Understanding why and where women and girls feel unsafe

Women and girls will often feel heightened perceptions of danger in built environments that are not visible, permeable, and active. For example, a survey carried out by Essex County Council found that 32% of women feel unsafe at night in their local area, compared to only 13% of men. Women surveyed listed poor lighting as the primary factor influencing their perception of safety in the public realm. They listed car parks, parks/green spaces, and streets as the spaces in which they feel most unsafe at night.

Spaces that lack adequate visibility, such as those that feature poor lighting or blind corners, mean that users cannot adequately observe their environment and assess the risk of threats. A user not being able to see what is in front of them or what is behind a corner heightens their anxieties, as they cannot be certain that they are safe or can react to any potential danger. Thus, users are less likely to interact with areas of poor visibility or low natural surveillance.

Environments that are not permeable, such as enclosed public spaces with few exits, or journeys home with few available routes, mean that users cannot easily exit a space or choose another route to their destination if they feel unsafe. Even not having the option to leave such environments, despite no potential danger being present, heightens feelings of unease and anxiety. Users are therefore unlikely to interact with environments that lack permeability. Equally, places with many ill-defined and convoluted routes may also feel unsafe due to them being illegible, meaning that their movement network becomes difficult to comprehend and navigate. Thus, places that do not find a balance between permeability and legibility risk generating a perception of danger amongst users.

Streets and spaces that are not active, either through footfall or passive surveillance from windows, risk users feeling isolated and as though their risk of danger is heightened due to them being unobserved. A user who feels as if they are isolated or unobserved when interacting with the public realm may feel a heightened sense of anxiety or personal danger. As such, users are less likely to interact with streets and spaces that are inactive.

Spaces that are poorly maintained are further threats to perceptions of safety. A space that lacks an effective and comprehensive maintenance strategy has an acute risk of falling into a state where it feels as if it has been forgotten or is not considered by the institutions whose responsibility it is to ensure public safety, and by broader society. Such spaces thus feel disconnected from the social and institutional forces that create feelings of safety in users of the public realm. Therefore, spaces that lack a strong maintenance strategy are at a heightened risk of developing into a state that compromises perceptions of safety.

Environments that are susceptible to suffering from these design issues include streets, parks, public transport stops, PROW/footpaths, and public spaces. It is therefore important for designers in Essex to ensure that such environments are visible, permeable, legible, and active. This will enhance perceptions of safety amongst women and girls in the public realm and create environments that can be accessed and interacted with more equitably by users of all gender identities.

Page updated: 29/06/2023

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