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Reshaping Towns and Cities blog series: Putting women’s safety at the centre of urban design and placemaking

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Our Account Manager Laura Cunliffe-Hall explores how urban planners and policymakers can make our public realm and spaces safer and more liveable for women in the first of a blog series following on from our ‘Reshaping Towns and Cities in a post-COVID world’ webinar.

A recent survey for UN Women UK found that 80% of women of all ages in the UK said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. This statistic relays a stark reality – more needs to be done to ensure that our public spaces are made safer for women.

Much of our public realm is designed by and for men. Currently, as a society we are participating in a wider cultural conversation around the threat of violence against women and fears around women’s safety following on from the tragic murder of Sarah Everard while she was walking home in South London.

As women, we are taught to internalise fears regarding our safety from a young age and adapt our behaviour to avoid ‘risk’ associated with our participation in public spaces. These fears, alongside the way towns and cities have been designed, have a direct impact on our experiences of public spaces. Such experiences must also be understood from an intersectional perspective. Our ability to enjoy and feel comfortable in public space is inherently unequal. This must change – our public spaces must be fit for purpose for everyone. Safety should be given prime consideration while shaping our cities and towns from the outset.

As outlined in our previous blog, public spaces are continuing to evolve in response to social distancing, sustainability and economic requirements resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have an opportunity to use this moment to reshape and future-proof our towns and cities. This demonstrates appetite for reflection and improvement related to projects being brought forward across the housing, transport and infrastructure sectors, with 45% of our ‘Reshaping Towns and Cities in a post-COVID world’ webinar attendees highlighting that our industry should completely overhaul upcoming plans and projects to help the economic recovery of our towns and cities post-pandemic.

With this in mind, there is no better time for developers, planners and policymakers to ensure that women’s, and all of our safety, is put at the heart of the placemaking process.

Steps we can take to make our spaces more inclusive and safer for women:

  • Any planning or placemaking process must include and amplify women’s voices – giving women and girls a seat at the table makes it easier to understand the challenges we face in public spaces and shows a genuine commitment to a dialogue of improvement.
  • Safety audits – providing a detailed analysis of potential risks within developments and planning applications that could have an impact on people’s safety. Dr Ellie Cosgrave, a lecturer in urban innovation and policy at University College London, has identified the need to understand the “social dynamics” of an area by conducting surveys, speaking to people, and implementing changes – a detailed safety audit could encompass these factors.
  • Better lighting – Arup have published reports and research on topics entitled ‘Cities Alive: Rethinking the Shades of Night’ and ‘Making Cities Safer for Women and Girls’ focusing on how the way light bounces off different road colours, surface finishes or the brightness of the area outside of the concentrated beam of light can affect our perceptions of brightness and safety in a space. Better lighting of spaces to reflect women’s lived experiences will positively improve how we are able to participate in public spaces.
  • Improving landscaping and external visibility natural surveillance and landscaping spaces strategically not only improves access to nature, which is important for both physical and mental wellbeing, but provides improved visibility that makes outside spaces safer.
  • Regular maintenance of shared spaces– Funding to maintain and also upgrade shared spaces, across both developments and the wider public realm, projects an image of community and collective civic pride, as opposed to neglect, making spaces more egalitarian and removing the possibility of being isolated or ‘cut off’ that can create situations of vulnerability.

Further investment is required to generate tangible long-term change

Government’s Safer Streets Fund will invest £45m in local measures such as better lighting and CCTV, alongside controversial methods relating to undercover police in nightspots. However, there is a consensus that further investment and a greater commitment to longer-term change is required to make women feel safer across our towns and cities. This is also a global issue – almost 9 in 10 women in some cities around the world feel unsafe in public spaces.

By working collaboratively to address these genuine concerns relating to women’s safety, developers, planners and policymakers can look to reshape our towns and cities for the better. We need to work together to ensure that protected characteristics and the interests of marginalised groups are taken into account and that we integrate people’s lived experience at the earliest stages of urban design and planning conversations.

Above all, it’s time we improve women’s freedom and ability to access our public spaces – without fear.

To find out more about ensuring collaborative placemaking, safety and social value can positively shape a development and generate engagement and advocacy,  please contact Laura Cunliffe-Hall, Account Manager within Copper’s Economic Development practice at Laura.Cunliffe-Hall@copperconsultancy.com

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