Op-ed: A few simple steps towards designing safer public spaces for women

For too long, we have lived in and accepted cities built by men, for men. But as more and more women need and want access to public spaces within their cities, we need paradigm shifts in design to make these safer for them. Here are some simple first steps.

This article is part of a special series: Safety of women in Indian cities

“I walked on the side where the shops were, because they were well lit and there were people around”

“I stood near the gate while waiting for my ride, just a bit inside, even though I did not belong to that college”

“I never walk next to that tall compound wall”

“I am always in a big group when I visit that park.  Too many bushes that make me feel as though someone is hiding there!”

These are familiar statements, familiar sentiments that will resonate with every woman who reads them.  Every woman who ventures out of her ‘safe’ spaces, be it her home or college or workspace, feels a sense of vulnerability and unbelonging that comes from a silently accepted notion that she should not be out there.  The ‘out there’ takes many forms, but there is an underlying thread that runs through all of them. They all enable certain forms of behaviour while disabling others. A large part of it can be ascribed to the design, the layout and therefore the usage of these spaces.  

Cities for men

To understand this better, we need to ask a few questions – Who historically planned cities?  Who is the intended user of all public spaces in general? Who is privileged in these spaces? Most of us would not have given a thought to these questions because we have resigned ourselves too long to the patriarchal patterns of living.  But of course, the simple answer to all these questions is the same. It is men.  

Gender roles and patterns of living and working have changed dramatically through the last hundred years, but the design of spaces that make these activities possible have not.  They have not even been questioned, let alone examined in detail. Urban designers and policy makers are too often men, and when men design for men, women get the short shrift.  

As the world becomes more urbanized, and greater numbers of women will want to access and occupy spaces within their cities, one needs to ask – is this a tenable situation?  If we are to respond to the appalling trend of continued and unabated violence against women, a paradigm shift in design thinking is urgently needed.  

Some of these shifts will involve larger policy changes such as increasing the representation of women in the political arena, or gender sensitization across the populace.  But there are some easily implemented physical changes that can be brought in immediately to increase safety for women. These require no policy amendments. They only need a clear and firm commitment to ensure safe access for women to all public spaces.

It doesn’t take much…

The changes could begin with these simple steps:

  1. Provision of good lighting on roads, footpaths, parks, chowks, shopping streets and other public spaces 
  2. Clear sight lines to public spaces, ensuring that at any point all parts of a public space are clearly visible to everyone.  Even vegetation that is above a metre in height is perceived as facilitating a hiding place for potential attackers.
  3. Brightly lit, well designed public transport facilities, such as bus stops and auto stands
  4. Safe bus services at night, perhaps with an all-woman crew
  5. Regular maintenance of trees so as not to block lighting
  6. Clear signage that can help orient a woman quickly to her destination
  7. Design of public places such that they can be occupied by a wide range of people and accommodate mixed use, with many places to walk, play, eat, exercise, etc at different times of the day.  When only a certain kind of people are privileged in a space, that space automatically becomes unsafe for most others, especially those who are vulnerable, such as women, children and senior citizens. 
  8. Increase in the number of womens’ police stations, or the presence of female police officers at regular stations
  9. General maintenance of public places to make the place look and feel safe.  Derelict and run-down spaces have the immediate effect of making women feel that they are dangerous. 
  10. Clean, well-lit and safely-situated public toilets
  11. Restricting the height of walls around public buildings so that streets do not end up feeling like tunnels

Most importantly, a start has to be made somewhere; otherwise in a classic chicken-and-egg situation, when a public space is perceived as being unsafe for women, they will continue to avoid occupying that space, resulting in continuing lack of safety within that space.

Finally, there needs to be a real change in the mindsets of those who are at the helm of decision making on matters of policy and design. Currently, these are still men, and this means we are going to get a built environment designed by men, for men.  Only when more women sit at the table, the perspective, the needs and the talents of women can start showing up in the built environment. Otherwise, we will continue to live in environments that are dangerous and inaccessible for half of our population. 

The clock is ticking.


  1. Roopa says:

    Lovely read, Suchitra. Much needed.

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