Urban Planning to Keep Women Safe from Rape

I want you to know that you own your body. It is not a public good. But for the women reading this post you also know that not everyone believes this. There are hours when you won’t venture on the streets alone, and there are parts of town which you don’t consider even driving through. Even in broad daylight, you are cautious; you’ll change your route if a man is walking behind you for too long. You do this because you fear sexual harassment and rape. You fear the stigma which is attached to your body as something to be used and manipulated by the public. Culture, folk-lore, beauty magazines, rampant pornography in TV and film; the list goes on-and-on of the everyday propaganda which defines the female body not only as a sexual object, but a public one. And the planning of the city you live in most likely perpetuates the vulnerability you feel in public.

In May of 1985 feminist urban planners came together at UCLA and held one of the first public discussions about what city planners can do to create safer environments for women. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

“The city represents nothing more than an obstacle course to be navigated between the neutral zones of home and office. Hazards to be avoided include poorly lighted bus stops, park benches commandeered by hoodlums and overgrown shrubbery that may conceal an attacker.

“[UCLA Professor of architecture and urban planning, Dolores Hayden] said that the woman who failed to stay in what was perceived as her rightful niche at home in years past became fair game for harassment–and worse–in factories, offices, theaters, parks and restaurants. ‘Because the urban working woman was no one urban man’s property,’ Hayden observed, ‘she was (regarded as) every urban man’s property.’”

According to a report by ActionAid in 2011 which looks at the security of women in growing cities of Brazil, Nepal, Liberia, Ethiopia, and Cambodia, urbanization can create environments which make it easy for perpetrators to rape and which make women more vulnerable to rape. The report found that the fear women have of being raped while out in a public space limits their rights and freedoms as equal citizens, mobility and freedom of movement, full participation in public life, psychological and psychosocial health and wellbeing, pursuit of economic labor and opportunities, educational attainment, sexual and reproductive health, access to essential services, and access to culture, arts, social life, and leisure.

Take a look at this interactive map on urban growth from the BBC website:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/world/06/urbanisation/html/urbanisation.stm

Scroll the time line and notice the regions of the world with the largest increase in urban growth. Move the cursor to 2015 and the caption reads, “Most of the growth will happen in Africa and Asia, with Africa’s urban population growing fastest in percentage terms and Asia seeing the biggest volume of growth.” Now look at this WomanStats map, scaled in 2011, on rape and sexual assault and notice that in these regions rape is the norm or regularly occurs.

Although urbanization is not the only factor contributing to the norm or regularity of rape in these countries, it is a contributor and will continue to be a contributor as there is a lack of urban planning which creates safe public environments for women.

All over the world women are stifled in the areas reported by ActionAid because they fear going out; because their body is not safe in public. As Pratiksha Baxi, (lecturer at the department of Sociology, Delhi school of Economics, at the University of Delhi) writes in an article about the prevalence of rape in Delhi, India:

“Each time a slum is demolished and large numbers of people are relocated, the issue of the safety of women and girls is neither seriously debated nor considered. When a mall, subway or a multiplex cinema is built, the idea that the urban environment should facilitate rather than impede the safety of women is not given any attention. Even when the Delhi Metro blueprint was being prepared, it did not take into account the increased vulnerabilities for women caused during its execution or by the change in bus routes.

“Why is it that the prevention of rape and sexual violence is only about telling women to learn the skills of self-defense, use cell phones, avoid going out in the dark or calling for increased police presence? While the planning of the city by itself will not stop all such incidents of violence, surely planners who take deterrence seriously could contribute significantly in creating women-friendly urban environments? Why have urban planners not built in the prevention of rape into both the development and regulation of the city?”

After a recent rape close to the neighborhood which I live, there were a lot of comments focusing on the woman’s choice to be out after dark in the section of town she was in. Victim blaming is far too common and in retrospect she was raped along a running trail, designed by city planners for public use and enjoyment: women’s safety should have been planned into it. Why wasn’t the area better lit? Why were there no emergency boxes to alert the police? Why wasn’t brush cleared around the trail to prevent hiding places of an attacker? Why was the trail planned in such a way which leaves women vulnerable? Why should we stand the fact that we are not free to go anywhere we wish whenever we want in the cities which we live without fearing harm?  Rape prevention must become an issue of urban planning in the U.S. and globally.

Good planning is instrumental in how safe a woman not only feels, but really is. With globalization and the urbanization of the developing world we need to develop strategies and give aid in ways which change the urban landscape. NGO’s and the UN need to push for urban planning reform as part of public policies in urbanizing nations. In your own communities pay attention to the circumstances surrounding rape and petition for more lights, less alleys, less open parking lots, closer bus stops, and public emergency phones.

Cities are not just for men, they are for women too. Your body is your own. You and women around the world should be able to move freely in public without fear of sexual harassment and rape.

—CHB

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7 thoughts on “Urban Planning to Keep Women Safe from Rape

  1. GoodReason says:

    I’ll never forget when they landscaped the then-new Provo River Trail. I turned to my husband and said, “No woman was on that planning committee. Not one. Women would NEVER put all those bushes and shrubs there for attackers to hide in.” And then after all these tragic events, my husband and I got to witness them tearing out all the bushes and shrubs. Why don’t they just include women from the very beginning? They obviously cannot “see” what women see . . .

  2. Karin says:

    What an awesome angle! I also appreciate how you pointed out that even we blame victims here in our community. –I think I do it not meaning to blame a girl who was raped but to try and define what choices of her’s led her into trouble. (Ie. “well she shouldn’t have been running alone at night…” That way I feel like my choices can keep me safer. The truth is that no matter how cautious we females try to be the choice of whether we are assaulted is not our own. A thought-provoking post.

  3. Jessica says:

    Great article. I think victim blaming is so damaging and does not actually solve any problems. Thank you for pointing out how city planning can be a solution.

  4. kim says:

    im an urban planner and a woman. I did my graduate research on precisely this topic- planning safer spaces for women. After my research though, i couldnt help but think there was something missing from my ‘proposed solutions’, and then it hit me: we should also be teaching men not to rape.

    i cant emphasize how important it is to discuss this with the men and boys in our lives. Lets not only plan our way around rape. lets eliminate it altogether.

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