Urban Design best practice and principles

There are a number of urban design practices and principles that are recognised as effective in improving the safety and inclusivity of women and girls in the public realm. These can be categorised into five themes: visibility, movement, activity, public space, and feel.


Visibility is important as it increases users’ abilities to perceive their environments and identify potential threats, increases the ability for users to observe one another via passive surveillance, and makes a space feel well-maintained. A visible environment will therefore allow a user to comprehensively assess their surroundings, be positively observed via passive surveillance, and feel as if their surroundings are well-maintained and designed for people to exist within.

A key design strategy for improving visibility is the contextually sensitive proliferation of street lighting. Successfully implemented lighting strategies will both increase visibility and create a sense that an area is well-maintained and monitored. Such strategies will deliver consistent lighting, within the framework of a layout that feels logical and intentionally designed. They will avoid tall lampposts, which create inconsistent patches of lighting, and instead opt for lighting strategies that are consistent in layout and coverage. Furthermore, they will not rely on borrowed light from surrounding units/infrastructure as this is, by its nature, uncontrolled and thus unreliable for a comprehensive and effective lighting strategy. It is important for equitable movement conditions that such lighting strategies are implemented along key movement corridors, nodes, and at public transport stops.

Visibility strategies must also consider sightlines. It is important to avoid frequent blind corners, which may create uncertainty over what is on the other side. This is particularly important in tight spaces. Designers should opt for longer sightlines that allow users to assess what is ahead of them. It is also important to avoid walling spaces in manners that may hinder visual permeability into or out of a space and ensure that users are able to comprehensively assess a space before entering. Finally, green infrastructure should be implemented strategically in order to avoid blocking sightlines. For example, smaller items should be closer to a key space, whilst larger items should be further away. Maintenance strategies should also consider the long-term risk of overgrowth, and the impact that this may have on sightlines.


Movement conditions are a key consideration as they dictate how effectively users are able to navigate their environments. Movement conditions that are unsafe or that do not consider the needs of all users will unfairly hinder, or potentially exclude, users from engaging with the built environment. There are many themes that relate to a space’s movement quality. Movement networks should be traversable, compact, safe, enticing, sociable, lively, and sustainable.

It is important to avoid barriers to movement and to consider the impact that the physical design of movement corridors may have on users. Holistically, design should avoid car-focussed street layouts and typologies, and instead feature pedestrians and cyclists as their primary focus.

Design should promote physical elements that are inclusive to all users and thus do not hinder movement for certain groups. To create inclusive movement networks that are easy and comfortable for all groups to navigate, ensure that:

  • Hierarchical route networks are used to keep concentrated car traffic in clustered zones
  • Pathing is suitably wide for those with prams and/or children, mobility scooters and wheelchair users
  • Street furniture is not laid out in an obtrusive manner
  • Topography can be navigated without the use of stairs  
  • Kerbs dropped regularly and are, in general, reasonably low
  • Walls which make it difficult to enter or leave spaces are avoided
  • Street crossings are common and are aligned with desire lines
  • Where bollards are necessary, at least 1.5m of space is left between them
  • Along longer routes there are regular resting points in sheltered and observed areas

Furthermore, route networks that are safe and inclusive should be legible and permeable so that both locals and visitors do not become confused or lost in the environment and can easily reach their destination. Legibility can be achieved by using understandable and consistent layouts, the strategic use of landmarks, and the creation of nodes in key areas and around public transport connections. The laying of primary routes along desire lines, well-defined streets, strategic increases in building heights, well-planned lighting, and building material changes can all be used to further legibility. Physical permeability should ensure that pedestrians do not have to take long or convoluted routes to reach areas that are nearby or have to deal with design features that hinder pedestrian movement. Ensure a multitude of diverse routes and opt for block/grid layouts over cul-de-sacs in order to achieve this. However, permeability features should be sensitive to real and perceived danger – an alleyway connection may physically be a strong connection but, in practice, it is likely to feel claustrophobic and unsafe, meaning that its use is unlikely.

Research shows that streetscapes with the greatest enclosure are generally perceived as the safest to move along by users. Therefore, designers should implement substantial tree canopies, numerous buildings, and large cross-sectional proportions.

Safe and effective sustainable transport networks are a final key factor in safe and inclusive movement. Public transport stops should feel safe and be located in areas of high footfall, strong lighting, and effective passive surveillance. New developments should ensure that they have a public transport strategy that allows locals to travel to key destinations safely and effectively without the use of a car. Such plans should recognise that women tend to have more complex movement patterns compared to men and reflect this through options for easy trip chaining.

A further key mode of sustainable transport is cycling. Design should encourage:

  • Segregated cycle routes
  • Communal bike storage
  • Bike hire schemes
  • The consideration of non-conventional bikes, such as those with children might use


Activity is a key consideration when considering safe and inclusive places for women and girls, as active spaces allow for natural surveillance. This passive form of surveillance from others in their space or behind the windows of buildings fronting onto the public realm deters crime and contributes to a space feeling safe.

To maximise this natural surveillance from active frontage, streets should be designed at a human scale and with buildings providing active frontage onto spaces. This can be achieved by:

  • Fronting buildings onto movement networks and public spaces
  • Reducing instances of frontage parking
  • Avoiding ‘backs onto fronts’
  • Avoiding blank frontages facing onto the public realm
  • Avoiding large boundary walls around residential units
  • Ensuring that defensive planting is well-maintained so that overgrowth cannot block frontages

Footfall also creates natural surveillance, and thus provides the same benefits as active frontage. It also deters crime/anti-social behaviour and creates feelings of safety, as criminals are unlikely to operate in areas where they may be observed. Footfall can be generated by giving people a reason to interact with the public realm and by spreading activity across it, rather than concentrating it in a select few areas. Users are more likely to interact with the public realm if it is functional, safe, and well-maintained. Thus, designers should give users ‘things to do’ within safe environments that have effective maintenance strategies. Footfall is more likely to be evenly distributed if activities and services are spread throughout a community and can be easily reached on foot through a permeable route network.

Footfall follows a ‘snowball effect’ – busy places feel safe and attractive, meaning that more people will interact, making them safer and busier. However, those designing with such a principle should recognise that not all footfall is created equal. Spaces that see activity from groups exhibiting intimidating or antisocial behaviour will not attract new users, as they will feel unsafe and exclusive. As such, developers should be sensitive to the form of activity that their designs will encourage and ensure that forms of footfall that generate a pleasant sociability are promoted.

Footfall and activity can be improved for multiple communities if development prioritises locations adjacent to existing settlements. Development should therefore seek to positively relate to existing built areas or adjoining phases. Existing communities should be integrated into new developments via safe and sensible movement networks.

Public space

Public spaces are areas that have historically suffered from a lack of safety and inclusivity for women and girls, which is not acceptable as they are a key element of sociability and the public realm. Public space should be accessible and functional for all residents of Essex and should not exclude any groups.

Significant areas of developments should be allocated to intentional, functional, and well-designed public space and landscaping.

Urban parks should feature long sightlines and strong lighting to boost visibility. Good aesthetics, maintenance, landscaping, proximity to residential areas, and functional spaces will draw more footfall and thus boost natural surveillance.

Larger activity/play spaces should be divided into smaller sub-spaces to create a diversity of functions/activities and ensure that one group is not able to dominate an entire space. When doing so, designers should remember that not all purposes are active activity – a zone designed to encourage communication and socialisation is still functional. Such zones are beneficial, as they allow girls to observe zones and activities that are traditionally dominated by boys whilst they gain the confidence to interact themselves.

Public spaces should offer safe and plentiful seating and functional street furniture to create comfortable and convenient places to stay. Avoid hostile forms of street furniture, as the defensive feel implicitly reduces feelings of community.


Feel refers to how women and girls perceive and interpret the built environment. It is key to develop environments that women and girls view positively, and that they feel was designed with people like them in mind.

A key factor in the long-term feel of a space is its maintenance strategy. A poorly maintained space will feel disused and uncontrolled, heightening perceptions of danger and discouraging interaction. Therefore, it is important that upkeep costs and strategies are provided in detail by developers. Furthermore, as maintenance contracts generally do not last indefinitely, there should be a consideration of how a future lack of maintenance may erode design features. High-quality low-maintenance materials and hardy evergreens can help a development to stay attractive after its maintenance contract ends.

Another key factor regarding feel is the feeling of belonging and a social right to the space. It is important that women and girls feel a sense of belonging in the built environment and that spaces are designed with them in mind.

This can be key for children, as spaces such as games areas can often be dominated by boys, with girls struggling to engage and assert their belonging in the space as it would require occupying space that is already in use. Design can respond to this by:

  • Creating multifunctional and flexible spaces that offer a variety of activities
  • Avoiding soft design elements that imply that a space must be used for a specific reason (e.g. ball game markings)
  • Creating open spaces with plentiful entrance points so that girls can enter/exit comfortably and will not feel trapped in or locked out of the space
  • Utilising intelligent design features to demonstrate the space’s boundaries without relying on features which hinder permeability or encourage space domination such as walls or fencing (e.g., through material changes)
  • Creating spaces for girls to watch activities whilst they develop the confidence to join in such as the teen shelter sitting space typology

Furthermore, regarding feelings of belonging more broadly in women and girls, soft design elements can have strong impacts. For example, naming more streets after women can create stronger subconscious feelings of ownership and belonging within build environments as such features imply that women are heard, considered, and valued by the space and by the community that resides within it.

Page updated: 29/06/2023

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