Creating safe and inclusive public spaces for women

By Vanessa Czerniawski, Health Promotion Officer

This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of the Planning Institute of Australia’s Planning News.

My gym temporarily closed in March this year. The playgrounds that I regularly visited with my toddler also closed. Like many other Victorians, I had to re-think ways to use public spaces to maintain my fitness and entertain my very energetic 3-year old. I soon realised that, despite restricted access to areas I used to frequent, I was actually interacting with public spaces more often overall and in so many different ways than I could have ever expected. And I wasn’t the only one.

Public spaces foster social connections, encourage physical activity and recreational pursuits, and play a significant role in community life. Being able to occupy public space can positively impact on social, mental and physical health. Experiencing public spaces in new ways also really highlighted the importance of ensuring all public spaces are designed to be enjoyed by everyone within the community. Good design is crucial to creating spaces that are safe and inclusive for everyone – particularly for women and girls.

My area of work is health promotion, at a women’s health organisation, where we work with our partner organisations to ensure they consider the unique needs of women and girls when making program planning decisions. Putting a ‘gender lens’ on everything is what we do, which means we support state-wide and local bodies to consider how gender inequality impacts on women’s experiences. This approach can be applied across all disciplines – including urban planning and design.                                                                                             

The evidence shows that women are more likely than men to feel unsafe in public spaces, and are also more likely to feel as though a space is not designed with them in mind. This is particularly true for women who experience other intersecting forms of marginalisation, such as those who identify as LGBTIQ, women from migrant backgrounds, older women, Aboriginal women and women with a disability. Only 61% of Australian women reported feeling safe when walking alone at night, compared to 77% of men (Safety – Australia, OECD Better Life Index 2020). These perceptions of a lack of safety in public spaces can make women feel anxious and make them less likely to occupy these spaces, which means they are also missing out on the many benefits that public spaces bring. What is it about public spaces that can make women feel as though they are not made for them, and how can this be addressed through design?

Use and perception unique to lived experience

Women use and perceive public spaces in ways that are unique and specific to their lived experience, and much of this is influenced by the roles that they have historically taken on within our society. For example, women are more likely to take on care taker roles, and specific design considerations to make spaces useable and safe for young children and the elderly can make them more engaging for women. This could include designing walking paths with wide footpaths for prams, wheelchairs and walkers and accessible toilets with baby change facilities. Playgrounds are another key public space used by women, and thoughtful design can hugely impact on whether these are utilised. Ensuring that playgrounds have clear lines of sight to, that toilets and change facilities are within the vicinity and the provision of adequate seating are basic, yet key design aspects to ensure playgrounds are regarded as safe and accessible.

Other physical infrastructure, such as easy to read signs and directions, adequate lighting and well-maintained paths can influence women’s decision to engage with spaces. Additionally, mixed use areas where people can walk, play, eat and exercise at different times of the day ensure that the area is used at all times, encouraging community members to linger, which has the flow on effect of increasing women’s perceptions of safety and time spent there (Safe Public Places: Rethinking Design for Women Safety, Soraganvi, AS, 2017).

Subjective elements of the environment can also impact on women’s willingness to engage with spaces. A predominance of male named businesses, statues and artwork by men, and sexist and provocative ads can make women and girls feel excluded (Research project highlights the varied ways a woman can feel unsafe in a city, Kalms, N, Matthewson, G and Salen, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2017). It’s therefore key that, along with addressing physical safety, planners consider how women are represented and recognised in public spaces. An example from Spain is the conscious effort of naming streets after women (in Barcelona, the number of streets named after women went from 7% in 1996 to 27% in 2010) and encouraging public art to remember the contribution that women have made to Spain (Designing cities for women: lessons from Barcelona’s ‘Feminist City’, Abbey Seitz, streets.mn, May 22 2020).

In order to create safe and inclusive public spaces for all women, their voices and expertise must be front and centre in every stage of planning through a co-design approach. Firstly, it is about ensuring that women are working in urban design leadership positions so that they are able to bring their perspectives and experiences to the table. It is also about listening to the voices of women within a community in order to gather rich, real world data that can be used to guide the design and development of useable, inclusive and accessible public spaces.

By placing that ‘gender lens’ over public spaces, and by considering the unique needs of the whole community, planners have the opportunity to create spaces that are attractive, active, healthy, safe and inclusive – for everyone.