhi to assess how safe its public spaces actually feel. 

What they found was that urban planning in New Delhi has utterly failed to take women’s needs into account, says Jagori director Saneeta Dhar.

“Urban design has never unpacked the requirements specifically of women,” says Dhar, pointing out that the design of public toilets, for instance, doesn’t take into account that women menstruate.

“There is no waste disposal. Sometimes there’s no water. So what happens is that women are disposing their menstrual waste in the forest or land,” where they fear being assaulted.

In May 2014, two girls in northern India were murdered as they headed to a field to go the bathroom because there was no public toilet near their homes.
In 2014, a Danish tourist said she was robbed and then gang-raped in the Paharganj district near the New Delhi railway station. (Vijay Mathur/Reuters)

Saneeta says the risk of violence is just one of the problems in a country where half of its 1.2 billion people don’t have indoor plumbing.

“To some extent, the fear of violence keeps you from toilets at night, because if someone’s not with you, you wouldn’t go. So what does that do? You don’t drink enough water, you eat less. We found that girls don’t eat as much when they go to schools, so there are health consequences like urinary infections.”

Anxiety, she adds, also causes girls to say no to occasions and opportunities that might broaden their lives.

Most public toilets that do exist in India are sanitary and safety minefields, with flooding and broken stall doors. And often, men and boys are lurking around.

A right to safety

Every woman wants to feel safe while going to work, school or running errands.

In the book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, journalist Sameera Khan, sociologist Shipla Phadke and architect Shilpa Ranade argue that city design should send the message that women are actually welcome – not just to go about their business, but to express their right to carefree pleasure.

Mumbai has a reputation as India’s most cosmopolitan city, and a relatively female-friendly one. Yet the authors found that women make up just a third of the people on its streets – and only 20 percent of the hundreds of thousands of people who pass through commuter train stations each day.

“We also found men occupy space in a very different way. Men would choose to take a particular path because it was more interesting and they can just hang out,” says architect Shilpa Ranade.

“Women use public space as transit from one private space to another. They think about who would be looking at them, and they would strategize, often crossing the street when there was a group of men in front of a lottery shop, for instance.”

The Why Loiter authors point to the women-only train compartments in Mumbai and other cities around the world as a positive — though, they hope, temporary — solution to male staring and groping.

They also argue for public toilets to be open around the clock – to signal to women that they have the right to be out at all hours – as well as parks with low fences and many access points.

Re-shaping the landscape

Parks have been a major focus for female urban planners in the Austrian capital of Vienna, one of the more female-friendly cities in the world, one that has been repeatedly voted by the Mercer Study as the city with the highest quality of living in the world. 
In order to make women feel safer in public spaces, the city of Mumbai has introduced women-only train compartments. (Megan Williams/CBC)

After the research of two sociologists revealed that girls tend to stop going to parks around age 10, a small gender planning unit set up by the City of Vienna went to work on planning parks that would attract girls.

The researchers observed that boys were often more assertive than girls; when both tried to lay claim to a sports field or ball court, the boys usually won.

So planners from the gender unit hired landscape architects for six new parks that included features such as high perches for girls where they could see across the park; fences that had gaps in them, so they wouldn’t feel trapped; and different ball and sports courts, so if one space was taken over by boys, they’d have other options to play.

The city’s small gender expert unit in the technical planning group launched 60 pilot projects in all.

They widened sidewalks and built huge ramps near a major intersection to make movement easier for people with strollers, wheelchairs or walkers. They added lighting to streets to make women feel safer at night, and moved bus stops to spots where women felt comfortable waiting.

Today, in a policy known as “gender mainstreaming” or “fair-shared cities,” every design decision in Vienna takes into account the needs of girls and women – as well as other often overlooked groups, such as immigrants and the disabled.

As Vienna has transformed, the political aspect of the change has become increasingly clear, says gender unit head planner Eva Kail.

“If you are using public space, you are also becoming a public person,” says Kail.

“In Europe, starting with Greek democracy, all the revolutions started in public places. Political history is always connected with specific spots in city. To be able to be in the city, in the way you want to be, shows in a really clear way what your chances in society are.”

Listen to the documentary Claiming Space on CBC Radio's Ideas program on Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. ET.