Creating safe spaces for women: How can Landscape Architects engender a sense of safety and belonging?
The concept of designing cities and green spaces for women has gained increasing traction in recent years, with research clearly showing that women feel far greater levels of anxiety when walking through public spaces than men.
It is also well known that the fear of danger causes stress, and often prevents women from enjoying the city and its green spaces. This reduces mobility and leads to health, well-being, and economic inequalities. Improving the planning, design and maintenance of our public spaces can reduce the inequality faced by women and work towards a more inclusive and sustainable society for everyone.
It is recognised that women have historically been underrepresented in the planning and design of our cities and public spaces. Office for National Statistics research states that currently only 14% of people working in the built environment are women. Acknowledgement of the inequalities faced by women in accessing the public realm led to UN Habitat and Global Utmaning developing and publishing the Her City Toolbox in 2021 to support professionals in engaging women in the planning and design process. Further guidance including Cities Alive Designing Cities that Work for Women (Arup, University of Liverpool, UNDP 2022) and most recently Safer Parks: Improving access for women and girls (University of Leeds 2023) provide useful resources for landscape architects and urban actors.
The guidance recognises that poorly maintained, dark, male-dominated spaces have negative impacts on women, making them feel unsafe or on edge, and often forcing them to take long detours; whereas lively, well-lit, mixed-use spaces often have a reassuring, inclusive effect. In order to provide spaces that work for female groups consultation is essential throughout each stage of the development process, from initial site assessment and throughout the design, implementation, and maintenance. In the words of UN Habitat, ‘If we let citizens that are rarely heard be the experts, our cities and communities will become more inclusive, equal and sustainable.’. It is critical to understand each public space has its own unique set of users, challenges, and opportunities.
Landscape architects have a key role in bringing together diverse user groups within the public realm, balancing both the needs of people and nature. Based on the above guidance we can look at some of the key considerations and interventions that landscape architects bring to the design and maintenance of public spaces, with a focus on providing spaces where female groups experience a sense of safety and belonging.
Visibility is crucial to reducing crime and improving perceptions of safety within public spaces. According to Office for National Statistics surveys, 82% of women in Britain felt unsafe walking on their own in the park after dark, against 16% in daytime. Improvements to visibility can include:
- Adequate and even lighting is fundamental. Lighting should be even, as very brightly lit areas can create glare and high levels of contrast forming pockets of darkness. Warm lighting has been successfully used in situations where there is conflict between nature and accessibility.
- Ensuring clear sight lines can be achieved by designing rounded corners and the management of vegetation.
Increasing Natural Surveillance
In the words of Jane Jacobs, “there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street”.
People are naturally drawn to the spectacle of street life and by carrying out their activity they passively monitor the public realm reducing crime and increasing perceptions of safety. Some of the ways landscape architects can encourage natural surveillance include:
- Creating multi-generational, multi-gender inclusive spaces which attract users through the provision of activities and inclusive design interventions. These include all ability play areas; regular benches at varied heights, and multiple alternative seating layouts to provide both quiet and communal spaces.
- Ensuring accessibility through smooth pavement materials, gentle gradients, and dropped kerbs for wheelchairs and prams.
- Positioning spaces designed for women and teenage girls adjacent to main routes and core areas of activity such as a park café.
- Designing around active travel routes and improving the public realm with vegetation, seating, shelter, and shade to encourage walking and cycling.
- Encouraging business to activate public space by the provision of space for markets, pop-ups, and pavement space for businesses to spill into the streetscape.
- Ensuring positive perceptions of public space through the provision of adequate bins, and specification of materials and street furniture to be robust to graffiti and vandalism.
- Providing restorative and enriching spaces people want to dwell in by creating varied sensory experiences through planting, water, and material specification.
Legibility and imageability of public space are essential to increasing women’s urban mobility, health, and well-being. Some of the ways landscape architects can enhance legibility specifically for women and teenage girls include:
- Providing wayfinding lighting and or signage within parks and public spaces to ensure users are aware of alternate routes and access points.
- Developing a clear hierarchy of multiple connected paths within parks and public spaces including circular routes around the perimeter of a space, alternative routes, places of prospect, refuge, and escape.
- Providing multiple wide, clearly visible entrances to all spaces.
When people see people like themselves using a space, they feel a sense of belonging and are more likely to participate in activities within that space. Studies of teenagers show girls are significantly less active than teenage boys. Only 10% of girls aged 13 -16, meet the recommended daily guidelines of 60 mins of physical activity per day (Sport England, 2018).
Some of the ways that landscape architects can encourage a sense of inclusion specifically for women and teenage include:
- Where appropriate, breaking a large public space down into smaller semi-enclosed areas permits a wider range of activities and a broad spread of users which improves safety by preventing a single space being dominated by one group.
- Building inclusive play and exercise facilities incorporating spaces dedicated to the provision of activities for teenage girls such as arranging seating and fitness equipment to allow for socialising age-appropriate swings and providing hammocks, trampolines, and age-appropriate opportunities for play other than sport.
- Providing adequate and inclusive public toilets helps women and girls to remain in the space for longer and acts as a signal that they are welcome. Locating toilets adjacent to active areas such as cafes or shops increases perceptions of safety.
- Including artworks that are by and or celebrate women.
Landscape architects include many of the above interventions within public realm design as a matter of course and it is clear that many of the interventions have benefits to a far wider range of user groups than female only. Guidance should not be treated as a shopping list for good design and what is key to ensuring public spaces meet the needs of female users is to give those users an equitable voice throughout the process.