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Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls

Last edited: October 30, 2010

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What Does Planning And Designing Safe Public Spaces For Women And Girls Mean?

Planning and designing safe public spaces for women and girls means creating public spaces with features that enhance women’s safety and feelings of safety, and detract from features that cause women’s insecurity and feelings of insecurity. While planning and designing safe public spaces for women, planners, designers and architects place special focus on lighting, landscaping, visibility, motorized traffic, pedestrian traffic, urban furniture, potential hiding spots, signage, security personnel, proximity to other public spaces, proximity to emergency services, and access to public transportation. Each of these areas is given particular consideration from the perspective of the women and girls who use public spaces.

Safety planning and design also involves more than just the concrete, physical features of a space, although interventions at this level may occur first in a safe cities for women programme (Werkerle, 2000, 47). It is a necessarily participatory process whereby community members (especially women) work together to create spaces that accommodate strong social relations. In order to be successful, planners and designers must pay attention to how people express themselves in, and interact with, public space. In any given day, public spaces are the setting for a myriad of gendered social interactions. As a result of these interactions, public spaces themselves become gendered. For example, in a school yard, young girls may gather together under a certain tree and watch young boys play soccer in a field.  As this process continues, the space under the tree will become understood as a “girl’s space” and the soccer field will become understood as a “boy’s space”. This can be problematic because public space should belong to everyone and everyone should have a right to use it – girls should feel free to use the soccer field and boys should feel free to sit under the tree. Thus, planning and designing safe public spaces for women and girls also means analysing the various uses of public spaces, who uses them, when, and for how long. This kind of planning and design also focuses on who doesn’t use a particular public space, when, and why. This is because when certain groups, like women or girls, do not use a space, it is usually an indication that the space feels insecure to members of that group.

Planning and designing safe public spaces for women and girls requires constant attention to physical and social characteristics of space. It also requires constant evaluation of the social and physical implications of the planning and design process. The planning and design of a space has the potential to either reinforce gender inequality or to advance gender equality. For this reason, the planning and design process is a crucial facet of creating safe cities for women and girls.

Gender is a particularly important consideration when planning and designing essential services in communities. Often, when essential services are badly planned or missing, women and girls bear the brunt of the insecurity that accompanies such situations. For example, “Sexual harassment is rampant when girls go out in the open for defecation. Men disguise themselves as women and hide themselves in the fields...There have been instances when girls were abducted from the fields and men were caught for sexually harassing them. After 11pm, girls are usually forbidden from going to the fields unless they are accompanied by an elder” (Plan International, 2010, 56).

Planning and designing safe public spaces for women and girls is the process whereby urban planners, designers, architects, women, grassroots and other community actors collaborate to make the physical features of public spaces safe and welcoming for women and girls. If public spaces are dark, abandoned, unclean, overgrown, or lacking certain elements like benches or emergency phones, they are potentially unsafe for everybody, but for women and girls in particular. Therefore, there is an increased chance that women and girls will not use spaces where they feel fear and/or experience violence.  In a safe cities for women and girls initiative, it is necessary that the safety needs of women and girls are taken into account in planning and design. Experience shows that when a space is occupied by women and girls, it is also occupied by more people in general. Streets, parks, bus stops, sports fields, squares, parking lots, etc. that have been planned and designed according to the specific safety needs of women and girls exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Easy access to and from the location
  • Easy movement within the location
  • Good lighting so that users can see and be seen
  • Easy-to-read signs to help users find their way
  • Clear, well-kept paths where users can easily see each other
  • General visibility of the entire space, free from hiding places where a person could wait  unseen
  • Includes mixed uses – many places to hangout, walk, play, eat, exercise, etc. for diverse user groups at different times of day
  • Provisions for different seasons (shade in hot weather and protection in cold weather)
  • Provisions for young children and the elderly (because women are often caretakers), e.g. in urban areas this could mean low, wide sidewalks for strollers, wheelchairs, and walkers, and areas with slow-moving traffic
  • Access to clean, secure, easily accessible toilet facilities with space for changing children’s diapers


Why Is Planning and Designing Safe Public Spaces For Women And Girls Important?

Safety planning and design for women and girls is important because it creates public spaces where women and all users have equal opportunity to be healthy, secure and happy. This kind of planning is based on the fact that the physical design of urban spaces affects women’s use and enjoyment of the public realm.

Designing and planning safe public spaces for women and girls is important because:

  • It raises awareness of the fact that space is not neutral; the design of spaces can either facilitate or impede their use, appropriation and safety for women and girls.
  • It recognises that gender and gender relations between women and men are key factors in how urban spaces are organized and developed.
  • It recognises that the city spatially reflects specific social, economic and historical characteristics that are unique to local women’s situations.
  • It recognises that spaces in the city reflect the relations of power that determine the behaviours and differences in the lives of women and men.
  • It recognises that the public spaces in a city are usually designed based on a traditional conception of the family and a traditional division of labour among women and men (men as workers in the public space and women as caretakers and home keepers in the home and private spaces). Furthermore, it promotes initiatives to change this spatial organization in order to reflect changing gender roles in society.
  • It recognises that women’s fears are based on reality (the relationship between feelings of fear and experiences of violence) and that women know when and where they feel unsafe in the cities and why.
  • It is a useful tool to improve the quality of urban and community life and to reduce women’s fear and victimisation.
  • It recognises that if women and girls avoid using certain public spaces because they do not feel safe, these spaces will become more insecure for women, girls, and other users. Therefore, it is a useful tool to improve the quality of urban and community life for everyone, and to reduce women’s fear and victimisation.
  • It promotes the right to the city and to citizenship for women and girls as a condition for equitable and sustainable cities and communities.


Lessons learned:

The best way to ensure that spaces are welcoming to women and girls is to consult with women and girls who are the intended users of a space. However, women and girls may find it difficult to participate in public planning and design discussions for a variety of reasons. The following list should be considered by any person or organization wishing to involve women and girls in the planning and design of public spaces.


Women may not attend public planning discussions on safer communities because:

  • They have difficulty getting to or from the discussion
  • They are unaware of women’s safety issues because there is little public or media discussion of them
  • They may have internalized/accepted gender-based forms of violence (e.g. sexual harassment) as normal and not see them as a problem.
  • They have difficulty reading materials for the discussion
  • They cannot afford childcare for the time it takes to participate in discussions
  • They do not have time to participate in discussions because of work/family/ volunteer commitments
  • They cannot attend discussion meetings which are being held at an inconvenient time
  • Their culture may not be supportive of such activities
  • They do not have the support of their spouse or friends
  • They are afraid of speaking in public
  • They are poor and feel as though they do not belong
  • They are disabled and cannot access the space where discussions are being held
  • They are unaware that resources exist to plan communities to support women’s safety
  • They have no computer to access information about discussions
  • They do not speak the language in which the discussion is being held
  • They have more pressing personal concerns such as poverty or poor health
  • They cannot find the place where the discussion is being held
  • They do not feel safe in the place where the discussion is being held
  • They have to look after elderly members of their family and have no time
  • They do not believe that they are smart enough to participate in the discussion
  • They have participated in public meetings in the past and had bad experiences
  • They feel intimidated by large groups and/or public officials
  • They do not feel confident speaking in front of men
  • They feel like their age makes their concerns irrelevant (whether they are old or young)
  • They feel apathetic about public issues.


Source: Dame, T. and A. Grant. 2001. Kelowna Planning for Safer Communities Workshop Report. Cowichan Valley Safer Futures Program, Canada: page 17.  Available in English.


See the section on creating safe public spaces in the programme implementation section.