Designing Cities to Make Them Safer for Women

In this guest blog, PhD candidate Raven E. Brown discusses how a gender-sensitive approach to urban planning that incorporates the concepts of safe design, with an emphasis on social surveillance, can reduce the likelihood of gender-based violence.
Designing Cities to Make Them Safer for Women


By Raven E. Brown


[18 January  2016] – While pursuing a graduate degree at the New School, I participated in the International Field Programme offered by the Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs in Johannesburg, South Africa. During my stay, a woman was raped on the street outside of my student accommodations. As a woman and native New Yorker who is accustomed to being aware of my surroundings, it was easy to see how the area posed multiple risks.

The dorms were located in an isolated area of Beria, a once-affluent, lower-income neighbourhood on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s Central Business District that is checkered with vacant commercial and residential spaces. Because of the high crime rate, many residents secure their homes with walls, barbed wired and electrical fencing, and few businesses are open after dark.

In short, there were no “eyes on the street” in Beria, to use the phrase coined by Jane Jacobs in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities. There were no community members watching their street, pedestrians in the process of commuting, or local businesses – all of the factors that together create a system of social surveillance that makes violence less likely to occur, especially against women.

Combined with the high prevalence of gender-based violence in the public sphere that South Africa experiences – according to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg, 25% of rapes which have occurred in the city were perpetrated in public spaces – it is unsurprising that a woman was raped on the street in Beria. Johannesburg is not alone; gender-based violence is escalating in cities around the world, and violence against women in public places in particular remains a neglected issue. (UN Women Safe Cities Program).


Using urban planning to combat violence

This does not mean that the victims of gender-based violence and communities are helpless. The way we approach urban planning and the spatial design of cities can make a big difference. 

Building walls as a means of protection – as in Johannesburg – can undermine a sense of community, foster isolation and fear, and potentially increase the likelihood of violent crime. Creating isolated public spaces also creates spatial environments in which crime is more likely to occur. 

A gender-sensitive approach to urban planning that incorporates the concepts of safe design, with an emphasis on social surveillance, can reduce the likelihood of gender-based violence and other violent crime. 

Healthy Spaces and Places, an Australian NGO focused on urban planning, provides some good examples of gender-sensitive design. It includes, but is not limited to:

  --  Design that increases the presence of people of the street, with adjoining buildings designed so that citizens have a solid view of the street (Jacobs, 1961, p. 46)

  --  Buildings designed to provide natural surveillance of the street

  --  Facilities with designated, lit footpaths that are well maintained

  --  Parks and open public spaces in areas which are visible from houses, schools, and other community-oriented facilities

  --  Artificial lighting in public spaces and routes that ensures visibility at night

  --  Parking lots and pathways that are well lit at night

  --  Street crossings on busy thoroughfares

  --  Mixed use of land to ensure that there is social surveillance at different times of day

  --  Spatial designs that promote natural surveillance

  --  Public transportation depots located in places with natural surveillance


New Delhi's Ring Road: A Cautionary Tale

New Delhi, India provides a good example of the importance of eyes on the street and the concept of social surveillance in violence prevention. The city has expanded due to massive urbanisation in recent decades, and urban planning that was not gender sensitive has potentially increased the likelihood of gender-based violence in the public sphere. 

The city built a massive new thoroughfare, Ring Road, to link different areas and neighbourhoods. Much of the Ring Road runs through desolate areas of the city, including neighbourhoods with no shops or residential areas, purely industrial sections, and stretches of the city where there are no street lights. As a result, women who commute on the Ring Road to access employment and income-generation opportunities are increasingly at risk of experiencing violence. This is a particular problem in India, where the majority of gender-based violence which occurs in the public sphere happens on roads or during a woman’s commute. 

Ring Road is an example of poor urban planning which did not take community advocacy in favor of gender-sensitive planning into consideration. A more gender-sensitive approach to planning would have featured well-lit roads and avoided isolated parts of the city.


Involving communities in the planning process

Another critical component of gender-sensitive urban planning is to bring communities into the spatial design process, with specific attention paid to gender. Residents and local businesses know their communities best, and they can work with planners to identify spaces where social surveillance is difficult in order to reduce the likelihood of gender-based violence. 

South Africa is in a unique position to be able to support and further develop participatory planning processes in urban areas.  Participatory community involvement is written into the country’s planning policy schemes and development plans, and participatory mechanisms are a part of its post-Apartheid policy structure.  

There are different ways South Africa can increase community participation in spatial and urban planning. They include community pressure on businesses that wish to be part of urban revitalisation processes in South African cities, and local-level policies that support gender-sensitive urban planning. 

Another possibility is a multi-dimensional, holistic approach such as the one advocated by UN-Habitat, which focuses on enhanced urban safety and security through planning, design, community participation, and local-level urban governance – all through a gendered lens. This approach can involve upgrading urban infrastructure to reduce gender-based violence risk factors, such as isolated and dimly lit spaces and providing access to public transportation.


Making cities places of opportunity for women

There is no doubt that urbanisation presents unique opportunities for the emancipation of women and girls. Urban centres can ease the enforcement of traditional cultural norms which may restrict their potential and create the space (both figuratively and literally) for new opportunities. The city provides access to income generation, education, freedom of expression, healthcare and other social services, as well as increased freedom of movement. Women may find themselves in positions where they are able to define their own social and economic destinies. 

These increased social and economic freedoms, however, have the potential to be accompanied by increased gender-based violence. Rethinking the way we design cities and communities can help reduce the risk of violence, making them safer places for women and girls, which in turn can boost economic productivity, community well-being, and reduce overall inequality – all crucial components  of building sustainable cities. 


Beria neighbourhood, Johannesburg. Photo: Raven E. Brown  

Student dorms in Johannesburg's Beria neighbourhood. Photo: Raven E. Brown


In Kigali, Rwanda, a baseline study conducted in 2012 found that 42% of women were concerned about going to educational institutions during the day, and 55% after dark. Over half of women said they were concerned about participating in leisure activities during the day and after dark. (Source: UN Women)


About the Author

Raven E. Brown is a PhD student in the Public and Urban Policy programme at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School for Public Engagement in New York City. With a background in development and global public health, Ms. Brown has worked on research-based interventions related to gender, adolescence, human rights, and HIV and AIDS in Belize, Guatemala, Israel, Mexico, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia. Her doctoral research is on the possibilities for radical transitions in a neoliberal world order, with specific attention paid to post-Apartheid South Africa and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. This article is based on a paper Ms. Brown submitted to 2015 Urban Poverty Graduate Student Paper Competition, an annual competition sponsored by USAID, International Housing Coalition (IHC), World Bank, the Wilson Center, and Cities Alliance. It represents her views alone and does not reflect those of the Cities Alliance.


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