TW: This blogpost refers to sensitive matters around the subject area of women and the built environment, including sexual violence.
Hello and welcome!
After visits to European cities and experiencing the difference in basic needs that are provided for women there, we realised how our public spaces in the UK are outdated in terms of being inclusive and working for all members of society. This inspired our research into why our urban spaces do not work for women. The historic makeup of our built environment reflects traditional gender roles and the gendered division of labour, where women were typically the homemakers and men were the breadwinners. This expectation was mirrored in cityscapes and street scenes, which remain unchanged, despite huge advances towards gender equality in other areas. With women making up more than half Britain, existing urban spaces that were designed and planned for and by men, do not work for most of society.
The complicated and poorly accessible travel systems, intimidating cityscapes and inadequately lit streets or alleyways are all factors preventing women’s advancement in society and sense of safety. The UK’s rapid urbanisation resulted in large-scale outer city development, establishing a lack of connectivity to core and central areas and consequently enhanced the development of non-inclusive cities, that are restricted to the needs of the male population.
Planning and designing better public spaces that work for women is crucial. We often forget the deeper meaning of urban planning and how much it affects and dictates the way in which it impacts people’s lives. It is not solely about the makeup and aesthetic of the built environment or the extent to which development is sustainable, but how people perceive and access space. One negative experience in a space can affect an individual’s own development or future. For example, a young woman may have needed to get the bus to an evening language class, in attempt to broaden their skillset, but following a sexual assault incident on route, no longer feels safe on her journey, yet cannot afford an alternative mode of transport and so is inclined to discontinue her course. This then puts this young woman at a disadvantage when applying to future job positions, despite her efforts to expand her employability and credentials. This does not mean to say that the composition of urban spaces is the reason for sexual assault or harassment however, improving connectivity and offering other affordable alternatives that provide a sense of safety could contribute to the inclusivity of travel networks and an individual’s experience of public space.
The awareness around the subject of women’s safety has rapidly increased since the figure was released that 97% of young women had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Thus, somewhat unintentionally criticising urban planning. Again, not the only thing that can be entirely blamed and although, education and changing the general attitude is a key factor in preventing sexual harassment, inclusive design and planning can directly contribute to women’s safety.
We can firstly start by constantly having these conversations and making changes within planning on how to improve inclusivity and make better spaces for women, not only when a tragedy such as the death of Sarah Everard ignites the issue in the media. Decision making should constantly be considering women’s right to the city and safety when designing and approving proposals whilst actually integrating city-wide strategies – we do not all live, work and socialise in one area of a city and so strategies should be implemented consistently.
Our aim at HerCollective is to spread recognition on the importance of women’s safety whilst collaborating with others and sharing our findings. We hope this first piece along with our future research and posts give you an insight to the problem and inspires you to engage and promote the necessity for change.
Sign up to our newsletter to see more from us!
Some further resources that helped us in writing this include:
Advance Probono. (2021) Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces. APPG for UN Women. [online] Available at: https://www.unwomenuk.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/APPG-UN-Women-Sexual-Harassment-Report_Updated.pdf
Bauer, U. (2009) Gender Mainstreaming in Vienna How the Gender Perspective Can Raise the Quality of Life in a Big City. Kvinder, Køn & Forskning. Issue 3-4. Denmark: The Royal Library.
Engender (2020). What works for women. UK: Engender. [online] . Available at: https://www.engender.org.uk/content/publications/WHAT-WORKS-FOR-WOMEN---improving-gender-mainstreaming-in-Scotland.pdf
Kern, L. (2020) Feminist City: claiming space in a man-made world. Verso Publishing.
Matrix Feminist Design Collective. (1984) Making Space: women and the man made environment. Chapter 5. Curated Edit Collective. (2021) Republished UK: Barbican.