How To Make Cities Safer For Women And Girls Through Basic Design Changes

'It's about crime prevention through urban design.'

First-year uni student Jess Goldenberg was on the tram on the way to class when she felt a tap on her knee. Another young woman, sitting diagonally across from her on the carriage, passed her phone over.

"She showed me a note on her phone that said 'the guy next to me is taking photos of you and I don't know what to do'," Goldenberg told ten daily.

She looked up at the man sitting directly opposite her, who had his phone out and appeared to be covertly snapping photos of her.

"I didn't know what to do. I was worrying if he was going to follow me off the tram. Finally I got up the balls and grabbed his phone and yelled 'why are you taking pictures of me?'"

She snatched the man's phone and deleted the photos, "high on adrenaline", yelled at him again not to take pictures, and rushed off the tram. She burst into tears, and despite calling police and giving them the details of the tram and the man, she understood that taking photos in public isn't actually illegal.

"That kind of behaviour makes women feel so unsafe and scared in public. If this happened at night, or if I was walking alone further in the suburbs, that would be quite an issue," Goldenberg said.

Sadly, it's not an uncommon occurrence.  A 2017 study from the Australian Human Rights Commission found 22 percent of university students who were sexually harassed in 2015-16 had experienced that behaviour on public transport, while 15 percent of sexual assaults were in the same spaces. Outside a university context, the issue was such a concern in Victoria -- after a 40 percent jump in the number of reported sexual offences reported on the public transport system -- that the government launched a campaign to name and shame those responsible.  Looking even more widely, most women would have an unpleasant experience of catcalling, harassment, vulgar comments, abuse or assault in our cities.

This is the concept behind Plan International's Free To Be project, aiming to log and map hotspots of harassment in major cities around the world -- Sydney, Delhi, Lima and Madrid -- after a successful Melbourne pilot last year. Women can drop pins on a map of their city at places where they have had bad experiences or simply feel unsafe, and also drop pins at places they feel safe or have had a positive experience, with the aim of presenting the data to city planning officials and law enforcement authorities to show hotspots for misbehaviour.

'I was grabbed by a man'

In Sydney, negative pins have been dropped in clusters around public places like shopping malls, intersections near busy pubs and clubs, and around transport hubs. Women have reported a range of experiences from feeling simply unsafe or uncomfortable in certain areas, being catcalled or verbally abused, watched or followed by men, touched, and even sexually assaulted.

"I was grabbed by a man and forced to the ground, my underwear pulled down then digitally penetrated until I could struggle free and run," one woman wrote on a pin dropped in Belmore Park, outside Sydney's Central train station.

Another woman wrote that a club on Sydney's Oxford Street "is famous for creeps groping girls. When the bouncers are told they laugh or ignore you. A guy tried to punch me in the face for refusing to kiss him. Do not go here."

Women are reporting being followed, catcalled, abused or assaulted (Getty Images)

Plan Australia's head of advocacy, Hayley Cull, said the early pins on the map were a disturbing look at how women were treated in Sydney.

"We like to think all of our cities are safe and welcoming for everyone, but our research in Australia and around the world shows that's not the case. Girls are facing harassment, abuse, being followed, catcalled, groped on the train, and we wanted to do something about it," Cull told ten daily.

"Free To Be is all about giving girls and women the chance to share their experiences of harassment in order to try and create a safer city for themselves and other girls. We can analyse all that data and share it with the people who have the power to make those cities safer."

Cull said Free To Be was less about directly warning or educating women about spots to avoid, and more about gathering data to present to police, transport authorities, city planners and other people involved in designing or reforming cities. For instance, following the Melbourne pilot in 2016, Plan Australia began working with the city's Metro Trains service on a safety app allowing users to quietly and safely report misbehaviour on the network.

'Crime prevention through urban design'

Plan has also been working with Monash University's XYX Lab, which works in the field of "space gender communication" -- that is, the intersection of and relationship between physical spaces and gender, researching how places can be designed to better cater for all people.

Researchers are trying to design safer cities (Getty Images)

"We're at the point where women are changing their whole life and relationship to the city because they won't use public transport," XYX Lab's Dr Nicole Kalms told ten daily.

"We’ve got a project awaiting funding working with Melbourne, working with architects to design spaces so they're gender sensitive. It's about extending more traditional approaches to crime prevention through urban design."

Kalms said considerations needed to be given to reforms or changes to urban design that actually kept people safe, whereas many existing features of this thinking merely just give the illusion of safety or, in some cases, can make people feel more unsafe.

Designing real things in the world to make women feel safer

"A urban designer evaluates the safety of a train station by checking for the installation of cameras, lighting, exit signs, and then announces the space as safe. Our research says that this idea of safety is completely in opposition to women’s perceptions of safety. For instance, when women see a CCTV camera, it can make them feel less safe because they feel like something will happen. All the emergency buttons are only useful after something bad has happened, not before," Kalms said.

"What are the key things to prevent it altogether, to make women’s perceptions of safety more positive? We’re designing interventions in the world to make women feel safer."

(Getty Images)

Kalms gave examples of altering the harshness of lighting, and making public transport spaces more welcoming and friendly, as ways to increase safety in modern cities.

"It's about particular types of lighting, not just simply any lighting. That classic fluorescent which would typically be used in an infrastructure space, that’s the worst type of light, it’s almost like a red flag telling women to watch for something to happen. It should be more like a warm light, being able to see but not in that dramatic horror movie way where there’s too much lighting," she said.

"The presence of other women also make women feel safe. Women are self-excluding on public transport which means fewer women, which means more women feel less safe. Public transport spaces are very transitory, there are no places to sit and to observe. They've done that to stop homeless people sleeping but it means there’s no passive observation anymore.

"Sexual harassment is happening in a fleeting or anonymous way and there’s no observation of that, no way for others to watch for it.

"It’s not dark alleys, it’s everyday stuff like this. Women are having sexual harassment experiences all over."