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The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2023 

Planning for Women's Safety: Text

Tomorrow marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was designated by the United Nations with the purposes of preventing violence against women and girls around the world. The day was coined in 2008 to raise global awareness of the challenges faced by women and girls, promote advocacy and create opportunities for the discussion of solutions. Reflecting on the aims of such day, we have taken the opportunity to use our platform as women who are Planners to see how ‘public space’ can promote safety and inclusivity, including what efforts have been made to introduce such strategies. 

In the UK over 70% of women say they have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. On a global scale, it has been recorded that almost 9 in 10 women in some cities around the world feel ‘unsafe’ in public spaces. Such figures are increasing. Arguably, the systems in place to reduce violence and harassment are not working, with an increasing fear towards law enforcement, lack of faith in ‘safety measures’, it questions how women can feel safe and supported in the built environment. 

Broadly speaking, the design of cities and public spaces can be argued to be gender-biased, which results in the built environment perpetuating gender inequalities. Cities themselves are not built with the intention of encouraging violence, however they do create situations that increase the vulnerability of violence and harassment towards women due to poor design. Consequently, this results in increased fear associated with public spaces, whereby women will alter their lives to intentionally avoid such spaces, for example during night hours.  

The ‘End Violence Against Women’ movement gathered data in 2021 to reflect the reality of feelings of safety for women, whereby it revealed that 1 in 2 women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in busy public space, compared to 1 in 5 men. Even 1 in 2 women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near to their own home, compared to 1 in 7 men. The data came from the release of the UK Government’s ‘Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy’ which was launched in light of the increased public awareness, anger and distress regarding violence following the devastating murders of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman and many others. 

The distressing reality is (as shown by various data collections, studies and the lived experience of women) that being followed, harassed and assaulted are almost universally shared experience of being and women and girl, and the threat of violence towards us leads to additional ‘safety work’ which ultimately restricts the sense of freedom due to poor planning. 

The proposed Planning (Women’s Safety) Bill originated in the House of Commons 2021-22 which would require an assessment of the impact of women’s safety to be published as a condition of planning approval for major developments. This was sponsored by Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West who undertakes a role as a Spokesperson for Women and Equalities. During the second reading, Parliament prorogued, and this Bill was to make no further progress. This completely avoids the duty we have in ensuring safety and inclusivity for all, and how having increased attention to such issues in terms planning is significant in working towards environments where everybody can feel represented and respected. 

Rebecca Hitchen, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the EVAW Coalition stated: 

“[…] Women are tired of constantly undertaking personal risk assessments and invisible safety work to keep themselves safe from male violence.” 

The question we have today is why must women internally produce such ‘risk assessments’ when they can be a mandatory requirement in planning to create paces that can be safely accessed and enjoyed by all. 

Safety is essential for the public; however, women are disproportionately impacted by poor design in public spaces. Therefore, it can be argued that women cannot fully enjoy cities until they are guaranteed safe passage through public spaces and that the perceptions of women must be included in planning and design processes.  

In our profession, it is important to recognise gendered differences in planning practice. The case for ‘gender inequality’ in planning was made in the 1960s and 1970s by two generations of women who battled to have their ideas heard, their work respected, and to pursue a career in a notoriously male dominated profession. Yet, despite almost sixty years of feminism and discourse around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), a survey conducted by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in 2017 discovered that more than 20% of women working in planning have faced (and often continue to face) gender related barriers to their professional advancement. While gender equality is crucial to all parts of society, it is particularly essential to planning because the lack of gender diversity affects not only the way we design and plan, but also who we design and plan for. 

“As a woman, I have experienced feelings of being unsafe in certain urban areas. I have developed what seems like a subconscious defence mechanism to avoid certain areas during certain times of the night and change my behaviours, however it should not be the case. 

 As a Planner, I want to use this lived experience to express solidarity in practice to influence the design of spaces which will increase the sense of safety. I wish to ensure women and girls feel represented in ‘planning for public interest’, and so that they can enjoy spaces without the fear of violence.” 

Sophie Stanton, Chartered Planner at NJL Consulting 

“How we design streets and public spaces can have a huge impact on the feeling of, and actual level of safety for those who use the space. This helps everyone to be safer, but we know that this issue affects women. 

It’s essential that the safety of spaces are considered from the very start of the design process. At Northstone, safety is always at the forefront of what we do and runs alongside other strategies to ensure our neighbourhoods are welcoming, attractive, and sustainable. Most of the time, the strategies for safe design are unambiguous and all parties agree to their merit. For example, good lighting and ensuring spaces are overlooked is key so that people feel too exposed to commit a crime (and get away with it!). Other visual obstacles such as tall planting or fencing etc. should also be carefully considered to ensure that hiding spaces are designed out where possible. These aspects of designing for safety are generally less open for interpretation, although the success of their implementation often varies. It would be interesting to understand in the poorer examples, how much of a priority was given to safety by the designer, developer, and planning officer etc. I’ve seen in my own experience the lack of priority given to safety in design when those making decisions don’t experience fear when walking alone at night.  

The few times we’ve had push back against an aspect of design that prioritised user safety has been in relation to pedestrian walking routes. The clearest example that comes to mind was a debate with a planning officer over whether a specific footpath should be a dead end, terminating in a cul-de-sac type space, or whether it should continue through and connect into a nearby busier road. Their argument was that continuing the footpath would allow someone committing a crime to escape and therefore it should be a dead end. Our argument was that even a dead end relies on the passer-by being willing and able to physically stop the person who was trying to escape and could result in an assault on the passerby in the process. On top of this, the lack of an alternative route would make it easier for an assailant to corner someone and could therefore make it easier for a crime to occur in the first place. Including a well-used walking route also provides additional surveillance, adding to the feeling of safety and deterrent to crime.  As a woman who regularly feels uneasy walking alone in public,  I could not comprehend why the planning officer’s explicit priority would be to facilitate the capture of someone who had already committed a crime, over strategies that have the potential to prevent the crime from happening in the first place, such as providing an escape route for a potential victim. Luckily, we were in a position to fight back on this point and keep the through route and safer street design. Let’s not forget the non-crime related implications too, when we create well connected walking routes, we reduce car use and make it easier for those with reduced mobility to get around. 

What this example demonstrated to me was a distinct difference in perception of crime and safety between those involved. This has made me concerned that a person with such a position of influence over street design could so comprehensively misunderstand, or not give priority to, the experience of safety for women. However, while there are developers, designers, planning consultants, and other people with influence over design who are fighting for safer streets we are moving in the right direction!” 

Hannah Flory, Design Manager Architect at Northstone.

In expressing solidarity with women across the world, we encourage you to share your experiences and thoughts on how spaces can become safer and more supportive of women in urban environments and how we can create environments which are socially sustainable for the future generation of women. 

Planning for Women's Safety: Text
Planning for Women's Safety: Image
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