As COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease in the UK and we begin to imagine once again travelling to see friends, colleagues and attend events, another kind of safety concern has spread across the country.
In recent months, thousands of women have downloaded personal safety apps, a record high. A movement under the banner of Reclaim These Streets has grown into grassroot efforts to consider how we make our public spaces safer for women. Immediate government steps aimed at improving safety for women and girls include an additional £25m for better lighting and CCTV, as well the pilot of a scheme where plain-clothes officers patrol pubs and clubs.
We recently came together as a group of female-identifying FutureGovers to share our own experiences of living in and travelling around public spaces as women.
Gender bias in the design of public places
Originally from different parts of the world, we all bonded that from an early age, we’re encouraged to have a heightened sense of awareness of our own safety in public, particularly when alone at night. Whether that’s seeing a mum struggling to get her pram on the bus or not knowing who to turn to after being harassed on public transport.
“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, while Judith Butler argues that it is these daily invisible barriers that reinforce gender norms and cement inequalities over time. None of these findings are new - a wave of recent literature has unmasked the gender bias in placemaking, as well as its consequences.
In Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez lists the ways in which town planning does not historically take into account women's historical needs and social roles. Zoning laws, which typically segregate areas of a city into residential, industrial or commercial zones do not adequately take into account the fact that women frequently take on both professional and domestic workloads, leading to complex trip-chaining across long distances between work, homes, shops, daycare.
Similarly, not enough attention has been paid to the threat of violence against women in the design of public spaces. According to Criado Perez, "we haven't designed public spaces to account for the violence that women experience, and not just to protect women from the violence, but also to account for the way that it's always in our heads." Perez attributes this design bias to a gap in data used to make design decisions, as well as the lack of female-identifying representation in decision-making positions.