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Highlight the fact that space is not neutral

Last edited: December 03, 2010

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Urban planners and other municipal officials tend to consider public space as “gender neutral”. In other words, they consider public space as being experienced in the same way by women and men. However, to plan public spaces that are safe for everyone, space must be “de-neutralized”. That is, public spaces cannot be considered to be the same for everyone everywhere (CAFSU, 2002). For example, spaces which might seem safe and enjoyable for young men may seem dangerous and unpleasant for elderly women. Alternatively, spaces which seem fun and exciting for children may seem complicated and inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.  Because space is experienced differently by different people (including men and women), people can create spaces that either promote or impede gender equality. For example, in spaces that are designed to be safer, easier to use and more accessible for men than for women, gender equality is impeded. Conversely, in spaces that are designed to be safe, easy to use and accessible for both men and women, gender equality is promoted.


Plan spaces to encourage equal social relations between men and women.

Urban planners and other actors involved in the design of public spaces need to think about how the spaces will be used and by whom. The characteristics of a space (i.e. whether it is cramped or spacious, well-lit or poorly lit, full of people or empty) actively contribute to how social relations will evolve in that space. In other words, the same space may be safe or unsafe for women and girls depending on who uses it and why. For example, if a confined space like an elevator is filled with people for only a short period of time, it might not feel threatening to a woman at all. However, if a woman is alone in the elevator with a man who is making sexual advances, the same restricted space may feel extremely threatening. Likewise, any small, isolated space could prove to be insecure for women and girls, depending on context. Designers of public space should be aware of how men and women use spaces together, and incorporate features that promote appropriate gender relations.


Integrate women’s needs and interests when defining land zoning and city planning.

Often city planners organize space according to land uses and zones, especially in the industrialized world. Land use is designated by the city and is used to define what kind of uses can occur in a certain area. Within each land use, space is usually also divided into zones. A zone specifies exactly what can be built on the space. For example, a zone might specify that only three-storey apartment buildings and churches can be built within it.  Or a zone might include by-laws that restrict the provision of essential social services such as emergency shelters.

As a result of most land use and zoning decisions, different types of spaces with different uses are kept far apart from each other. This approach is based on the belief that spaces work more efficiently if they are divided into separate areas for recreation, work and housing. Unfortunately, this kind of spatial separation has compounded the traditional division between the public and the private spheres. The separation of public and private spheres is problematic because it can limit women’s abilities to move between different spaces in the city. For example, for women who are responsible for domestic tasks in the private sphere, including care-giving for children and/or elderly relatives, buying and/or growing food, maintaining the family home, and doing all number of errands and juggling resources, it can be virtually impossible to also squeeze in a trip to a separate part of the city for recreational activities. As a consequence, women simply may not be able to enjoy leisure time in spaces designated for recreation. In another example, women may have to decline an employment opportunity if it is located in a public area that is far away from their other daytime responsibilities in the private realm (e.g. family-related chores, care-taking roles).  Conversely, women may opt or be oblited to take a job (e.g. due to poverty, to make a living) even if it is inconveniently located, and are thus forced to take long journeys early in the morning and late at night through areas where they feel insecure and their safety is at risk.

In contrast, when land use and zoning allow for mixed types and uses of spaces, the division between the public and private spheres is not as marked and women are more able to use, enjoy and work within multiple spaces. They have easy access to everything they need, including childcare, work places, stores, health facilities and recreation. Therefore, plans should focus on increasing flow between home, work, school, health services, shopping and leisure. Safety planning and design should directly reinforce women’s right (and everyone’s) to a balance between work, family life and free time. In addition, employment initiatives at local, neighbourhood levels should be supported to allow women to work close to their home and families. Better planning favours a better quality of life for men and women. Consequently, planners should not simply focus on making women safer in their traditional roles as wives and mothers in the private sphere. Instead, planners and the community at large must work to make space accommodate the diverse realities of women’s lives and socio-economic roles and to challenge outdated socio-cultural norms regarding gender roles.


Make sure that planning professionals identify all public spaces, both formal and informal, that may be unsafe or risky for women and girls. 

All public spaces matter and must be considered important when planning and designing safe cities for women. Public spaces that are unsafe for women and girls are often overlooked by planning professionals. These sites, which may be small, dark, poorly lit, or unused, can be treated as invisible “non-spaces” by urban planners and designers who are focused only on a particular project or building. For example, abandoned lots between housing developments and highways, empty spaces between industrial zones and central business districts, alleyways, street corners, and spaces between buildings are usually ignored in the planning and design process. These areas, which connect formal and informal areas, are important parts of public space and should be considered in planning practice in order to ensure that all parts of the city are safe for women and girls.

Case Study: “Avoiding Entrapment”

This example comes from the Plan It Safe Kit by the Safe Women of Liverpool Project. The kit describes entrapment spots as small, confined spaces, often adjacent to well-travelled routes, and shielded on three sides by some type of barrier - for example, walls, fences or bushes. Examples of entrapment spots are elevators, stairwells, dark recessed areas that may be locked at night, and loading docks off a pedestrian route. Multi-level car parks and gas stations can also sometimes become entrapment sites, especially if they are located next to a main walkway. In order to manage the problems associated with entrapment spaces (which can facilitate assault, including sexual assault of women and girls), the Plan It Safe Kit recommends that local councils and building or property owners be involved in the following actions:

'Plan and design out' entrapment spots, making sure that new designs do not contain small, confined and unused spaces which could provide the opportunity for entrapment.

Close off entrapment spaces or lock them up after hours - for example, when a building is closed, lock the entrance of the stairwell which leads to it.

Limit access to areas such as loading docks and storage areas.

Make sure the area is well lit.

Improve visibility with aids such as convex mirrors.

Clearly identify any dead end lanes by using clear signs and markers.


Source: Safe Women Project. 1998. Plan It Safe Kit. Pluto Press, Annandale, Australia: Section 5. Available online in English