Safe Cities
General Guidance
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Build safety directly into city projects

Last edited: December 03, 2010

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When plans for city projects are made (i.e., new shopping plazas, transit stops or parks), they should consider and include measures to make the urban environment safer for women and for everyone. These measures can be included as safety standards. Issues that could be addressed by safety standards include lighting, signage, pedestrian paths, public transportation accessibility, toilet facilities, etc. (Cowichan Women Against Violence Society, 1999). Such standards can mean the difference between a city that is labyrinth-like, (i.e. alienating and difficult and stressful to navigate) and a city that promotes friendly relations among neighbours and is easy to navigate (i.e., a place women and girls can move through confidently).  

Make sure projects incorporate design features that prioritise safety. The list below explains the most common design features that can create safer public spaces for women and girls. Safe cities programme partners should work with urban planners, designers, developers, and architects to make sure that these features are built into all city spaces.

  • Ensure that spaces are planned so that users can easily understand where they are. Women can feel insecure if they are lost or confused. Women and girls will feel safer in a space if they know where they are and how to get out. Maps, directional signs, good lighting and a clear design concept can all help make a space easy to navigate.
  • Keep visibility in mind. Women feel safer if they can see their surroundings and others can see them if they need help. For example, glass shelters at bus stops allow women to monitor what is going on around them and, likewise, ensure that they are visible to passers-by, motorists, shopkeepers and residents.
  • Try to make public spaces lively and full of people as much as possible so that women do not feel isolated or alone. Multi-use spaces ensure that a variety of user groups have a presence at different times of the day.
  • Provide easy access to emergency equipment and services. If women are isolated and do experience violence, danger or fear, access to emergency phones that connect directly to the police and sexual abuse hotlines are extremely important.
  • Make sure public spaces are accessible to people who are less mobile (the elderly, the very young, people with canes or wheelchairs, blind people, mothers with baby carriages, etc.)



The following questions have been drawn and adapted from Safety Audit Checklists

regarding design of places related to personal safety.



Is it easy for someone who is not familiar with the area to find their way around?

Is there adequate signage and other information that tells people where they are and how to find services, who to call in an emergency?

Is information provided visible and legible to someone in a wheelchair, someone who is visually impaired?

Is the area/building accessible?

Is the area served by public transportation? If so, does transit meet the needs of users?

If not, what other assistance is available

Are buildings, sidewalks, streets and crossing areas well-placed and accessible,

particularly for people with disabilities? How has this been determined?



Is / will the area, building (or parts of the building) be subject to isolation? If so, are there

practices in place to enhance personal safety and security of people who must use the area during those times?

Do the surrounding land uses encourage people to be there?

How far away are the nearest emergency services?

Is the area patrolled by security, police, neighbourhood watch?

Would someone hear a call for help?



Does layout of the site and building(s) provide for maximum visibility of the street and

parking areas, paths and walkways?

Does the building interior contain sharp corners, isolated areas?

Are there any structures, landscaping, vegetation, corners, ditches, vehicles, signs that would impede visibility?



Is the lighting adequate? How has this been determined?

Is the lighting bright enough (without being too bright or causing glare), is it evenly

spaced and unobscured by landscaping or fences?

How well does lighting illuminate parking lots, pedestrian walkways, sidewalks,

directional signs and maps? Is lighting adequate for someone to see another person 20 metres away?



What signage is planned? What signage is needed to serve all users? Does it provide necessary information?

Does signage direct people with disabilities to accessible entrances?

Is it located properly? (e.g., so that it is visible to someone in a wheelchair?)

Is the lettering large enough to read, easy to understand? Visual symbols?

Are transportation points clearly indicated? (Taxi stands, bus stops, paratransit?)



Are there small, confined areas, such as alcoves, solid staircases, between garbage bins, alleys, lanes, parking spots where someone could hide or be hidden from view?

How easy would it be to predict someone’s movements along a route?

Is there more than one main route/ exit through well-traveled areas, into buildings?



How will the area/building be maintained?

Who will be responsible for removing graffiti, repairing vandalism? Will this be done


Will there be information posted to tell people how to report problems?



How is the area or building monitored? (police, security staff, etc.)

Are security staff and building managers aware of personal safety concerns for women and children?

Where buildings are used by businesses and services, are there safety measures and programs in place?

How far away is the nearest emergency service? (alarm, personnel, emergency telephone)

Are there areas that should be locked, fenced or barricaded?

Source: Design Checklist (2001) in Kelowna Planning for Safer Communities Workshop Report. (Dame, T. and A. Grant. 2001). Cowichan Valley Safer Futures Program: pages 30-31. This generic checklist to assess whether planning design policies meet safety requirements can be adapted to include a focus on women’s safety concerns and used by women and women’s organizations, planners, and public officials alike. Process considerations are given, as well as a detailed set of questions to ask. Available in English.


 “Adopt-a-Light” Programme, Nairobi, Kenya. As a result of women’s safety audits being conducted in Nairobi, Kenya as part of the UN-HABITAT Safer Cities programme, local citizens recognized that there was a lack of lighting in many areas, which led to a sense of insecurity. Rather than approaching municipal and planning authorities to put up costly lighting infrastructure, responsible parties encouraged residents to put up lights on the outside of their own houses. This inexpensive solution increased lighting on Nairobi’s streets while at the same time empowering residents to take charge of their own safety (UN-Habitat, 2010, 13).

   Railway Lighting Campaign, Mumbai, India. As part of its “Gender and Space” Project, the Indian community organization PUKAR conducted interviews and focus group discussions on safety issues with women in Mumbai. As a result of these interviews and questionnaires, it became apparent that lighting was a major factor that contributed to women feeling unsafe. Project representatives went to all Central Railway rail stations in the city and assessed the state of lighting around entrances and exits, ticket counters, foot bridges, stairways, platforms and toilets. After completing their assessment, representatives presented a full report on each station to authorities from the Central Railway. The following recommendations were made for all suburban stations, they are presented here as an example of how observations about the urban environment can be turned into concrete proposals for improvement.

  • Wherever possible tube-lights should replace existing yellow lights (other than halogens) as these provide better lighting.
    Every entrance and exit should have a light at the edge illuminating the outside area/ road, thus making entry to and exit from the station safer. Special care should be taken to illuminate exits off FOBs as these are particularly threatening zones.
    Foot-Over-Bridges (FOBs) are areas that are often seen to be threatening and these need to be brightly lit.
    Staircases that lead to and from FOBs should have at least three tube lights so that even if one light is not working the staircase is adequately lit.
    On platforms lighting should be augmented under the FOB as this area tends to be in shadow and is often badly illuminated.
    Open platform areas should be lit even when the EMU does not halt there as these areas are seen as potential threats.
    Un-used platforms at a station are supposed to have 30% illumination - we noticed that often illumination is far below this standard. We recommend that care be taken to ensure that this 30% illumination is maintained on all unused platforms” (Gender and Space Project, n.d.). See more information on the campaign and the Gender and Space project.



Nanna Car Park, Umeå, Sweden: In Umeå, Sweden, a parking lot has been designed to provide attractive parking for both men and women. Umeå Parkerings AB (UPAB), the company responsible for public parking in the city, has been renovating the Nanna parking lot since 1999 in order to make it safer and more enjoyable for a variety of users. Men and women from different social groups in the community identified several problems with the parking lot area, such as experiencing a sense of entrapment in staircases and a general sense of insecurity. Based on this information, the physical design of the parking lot space was modified. Changes included graffiti removal, the installation of new lighting and the installation of glass walls in the place of brick walls.  For more information, see the Nanna Car Park.   


Design Checklist (2001) in Kelowna Planning for Safer Communities Workshop Report. (Dame, T. and A. Grant. 2001). Cowichan Valley Safer Futures Program: pages 30-31. This generic checklist to assess whether planning design policies meet safety requirements can be adapted to include a focus on women’s safety concerns and used by women and women’s organizations, planners, and public officials alike. Process considerations are given, as well as a detailed set of questions to ask. Available in English.


The design of public development projects should address women’s safety during different times of the day and year.

The security of a space may change during the day or during the year. For example, a local beach may feel safe for women and girls during the summer and in the middle of the day when it is filled with many people and children playing. However, late at night and/or during the winter, when the same beach is isolated and has no facilities, it may feel threatening for women and girls, as well as for other members of the community. Therefore, urban planners and designers should understand that women’s security needs change over the course of time in a given space. Project designs should include considerations of how spaces feel and how spaces are used during daytime and nighttime, as well as different seasons.


Las Mujeres por una Ciudad sin Violencia (Women for a City without Violence), Colombia. This short animated video demonstrates how the incorporation of lighting in public spaces can offer safety and freedom for women at night. Available in Spanish.

Case Study: The Czech Network of Mother Centers.  

The Centers provide inclusive and collective spaces where mothers can come together, and/or temporarily leave their children in a safe environment. The accessibility of these support facilities provides opportunities for mothers to go to work, school, meetings, or to fulfil other obligations.

What are Mother Centers (MCs)?

In most cases established by mothers on maternity leave, who share the leadership and create the program at the same time.

MCs enable mothers with babies to come out of the isolation of their daily care duty at home.

MCs are founded on the principle of family self-support.

Provide community feeling, solidarity and are open to all generations.

MCs are places where children are welcome. There is a natural company of children of similar ages. A child can observe his/her mother in another role, different from her role at home.

MCs are created by the voluntary will of citizens and support the development of civic society.

MCs support the maternal role of the women while helping them to maintain their professional orientation and build up their self-confidence.

MCs are run on an informal basis and encourage the formation of new friendships.

From Mateřská Centra. (2007). “Main Tasks of the Network”. In Mateřská Centra.  Available in English.

Case Study: Gender-Sensitive Toilet Design, “Girls Education Project”, UNICEF/DFID. Nigeria, Africa

It is important that planners, developers, designers and architects take women’s concerns and interests into consideration when designing, locating and building public toilets. These considerations affect the dignity and privacy of women, as well as the performance of their religious rites and other societal obligations. Respect for women in the design and location of public toilets can make the difference between toilets being used frequently or not being used at all. 

In Purdah, (the practice of preventing women from being seen by men), religious injunctions restrict Muslim women from appearing in public and from participating in public activities, except those permitted by their spouses. Because of this, women require a high degree of privacy, especially when it comes to the use of public facilities, like water points and toilets. In many African traditional Muslim communities, women rarely make use of public toilets that lack privacy.

In many parts of Borno State in north-east Nigeria, men used to dominate decision-making about the type, design and building of toilets and latrines in homes and public places. Responsibility for use and maintenance of toilets was delegated to women, since cleaning the house and toilets are regarded as women’s work.

This approach changed with the introduction of a school WASH project by UNICEF/DFID in 2006, as part of the “Girls Education Project” (GEP). The aim is to create a child-friendly school learning environment for increased enrolment, retention and completion of primary education. Clean and convenient toilets are known to increase school attendance by girls, so toilets were designed taking into account the needs and interests of girls.

GEP school toilet designs are being replicated in Nigeria during 2008, the International Year of Sanitation. In a nationwide project, gender-sensitive public toilets are being constructed in schools, health facilities, car-parks, markets and other public places. Text taken directly from IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. (2008). “Gender-sensitive toilet design meets cultural needs of girls and women in north-east Nigeria”. In IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. Retrieved 20 May 2009.

More information on the Unicef WASH Project is in English. More information on the Girls Education Project is available in English



“Together we can make a difference”, Safe Delhi for Women Campaign. (JAGORI, 2009). JAGORI. This film depicts how the safety of city spaces can change radically depending on the time of the day. In this case, a narrow street is depicted as dark and threatening at night because it is a space where men catcall and berate women. The same street is depicted as friendly and accessible during the day because it is a space that is well-trafficked by many different user groups. The film demonstrates how, by incorporating key design features such as lighting, a space can be transformed from one that causes women to feel annoyance and fear into one that women can confidently use. The film is available in Hindi with English subtitles: 60 seconds.  

Public amenities for women should be considered as important as other facilities.

Women frequently use public facilities – often more than men. These facilities include payphones that allow toll-free calling to abuse hotlines or police, clean and private public toilets with room for changing diapers, childcare services, secure parking spaces with room for strollers and carts, and shaded bus shelters. Urban planning and design projects work better for women and girls when they include or are located near these facilities. In cities where public facilities do not exist or are difficult to access, women and girls are forced to be less comfortable than men, or to use unsafe alternatives such as strangers’ bathrooms or telephones.