On the Design of Everyday Space: Closing the gender gap

Pablo Navarrete-Hernandez, Universidad de Chile

Arielle Vetro, London School of Economics & Political Science

Paz Concha, Universidad Catolica de Chile

The Importance of the Urban Public Realm

The ability to safely access and participate in the urban public realm has profound implications for wellbeing. It can offer a range of social, emotional and psychological benefits – from strengthened social inclusion to improved mental health. Despite interest in recent decades in rejuvenating urban public spaces to stimulate their use, concerns around inaccessibility and exclusion of particular groups from these spaces – among them women – remain largely unaddressed. Concern for personal safety has often been found to preclude women from full and meaningful inclusion in public spaces, thus limiting opportunities to reap the wellbeing benefits from access to the public realm.

One promoted strategy to tackle issues of perceived safety in public space is in the design and planning of the urban environment, quite literally the “choice architecture” of access. Several theories describe the potential mechanisms through which the built environment could impact perceived safety, leading to various urban design interventions and whether they influence women’s perceptions of safety in public space.

Our Research

We assessed the impact of three theory-driven design interventions commonly debated in the literature.1

  1. The provision of public toilets, based on feminist theories of women’s restricted mobility
  2. The elimination of solid walls grounded in the “eyes on the street” theory of passive control
  3. The removal of graffiti founded on the “broken windows” theory

As there are many tensions and gaps in the literature surrounding these interventions, we decided that this made it valuable to assess their impact. We conducted an experiment to compare participants’ perceptions of different urban spaces, using computerised photo-simulations. The online platform Urban Experiment was used to collect a data sample of 104 individuals, walking in open streets of the LSE campus in Central London during 2018. Participants were presented with a series of six randomly-assigned public space images. These were either the control image incorporating a safety-enhancing urban design or planning intervention, or the treatment image without these features. Participants rated the images according to how safe they would feel walking along in the public space presented to them (As with any RCT this would have strong internal validity, but could not be extrapolated to the larger population).

The images used are shown below.

Our Findings

This image-based technique enabled us to produce a priori evidence of the expected impacts of proposed design and planning interventions. Overall, the findings of this study suggest that specific design interventions can indeed have a significant impact on perceived safety, and also that impact differs by gender.

When considering the entire sample, urban interventions have a positive and statistically significant effect on safety perceptions in public space. Separating the results by intervention type we find that although each of the interventions has a positive estimate, we found a significant impact only for the removal of solid walls. This finding supports the component of Jabob’s “eyes on the street” theory that people feel less safe in areas containing isolating structures, such as walls and other visibility-reducing barriers (This is an approach recommended by Bovens and Marcoc for the design of gender-neutral restrooms). Conversely, people feel safer in spaces containing rows of housing lining streets with windows.

When assessing the treatment by gender, we observed notable differences in these impacts. Typical streets without interventions showed no difference in perceived safety by gender. When analysing the interventions we found that perceptions of safety increase significantly amongst women only. This suggests that women are more sensitive to improvements in public space. Overall these findings support feminist theories of the gendered nature of safety improvements in the public realm, and that a gendered approach to urban design and planning is needed to close the gap.

Why this work matters. What should be done

Despite its limitations, in this study we contribute, with causal evidence, to the existing literature on gendered theories of the urban public realm, while offering a practical methodological tool to incorporate a gender-attentive approach in everyday urban policy and research as the default choice architecture. This tool allows researchers and practitioners to identify effective design and planning interventions to enhance perceived safety amongst women. While feminist or gender-focused to urban design and planning practice remain at the margins, this study’s findings provide clear evidence to support efforts to adopt a gender-sensitive approach to create safe and inclusive built environments. Although our study provides insights into the gendered perceptions of safety in public space, our sample was primarily comprised of young, highly educated students without disabilities. Further studies casting a broader sample could investigate, for example, whether perceptions of safety differ for women across ethnicity, age, and disability. Applying the present research tool with an intersectional approach can then help design built environments that better serve all women.

Navigability of Everyday Space

Consideration of the needs of women will not alone solve the deep-rooted issues of gender inequality and violence against women in public spaces. However, it is a necessary step for the inclusion of women on equal grounds in the public realm. As feminist scholars have argued, thoughtful gender-attentive planning can play an essential role in helping to design a built environment where women feel the confidence and freedom to move through and access public space without fear. In this way they may better experience the advantages and rewards associated with their inclusion and participation in urban life. The knowledge and tools now exist to deliver the necessary change, exemplified by the work of our Urban Experiment, using big data to better understand the value of urban design changes.

Other authors have highlighted the importance of “navigability” in the choice architecture that shapes human decisions. As Bar-Hillel and Sunstein have argued, the design of “everyday objects” has important effects. These effects extend also to everyday space and the most basic human rights of access.

  1. Austin& SanBeebeejaun, 2017Greed, 2016Chiodi, 2016Jacobs, 1961