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Making the built environment better for everyone

07 March 2019 Author: Sue Manns

A built environment that is good for women is good for everyone. This is most evident when looking at personal safety. 

We need to recognise how the built environment affects men and women differently. 

It is a well-known fact that basic safety is a top concern for women in public spaces and places across the world. A French study in 2014 revealed that 1 in 4 women experienced fear in public spaces. Women’s fear of going out after dark means that in Northern Europe many do not leave the house after 5pm. 

But this fear is also most evident in the younger and older age groups and has an impact on health and well-being as it limits involvement in community-based activities. This goes to show that improving personal safety for women will go a long way to making the built environment better for everyone.

Safety in urban areas

Professor Clara Greed, known for her expertise in and campaigns on social aspects of planning, especially gender, equality and disability issues, said way back in 1994 that “it has been demonstrated by research and human experience that women suffer disadvantage within a built environment that is developed primarily for other men”. 

A UN Women report from 2017 drew attention to issues relating to women’s safety in urban areas, noting that “when women and girls are not safe walking on city streets, selling their goods or shopping in marketplaces, commuting on public transport or simply using community toilets, it has a massive impact on their lives. Both the threat and the experience of violence affect their access to social activities, education, employment and leadership opportunities”.

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee report (2018) on ‘Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places’ noted that “sexual harassment pervades the lives of women and girls and is deeply ingrained in our culture…. The memory or fear of it affects women’s behaviour and choices and restricts their freedom to be in public spaces. It can make women and girls scared and stressed, avoid certain routes home at night or certain train carriages, wear headphones while out running; women feel the onus is put on them to avoid ‘risky’ situations. It has a wider effect on society, contributing to a culture in which sexual violence can be normalised or excused. All of this keeps women and girls unequal.”

The Committee heard evidence of the habitual ‘safety work’ women perform, often unconsciously, such as taking particular routes, wearing headphones or looking down whilst walking.

In the UK, a shocking 63 per cent of girls and young women aged 13–21 experience (or know someone who has experienced) not feeling safe walking home alone, according to the Girls Attitudes Survey 2018. On Britain’s railways, the number of sexual offences reported has more than doubled over the past five years.

Women’s ‘complex and varied’ lives 

A survey in Vienna in 1999 which asked how people in the city used transportation also showed that women and men have strikingly different needs and use places and spaces in different ways.

The results found that men’s lives are often much simpler - ‘go to work in the morning, come home at night’ - while women’s tend to be more complex and varied. Women make multiple trips a day on the metro as well as on foot, drop off children at school, go to the doctor, get groceries, visit an older family member, and return to school for pick up. A range of issues were identified which could make a big difference to women. 

These findings led urban planners to rethink their approach to infrastructure development, including adding street lights so women were safer walking at night and widening pavements to make it easier to move around with pushchairs or wheelchairs.

What needs to happen now? 

So what is the message that we should take from these studies? As a first step, we need to recognise how the built environment affects men and women differently. 

There is a need for women to speak out and to be listened to by those who are responsible for designing and managing our built environment. Good consultation and engagement with women is essential as it can reveal how the implications of well-meaning decisions may be counter-intuitive to what was intended because there is a lack of understanding of the impacts on women. For example, new housing schemes that create wide open spaces separating groups of buildings and lacking in natural surveillance may be seen by women as equally unsafe as dark alleyways at night-time.

An unsafe built environment affects everyone, but the impacts are often felt to a greater degree by women. A healthy built environment is an inclusive and popular one, with people visibly using the spaces and places that it contains across all hours of day and night. It works for all ages and genders.

Currently the majority of built environment professionals are men – that has to change if we are to make our built environment safer and more inclusive. This means encouraging more women into the built environment professions. Doing so will go a long way towards making cities work for all.


Sue Manns

Sue Manns

Sue Manns FRTPI FRGS FRSA is Vice President of the RTPI.