Designing safe cities for women: The green space, gender, safety nexus in London
By Reshma Kumar, on 18 March 2021
Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.
Designing safe cities for women: The green space, gender, safety nexus in London
The Healthy Cities movement from the World Health Organisation, established a focus for understanding the relationship between our environment and health, including the responsibility of local governments. A healthy, sustainable city is one that provides access to safe and inclusive public green space. This is highlighted, specifically for vulnerable populations, including women, under Sustainable Development Goal 11.
Data from the ONS shows that 44% of London residents live within a five-minute walking distance of a park. This is important as Londoners are less likely than residents living in the rest of the UK to have access to a private garden, and the Mayor of London has incorporated the promotion of green spaces in to cross-sectoral policy, as illustrated in the Health Inequalities Strategy.
However, poorly designed public space can increase the occurrence of harassment and threats. It is important that we pay attention to how the experience of green space can differ across gender, race, age, sexuality, disability and economic status. In London, women report, at twice the rate of men, that safety is a barrier to walking in public space.
What are the benefits of green space?
The positive effects of green space are well documented. Physical benefits include healthier immune systems, improved cardiovascular health, decreased exposure to noise and air pollution and promotion of physical activity. To add to this, the mental health benefits consist of promoting social interaction, lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and lifting mood.
More must be done to question how accessible these spaces really are, and who benefits from them. 59% of people surveyed in London found they had become more attune to the importance of green space for their wellbeing during lockdown. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of green space, as well as concerns around women’s safety. The pandemic has not only affected access to services and livelihoods, but has also restricted women’s freedom of movement, and freedom from violence.
Lived experiences and safety perceptions
The intersection between space and gender is influenced by subtle, underlying power dynamics within society. Women are one of the groups who are underrepresented in green spaces and hence feel unsafe. Reflected across the UK, disaggregated data further shows that BAME women in particular are less likely to be visibly present in green spaces.
Despite green spaces being recognized as places of escape, the fear of violence can present as a barrier to accessing them. Our identity influences how we experience and shape space and place, including the levels of psychosocial and physical risk we face. 1 in 5 women in London go through sexual assault, with 40% recorded having taken place in public spaces.
In quieter spaces there is the appearance of having fewer ‘eyes on the street’, leading to the impression of weaker public safety. Throughout green space in London other factors accompanying this include poorly lit areas, badly constructed pathways and enclosed, less visible areas with blind spots.
How can we create safer green spaces?
Multiple tools have been used globally to encourage women friendly spaces and increase awareness of these issues. Recording this sensitive data whilst also paying attention to anonymity are essential to guaranteeing reporters’ safety and encouraging women to disclose this information to create safer, more accessible green spaces.
- The UN Safe Cities and Public spaces programme works with local organisations and governments to eliminate violence and sexual harassment in public spaces; empowering women and enhancing their freedom of movement, access to services, cultural activities and in turn better health.
- The ‘Hollaback!’ project is an app and website to anonymously document harassment that occurs in public spaces. It uses this data to drive dialogue and action with stakeholders such as Transport for London and the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
- The ‘Women’s Safety Audit’ is a checklist incorporating the lived experiences of women, identifying safety concerns specific to a local area. A recommendations report is presented to planners to improve design features which may not have been recognised as causing concern.
- Finally, lack of diversity and understanding of these spaces is reflected in industry. In the UK in 2018, 74% of architects were male. And within horticulture, only 15% of employees were female, with 10-20% from a BAME background. Working towards encouraging women into these industries can aid in bringing an intersectional perspective in to planning and design.
The urban environment is constantly adapting to the needs of its residents. But cities continue to be spaces of inequality, and it is necessary for our green environments to be inclusive spaces, if all groups within society are to gain from the positive effects of nature. Allowing the spaces for different voices and perspectives to be heard throughout policy and design processes will aid in producing safer, more equitable green spaces across London.
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