How cities are designed has serious impacts on how safe its inhabitants feel on its streets. Roads & Infrastructure Magazine talks to Dr. Nicole Kalms about how urban planning and design practice can help to make cities safer for everyone.
Millions of Australians have to visit a city in order to work, live or travel. Creating accessible public infrastructure is important to ensuring each person is able to feel safe and comfortable.
Monash University’s XYX Lab focuses on how gender sensitive design practices and theory can be used to bring together planners, policy makers, local government and stakeholders to highlight the experiences of underrepresented communities in urban space and planning.
It uses equal parts qualitative and quantitative research to help build equity into urban life through long-term vision and strategic approaches to the design process.
Dr. Nicole Kalms, Director at XYX Labs, says that a problematic assumption when it comes to a city’s design is that everyone has equal access and equitable experiences.
“I am still always surprised by the lack of access that women have to cities. Sexual harassment, whether it is physical or non-physical, keeps women out of those city spaces and doesn’t allow them to freely occupy the city,” Dr. Kalms says.
“I think that often people in power don’t have a clear understanding of what is actually occurring for women and girls. That’s one of the reasons we organise gender sensitive workshops, where we take key urban planners and stakeholders and reveal many concerning experiences that women have in city spaces everyday.
“The hostility, sexual violence and harassment always surprises the men who did not understand that’s what a woman’s experience could be.”
To gather research on how specific city spaces affected women, the XYX Lab collaborated with Plan International and CrowdSpot on the Free To Be project. It has allowed women in Melbourne to place their stories on an interactive map. The map reveals areas they believe are unsafe and require change.
Users could place pins that marked an area as happy or sad and on specific areas they either loved or felt unsafe in. This data was then presented to decision makers such as the City of Melbourne, Victoria Police, Metro Trains and Public Transport Victoria.
The project was so successful it was expanded to Sydney, Delhi, Kampala, Lima and Madrid. Dr. Kalms says the geolocative aspect mapping allowed women and girls to share their experiences and give feedback on what can be done better.
“For example, in some areas there were reports that said the lighting was dreadful. With that information, we were able to find hotspots and see how women were changing their behaviours to feel safer,” she explains.
“When we can see why women were avoiding certain areas, we were able to understand the hotspots where the behaviour was occurring. Our action going forward is to advocate and design prototypes to improve how safe the areas feel.”
Dr. Kalms says this information is more helpful than simply looking at police reports, as they often only provide information at a postcode level and don’t account for when an incident isn’t reported.
“Going into the research, I thought like most people that areas that would feel most unsafe to women would be laneways or dark lonely streets with no people around.
“Increasingly, what we are discovering is that it’s actually really busy places where women suffer the most, particularly sexual harassment. In really busy places there can be a lot of groping and physical sexual harassment,” Dr. Kalms says.
Examples of some ways to improve the feeling of safety in urban spaces was to remove hypersexualised advertisements in areas such as bus shelters retail districts.
“Another example from the Melbourne study was a particular hub of fast food restaurants. What we are discovering is that a particular socio-economic demographic, due to a range of complex issues, leads to more hostile behaviours happening on the street,” Dr. Kalms says.
“A policy to prevent this would be to spread out fast food restaurants to avoid huge hubs with unpredictable people,” she says.
CrowdSpot and the XYX Lab is now set to launch a pilot project for the Victorian Government to create a Gender Equity Map.
“We’re going to have a better picture of the suburban side of things. There are issues of lighting in suburban areas and isolated train stations. On city streets it can be a dangerous place, but we have found the infrastructure in many suburbs is worse,” Dr. Kalms says.
Dr. Kalms says it’s important to ensure underrepresented communities are able to share their experiences and opinions on how to make cities more accessible and safer.
“One of the things that has come out of our research is that women are modifying their behaviour at an early age. Young girls will carefully plan exactly how they will travel to a certain destination, which laneway they can take, where they park their cars for example,” she says.
“This careful planning may not even be very conscious, but it is how women and girls are socially ‘trained’ to safely navigate cities.”
Dr. Kalms explains this is an example of how a city can be gendered. She says that most resources and infrastructure available in cities is gendered as men are able to take advantage of them much easier than women.
“There is a need for city planners and design companies to establish clear policies that focus on the way different cultures and genders engage in cities. This needs to be brought to the front of planning discussions and allow people with these experiences to contribute,” Dr. Kalms says.
Dr. Kalms says ‘crime prevention through environmental design’ is currently a process being utilised by various police agencies throughout Australia to deter crime but is missing key information. She says it often works as a checklist to determine whether an area can be considered ‘safe’ but doesn’t take into account the public’s perception of the area.
“Thought needs to go into more than just the analytical side of things to understand what needs to be emphasised,” she says.
The XYX Lab run co-design experiments to help planners understand the experiences of groups that are often not heard at this high-level planning stage. Dr. Kalms explains it as bringing groups of people together into a design-friendly environment to mix with those with design expertise.
“Young women and girls identify and help solve problems raised in designs. When there are design experts in the room and women with lived experiences, new things can emerge,” she says.
“We uncover new ways of designing urban spaces and can apply data to make cities safer.”