Cities Are Sexist & Aren’t Designed To Keep Women Safe. Here’s How That Could Change

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
Could urban planning help keep women safe? Are cities sexist? Unless you are a housing nerd like me, these are probably not questions that you’ve ever seriously asked yourself. But it is worth asking how we design safer cities for women because the conversation about women’s safety in public spaces is urgent. And part of the answer lies in design – in well-lit walkways and open communal spaces. 
In 2020, sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were killed in a north London park. 2021 has been punctuated by the senseless killings of two young women: Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. Everard was walking home from a friend’s house down a well-lit main road when she was taken by then-serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens. Nessa had just left her home and was making her way to a local bar when she was allegedly attacked and killed by a 36-year-old man. 
Each of these brutal and untimely deaths has cast a long shadow over Britain and sparked at once weary, at once angry conversations about what it will actually take to deal with systemic violence against women and girls. There is much that needs to change but too little discussion about how we design and live in our public spaces. 
There are now several campaigns aimed at bringing more attention to this issue. Our Streets Now was founded by two young women living in southeast England and aims to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence and for the issue to be part of the secondary school curriculum. And in Sheffield, Our Bodies Our Streets is campaigning on practical ways to help women feel safer, including better lighting in the city’s parks. 
To move forward we must acknowledge, as feminist geographer Leslie Kern does in her book Feminist City, that public spaces are not designed with women in mind. This is borne out in the obvious and visible – poor street lighting – and the less tangible – the fact that certain groups, namely women and disabled people, have historically been excluded from the process of designing buildings, meaning that they do not suit their needs in basic ways (for example, inaccessible walkways, narrow toilet cubicles and a lack of communal spaces). 

At the most obvious level, cities have been built, designed, and planned primarily by men. So, there is a predominantly male perspective on how the city works or should work.

Leslie kern
Speaking to me over email, Kern is clear that "we can’t entirely ‘design out’ violence against women, so there is no perfect planning formula for this!" Any approach to ending violence against women and girls must start with education and re-education. But there is a role for planning to play. One that extends beyond keeping women safe into making sure that the built world they inhabit works for them. 
For too long, there has been little consideration of women as mothers, workers or carers in urban planning. And so, while we need an overhaul of our political and social systems – the police, the criminal justice system, our education system – which is informed by an acceptance that women’s experiences of harassment and violence are rooted in sexism, the petri dish where male privilege and entitlement escalates to abuse and violence, we also need to reconfigure the physical structures we inhabit. 
In her book Kern asks what public spaces for working women would look like. "A city of friendships beyond Sex and the City," she writes. "A transit system that accommodates mothers with strollers on the school run. A public space with enough toilets." There would be places where women can live without harassment, where we aren't trying to suppress our fears or downplay our lived experience in order to go about our day-to-day lives. Where we feel visible. Where we feel safe. Where we can walk home.
"At the most obvious level, cities have been built, designed, and planned primarily by men. So, there is a predominantly male perspective on how the city works or should work, and a bias toward seeing men’s needs, routines, bodies, and experiences as the standard or universal norm," Kern explains. "Even if it’s unconscious or unintentional, the result is that cities have been set up to serve men’s roles and women’s lives and experiences have been an afterthought at best."
Infrastructure is an important piece of this puzzle. Examples include the design of transportation networks, which prioritise moving people into and out of the central city in a linear journey at rush hours. Yet, Kern points out, this does not serve women. "Research from all over the world shows that women’s journeys are more likely to involve multiple stops, be non-linear, and include both household serving trips and trips for paid work," she explains. "Women also make more public transit and pedestrian journeys and have less access to a private vehicle. Yet our transit systems continue to be organised around the comfort and convenience of the old idea of the male breadwinner. Anyone who has ever tried to take a stroller onto a bus or subway car knows that the system wasn’t designed for them."

Women make more public transit and pedestrian journeys and have less access to a private vehicle. Yet our transit systems continue to be organised around the comfort and convenience of the old idea of the male breadwinner.

leslie kern
Studies conducted by the European Institute for Gender Equality confirm that women – particularly those on low incomes – rely on public transport more than men. More than this, affordable housing which is near schools, work and public transport needs to become a bedrock of urban planning. The unaffordable nature of housing in Britain today particularly impacts women, who, as the Women’s Budget Group has repeatedly pointed out, will struggle to find a home anywhere in the country that is affordable for them to buy or rent alone. 
"Women experience the most violence at home, and high costs of housing can prevent them from leaving abuse," Kern explains. "Women also want to be able to travel easily between home, work, shopping without being isolated or far from sites of urban activity. Mixed use environments also help, as this increases the likelihood that there will be people around, transit service, open businesses at different times of day and night."
Kern also suggests that planners should work with women. "Cities can engage women in 'safety audit' practices in order to learn which areas need to be improved in terms of lighting, sightlines, accessibility and other safety issues," she says. "This means involving women, girls and perhaps other marginalised groups (like older people, disabled people) in bottom-up planning processes and listening to their ideas for changes that would improve their safety."
These are not new ideas. In 1981 an all-female architecture practice called the Matrix Feminist Design Co-Operative was founded. Their mission was to speak up for those usually excluded from the process of designing buildings, challenge patriarchal norms and create truly inclusive spaces. Crucially, they strove to involve historically excluded people in their design process. 
The group designed a number of spaces for women and marginalised groups, as well as running training courses and publishing research. One of those spaces is the Jagonari Women’s Educational Resource Centre, built in 1984-7 for a Bangladeshi organisation in Whitechapel, London. It was designed in collaboration with its users and is still standing. Another space is Walworth Garden near London’s Elephant and Castle, which used to be known as Walworth City Farm. The group’s ideas are still relevant today and form the basis of an exhibition which is currently running at London’s Barbican.  
"Much of our environment has been designed on the basis of stereotypes of women’s and men’s work," wrote Matrix in its 1984 publication Making Space. "The design of houses in Britain reflects the oppression of women in society. In the final decision-making, women’s real needs ... are not taken as seriously as male-dominated ideas about the ‘appropriate’ house for the family."
There is a lot to be learned from the ethos of radical groups like Matrix as well as the work of geographers like Kern as we move forward from a series of horrific murders and out of the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. For years now, the UN has made creating safe and empowering spaces for women and girls a priority in a bid to tackle sexual harassment and violence around the world. It's time to put radical ideas into practice.
Léan Doody leads the Integrated Cities and Planning network in Europe at the multinational design firm ARUP. She says that creating safe public spaces for women is relatively easy to do. "There are many strategies we can use to make places safer, such as lighting, careful design of public realm to enable sightlines and passive surveillance, and planning for convivial place-making," she says. "But we need to go further and focus on the role men can play in ensuring women’s safety. Co-creating urban plans and policies with people who live and work in the places should allow us to come up with ways of creating psychological and physical safety for women—and men."
The key for Doody, as it is for Kern and was for Matrix, is involving people who will use public spaces in their design. "In particular, designing inclusive and accessible transport infrastructure and services for all requires a creative approach to design," Doody says. "By adopting a process of co-creation workshops that bring together different stakeholders, importantly including women and women’s organisations, we can help identify the specific barriers and opportunities around the use of public spaces, and by addressing these we can encourage more sustainable design choices."
It’s not enough to victim-blame individual women and girls who go out alone late at night, encouraging them to tell people where they are and "text when they get home". Nor is it enough to stop at getting justice for those who have lost their lives. Changing legislation and criminalising bad behaviours can only go so far. If we really want to tackle violence against women and girls, we must also ask how we can transform cities, not only so that women feel safe but so that they are able to function.

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