As a young woman living in south-west London, the tragic death of Sarah Everard sparked many memories of feeling a sense of fear when walking alone in public spaces.  From sharing my live-location with friends, to taking the longer and better-lit route, recent events have brought to attention the everyday precautions taken by myself and other women to simply get home safely.

This has not only ignited a wider debate around the issue of male violence, but has also placed a renewed focus on the role of those involved in the creation of the built environment in making streets safer for women.

This was the subject of a recent episode of Woman’s Hour, during which Dr Ellie Cosgrave, lecturer in Urban Innovation and Policy at UCL, provided her view on how our cities can be designed with the safety of women in mind.

The airing of the episode follows a government announcement to almost double the funding for neighbourhood safety measures including street lighting and CCTV to £45 million. Whilst funding towards creating safer streets is welcomed, many have raised questions as to what extent this will solve the problem of crime and harassment in public space.

The question remains, then – what more can be done by those involved in the creation of the built environment to ensure that female concerns are accounted for in the planning and design process?

Elevating women’s voices in the planning process

Women have a clear understanding of the spaces in which they do and do not feel safe. With fields such as planning, architecture and urban design being historically male-dominated, engaging with a wider range of voices who are otherwise disengaged from the planning process and acting on this will be key in creating a built environment where women feel comfortable.

Local engagement, and the harnessing of technology to reach a wider audience is at the heart of the White Paper: Planning for the Future. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated the use of virtual methods of engagement to reach out to a broader and more diverse audience. It is well known that traditional public exhibitions attract a particular demographic – yet as planning consultants we have all now witnessed the effectiveness of digital engagement in reaching new audiences.  

This presents an opportunity to better capture the female voices speaking out about the ways in which they experience the city as part of the consultation process. In turn, local authorities should consider how they can work with applicants and developers as part of a joined up approach to capture the data from such consultations to inform spatial strategies and masterplans which consider how women move about local areas.

Understanding social dynamics

Unsurprisingly, a focus on the delivery of high-quality, landscaped public realm with natural surveillance is advocated by many as a way of providing urban spaces that can be enjoyed by all. However, sites should not be viewed in isolation, with greater consideration given over to the social, cultural and spatial needs of a place to inform proposals. This will not only aid successfully integration with the surroundings, but also improve the ways in which the place can be used and enjoyed by a wider demographic, contributing to its’ long-term vitality.

Cosgrave promotes an approach where local authorities take the time to understand social dynamics and how this translates to the use of public spaces, as without measures to ensure different user needs are taken into account, only those of the dominant group are served.

The current shift in political mood combined with new planning changes under discussion presents an opportunity for local authorities, planners, developers, and architects to listen to the women’s voices to understand how they use public spaces, and incorporate this feedback to make places feel safe. Breaking down vast public spaces into more usable, smaller green spaces designed for rest is one suggestion.

Facilitating these types of conversations is also an invaluable tool for building support around new projects amongst local communities, resulting in more positive planning outcomes.

15-minute neighbourhood

Public transportation and routes between spaces is often geared towards to 9-5 commuter, with less consideration given over to those involved in childcare or more flexible working. Whilst the association of childcare with women’s work has drawn criticism, historically, statistics show that for this and other reasons more women fall outside the typical 9-5 working pattern, instead traversing routes less travelled to carry out their daily tasks.

With the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the ways in which we work and live still uncertain, early research indicates that more people will want to continue working from home, where they can, for approximately 2.8 days of the working week. The concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood, which places an emphasis on creating liveable neighbourhoods, where everyday facilities including work space, green space and amenities are accessible within a 15 minute ‘commute’  is already receiving renewed attention in light of the pandemic.

This is surely a positive step towards ensuring that local areas, particularly town centres, have a mix of uses which will ensure that activity is created at different types of day, increasing social connections and helping local shops and businesses thrive. The likely shift towards a more ‘user-centred’ and ‘people-first’ approach has the potential to benefit women and other under-represented groups, especially if safety is further up the agenda as a result of recent weeks. Post-pandemic, more planning policy interventions by local authorities may seek to nurture this concept even further – something we should all welcome.