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Changing the Narrative: Planning for how women use space

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

It has long been known that men and women experience the built environment in different ways. Women use public transport more, take shorter and more frequent journeys, often to very different locations, reflecting caring or other responsibilities. They experience public space in different ways too. The recent high-profile murder of Sarah Everard, among many others who attracted less media attention, tragically indicates the risks women face from gender-based violence in public space.

Yet this is just the extreme end of the spectrum of ways public spaces can prove hostile environments for women. Take public transport, which continues to be structured around commuting, rather than the local journeys often undertaken primarily by women. In these ways the public realm is constantly reinforcing a culture in which men assume their primacy in public space and women become inured to this inequality.

Planning regimes too often compound this problem, being historically shaped by assumptions about strict divisions between a world of work and a more feminine domestic sphere. These assumptions continue to influence land-use categorisations, with a legacy effect on who is supposed to be in certain types of space. This can be seen, for instance, in the way in which sports and play facilities have been and still too often are primarily planned and designed for male interests and usage.

This gendering is also apparent in open urban spaces. Many are legacies from the Victorian era and were primarily installed with surveillance and public order in mind. Women are among the objects of surveillance and worse.

A recent survey found that 71% of British women of all ages have been sexually harassed in public spaces, rising to 97% of 18-24 year olds.

Research into why, where and how this male dominance of space can spill over into harassment or violence against women remains under-developed. Too often attention is focused almost exclusively upon women’s responsibility for self-protection. The need to ’investigate how men dominate space and how this dominance can be broken’ that Gill Valentine identified as long ago as 1990 remains to be addressed.

Valentine’s research showed that women’s sense of safety was enhanced by greater footfall and more diversity in a space. She concluded therefore that strengthening social capital was more important than design factors to ensuring women’s safety. Yet the two are intertwined. Planning and design clearly contribute to continuing male dominance of often unwelcoming public spaces.

Indeed, existing design solutions to promote safety in these public spaces invariably reflect male views based upon the protection of property, rather than the wellbeing of people. In the process they also tend to convey a sense of danger, achieving in the process the very opposite of the increased social capital Valentine emphasised was necessary.

One example is the way security lighting is deployed. This, after all, is intended to intimidate and drive people away, not to make them feel either safe or included. Issues like the quality and positioning of lighting, rather than its intensity, are more important in the promotion of safety. Recent work has found that ’Women preferred a high-quality LED light that enabled them to distinguish shapes and colour, helping to create a sense of safety.’

Accordingly, a change of approach to planning and design features such as lighting should both increase the use and diversity of public spaces and, in the process, women’s safety as well. To achieve this, we need to try imagining what spaces planned to be inclusive and safe for women would look like. Forty years after Dolores Hayden’s ground-breaking effort to imagine ’What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like’ attempts to physically realise this vision remain elusive.

What, then, would engender built environments which are safer, more inclusive and welcoming for all, not least women? Design interventions, such as wider pavements or pedestrianisation intended to facilitate greater footfall, are not enough. Indeed, when men do the looking in public space and women are often the objects of their gaze, creating more visibility can also increase the risks for women.

Planning needs to encourage a more diverse range of business and amenities as well. The decline of physical retail is a contemporary reason to re-consider existing use-classes and their role in shaping planning concepts. However, the desirability of mixed use of space is an even more compelling ground for doing so.

In the process, planning needs to be reconfigured around encouraging engagement with space, rather than rigid concepts of usage based on outdated early twentieth-century models of economic activity. Planning briefs should major on such considerations. Instead, as one architect recently complained to me, too often new developments are monocultures intended for one group of users. They should rather create diverse and sustainable communities, with the differential needs of women fully taken into account in their design. This, I would argue, requires radical rethinking of the assumptions on which planning continues to be based.

Meanwhile, there is a need to engage more with local communities during the planning process. Yet only 26% of local Statements of Community Involvement in London indicate awareness of how to reach particular groups, and just 3% include a commitment to collaborate or co-create with such groups. Too often such groups are only included in the conversation when planning for a development is well-advanced, creating a situation ripe for conflict when local people feel they can only oppose rather than influence decision-making. More engagement would be good for all stakeholders, and not just women.

There is also a need to think through how planners can influence the characteristics of spaces to make them safer and more inclusive for women and other vulnerable groups. One recent example comes from Husby in Sweden. Husby’s central area was redeveloped to feature more amenities and social activities accessed by women, better lighting and transport access, a female-friendly café and more diverse retail offer. Similar commissions to design in diversity, as opposed to a one-size fits all approach, are starting to emerge in the UK as well.

Finally, planning for the ways in which women use public space should also increase their safety. There is a need to enable them to see rather than being seen. Breaking up spaces and their sightlines can facilitate this, contribute to footfall and make them feel safer. There is also evidence that women prefer spaces which offer more seclusion and intimacy, because ’We want to look each other in the eye’. Moving away from the hosile design of so much contemporary street furniture to more face-to-face benches would address this. Additionally, thought should be given to how planning specifications in detail might be used to produce such effects.

Such changes will not stop men and women experiencing public space in different ways. They would, however, ensure that the primacy of women’s use of public space, and place their safety and inclusion central to planning practice.


Author: Pippa Catterall

Pippa is a Professor of History and Policy at the University of Westminster. With Dr Ammar Azzouz she has recently co-authored Queering Public Space: Exploring the relationship between queer communities and public spaces (2021).

She will be speaking on ‘Art, Placemaking and Inclusion’ at the Folkestone Triennial in the Quarterhouse on 20 October 2021.


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