Over recent years there has been an increased consciousness within the built environment industries around the way in which the physical spaces that we use, can have a powerful impact on our behaviours and our emotions. As a result of this, inclusivity has become a major focus, as it has become increasingly apparent that different groups of people utilise places in different ways. The varying needs of the population require focussed planning attention and intervention and one need that is often overlooked is safety, particularly in relation to the population who identify as women.

Safety is a fundamental right for all members of society, however women tend to be disproportionately affected by poorly designed places. A UN Women report on the current state of sexual harassment in the UK, published in 2021, found that a staggering 71% of women of all ages have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space. Early this year, travel watchdog, London Travel Watch, reported almost half (48%) of women respondents would no longer travel at certain times of the day due to safety concerns. There is also a reported underrepresentation of facilities for women in green spaces, causing greater fear and less interaction within public open spaces in parks.

Though design of the built environment is not necessarily intentionally gender-biased in its conception, a failure to comprehend how women might use places and public spaces can perpetuate gender inequalities. Although the built environment does not directly produce gender-based violence, these spaces can create situations in which women feel and are more vulnerable to harassment due to poor design. As a result, women often adopt avoidance techniques to deal with these conditions; for example, taking longer and less straightforward routes to avoid certain areas or completely avoiding going out at night-time.

The nature of perceived security is multi-faceted and multi-scaled. However, there are a number of physical characteristics that can be fundamental contributors to women’s security within the built environment. These characteristics are centred around visibility and legibility; maintenance and condition of public spaces; cleanliness; surveillance and ‘eyes on the street’; plus the facilities on offer. Blind corners, public transport stops in isolated areas, pedestrian underpasses and a lack of natural surveillance built into scheme design are just a few of the elements of the modern built environment that can induce feelings of insecurity amongst women.

As outlined within The Healthy City report, co-authored by Nexus Planning, WPI Economics and Resilience Brokers for Key Cities (a network of 25 cities of all shapes and sizes across the country) a new approach within the planning industry is required to shift the emphasis away from the delivery of housing numbers at its core to a more holistic vision of health. Under the current planning system, safety is often an afterthought or merely a tick-box exercise. Indeed, the only reference to safety within the public realm in the NPPF at the moment is at paragraph 92.

While safety is buried away in the NPPF, the sentiment is wise, highlighting that parks and public spaces should be safe, secure and accessible so that the fear of crime does not undermine quality of life or community cohesion. There needs to be clearer guidelines for how spaces should be designed with safety and security, and in particular women’s security, in mind. These aspects should be considered at the very inception of projects to ensure that the overall design can respond to the needs of women.

The lack of understanding of women’s experience of the built environment stems from a number of factors. One crucial contributor is the under-representation at a senior level in the planning industry. A high proportion of work undertaken by planners requires the use of personal life experience and worldview, therefore if there is a gender imbalance in the industry, the outcomes of developments may be unintentionally weighted towards one gender’s views and needs. Another contributor is the lack of data collection regarding women’s experiences. Increasing this would enable a more widespread understanding and would help to develop more tangible techniques in tackling safety issues that directly relate to women. Although there are a number of reports published on the subject of inclusivity within the built environment, these are not being picked up and implemented within planning policy for de facto change to take place.

Across the world, a number of policy and design interventions have been implemented to ensure that places can provide for all members of society. In Vienna, Austria, a gender-mainstreaming strategy has been in place since the early 1990s. The strategy involves the creation of laws, rules and regulations that benefit men and women equally, with a goal to providing equal access to city resources. Examples of how this has been implemented include an apartment block designed by women, ‘Women-Work-City’ (‘Frauen-Werk-Stadt’), which incorporates open space, a kindergarten, a pharmacy and doctor’s surgery within the housing complex, along with nearby public transit stops to make women’s daily lives easier.

In Barcelona, Spain, an inclusive vision for everyday life has been put at the centre of policies. In an effort to ensure that inclusivity is at the centre of the City Council, a Security and Gender Working Committee was established in 2013 and a subsequent guide has been published that sets out gender criteria to ensure that a gender balance is achieved in public spaces, aimed at informing the technical teams that are involved in planning, drafting and executing projects in the city. Case studies within the city include the remodelling of avenues and whole neighbourhoods to ensure that areas are safer and more accessible to everyone. Strategies implemented within these schemes include better lighting, the repositioning of elements impairing visibility, improvements in vegetation, the widening of pavements and drawing up maps of the everyday local network to indicate safe and accessible routes that include facilities, public spaces and other services.

Not only is it a progressive and inclusive idea to create more gender-mainstreamed neighbourhoods, it is a fundamental right within both international and European laws, including the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. It is often argued within the discourse surrounding the built environment, that the physical space to which we all relate to, that we produce, will in turn produce us. This is a particularly salient thought when considering gender and safety within the built environment, as it is clear that places and spaces can embody power relations in a largely covert way. However, through research, it has become evident that key design interventions at differing scales can create real changes to women’s experiences of the built environment. Ensuring that women’s experience of places is given greater consideration, through increased data collection relating to their use of the built environment and an increased voice within the planning industry as a whole, will hopefully pave the way to more comprehensive planning policies, and for real and tangible changes to take place within the built environment.