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Plan It Safe: Women talking about safety in public places


Introduction
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We've probably all done it. We've avoided carparks after dark, we don't catch trains at night, we avoid walking past pubs. And we do it because, for one reason or another, these places feel (and sometimes are) unsafe.

Many women have lived with feeling unsafe at certain times of the day and in certain places, for most of their lives.

When women began to speak about this fear to the Liverpool Healthy Cities group, the Safe Women Project formed, with a strong resolve that women had felt unsafe in public places for long enough. It was time to take women's concerns to the public agenda and demand public responses.
Plan It Safe Logo

The first task of the Project was to explore the issue. The Project looked for any information they could find on women's safety, how it related to public places and what had been done by public bodies such as councils and police, to improve it. They found very little which related specifically to women's safety.

 
 
 
 
 
The Safe Women Project has published a full report which outlines the results of the women's safety phone-in. The report is called “Ask Any Woman' - A report of a Phone-in on women and safety in Liverpool.

They have also produced a report of a safety audit of the Liverpool station area.

The questionnaire used in the phone-in is in section 5 of this kit.
 
 
 
 
 
Some progressive work on women's safety and urban planning had been done overseas. However, in Australia the urban environment was largely spoken about as bricks, mortar and land use.

It became apparent that public places had developed more out of debates about infrastructure, architecture, buildings and design than considerations of people, the way we live and how we interact with the environment.

If people were considered, it was not usually from a safety perspective. There was little acknowledgment that different people use public places differently, depending on factors such as gender, age, background, socio-demographics, sexuality etc.

With so few leads to follow, the Safe Women Project decided to return to the source. In 1994, its first activity was a phone-in on women's safety in Liverpool. The information gathered was the starting point. By reviewing the comments women made, and the stories they told about their experiences, a much clearer picture of women's safety in public places emerged.
 
Photo: Car parks, particularly at night, have been identified by many women as needing better design for improving safety. 
 
 
Car parks, particularly at night, have been identified by many women as needing better design for improving safety.
 
The commonalities of women's experiences helped the Project to identify and understand the problems. It also suggested the framework we would need to adopt in order to address these problems.
 

   
 Night and day...

A public place can vary through the course of the day. It may be used by different groups of people at different times. It may be busy at certain times and isolated at others. It may be different during the day than it is at night. These differences can have a very different impact on the way we feel when we are in them.

For example, the street outside the pub in the morning is likely to be used by people going to and from work or shopping. At night however, the people most likely to be on the street are pub patrons. Alcohol consumption has now become a factor in the place. For many women, the area has become less safe.

A shopping mall during the day has lots of different people using it. Once it closes, it is often isolated and usually dark. A school between the hours of 9 am and 3.30 pm is usually lively and active. After 3.30 or during school holidays however, it may be isolated or dominated by a particular group of people. Women report that the experience of being in a place when it is busy is very different from when the place is isolated.
 
   

 

Asking any woman
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Many women feel unsafe in public places

The phone-in provided women in Liverpool with an opportunity to talk about their feelings of fear or safety when in public places.

Many women said that they felt fearful when they were in certain public places at certain times of the day.

The phone-in found women's perception of their safety in public places was complex. It often varied depending on the time of day, on how the space was being used and by whom.

Many women reported feeling safe in public places during the day, but unsafe at night.

Women have to pass through many different public places. They reported feeling safe in some of these and not in others. For example, one woman said she felt safe in her street, but in order to get home from the railway station, she had to pass though 'yuk areas, dark and lonely'.

Despite these complexities however, there were many common responses. Most respondents were able to identify particular public places where they felt unsafe. In Liverpool, the same areas were identified often. Women always reported feeling more unsafe at night.


Chart: Text Table repdoced below as Table Alternative 1.1
 
Black lines represent night and coloured bar represents day.
 
Chart: Text table version of Figure 1.2 reproduced below as Table Alternative 1.2
 
Table Alternative 1.1 - Design characteristics that contribute to women feeling 'unsafe/uncomfortable'
(Source : METRAC)
 

Design CharacteristicsNightDay
Dark, poor lighting6310
Deserted3921
Not visable to others3514
No access to help3014
Hiding spots1810
Inadequate security126
Entrapment1211
Trees, bushes84

 
Table Alternative 1.2 - Percentage of women who report feeling afraid when asked (Source: Safe Women Project 1994, Ask Any Women)

 
Type of violencePercentage
Physical attack84%
Robbery79%
Rape70%
Sexual Assault65%
Harassment65%
 
Photo: This shopping area illustrates many factors which contribute to women feeling unsafe. Graffiti, entrapment spots, poorly maintained street, deserted street and lane areas. 
 
 
This shopping area illustrates many factors which contribute to women feeling unsafe. Graffiti, entrapment spots, poorly maintained street, deserted street and lane areas.
Places where women reported feeling unsafe

When women were asked to identify where they felt afraid, they were able to name particular 'problem' spots or areas of concern.

For example, many phone-in respondents identified the area around and including the railway station as unsafe, particularly at night. Other areas often named were carparks and parks.

Similar results have been reported in overseas research into women's safety. A British study, Safer Cities for Women, reported that the places most often mentioned by women as causing concern were lonely bus stops, unstaffed stations, pedestrian subways, multi-storey carparks, badly lit quiet streets and dark corners and hiding places on housing estates. [1] In Toronto, Canada, respondents to the Women in Safe Environments (WISE) research2 identified: parking garages/lots, streets, public transit, and parks and ravines.

Factors which contributed to women feeling unsafe

Women responding to various studies were also asked to describe what it was about these places that made them feel unsafe. There were usually a number of factors which women said contributed to their fear. These factors were often characteristics of the urban environment.

The Liverpool, Australia and Toronto, Canada, experience

In the Liverpool phone-in, women said they felt unsafe in the railway station area because the following characteristics were present [3]:
      • the area was poorly lit;
      • there are large deserted spaces (you have to walk across a large bus terminal to reach the carpark. The terminal is often deserted.);
      • the places where you wait for public transport are isolated and unsupervised;
      • there are a number of isolated and secluded areas which have poor visibility and bushes people could hide behind;
      • the main access to the station is via isolated walkways which are poorly lit;
      • the walkways are often littered with rubbish and covered in graffiti;
      • there are often groups of youths hanging around, who call out, and are sometimes intimidating;
      • in the Liverpool station area, a number of perceived 'unsafe' activities take place on the adjoining land. As well as being a public transport interchange, there are three pubs (women perceive there is excessive alcohol consumed in the area), a methadone clinic and a brothel. The area is perceived by many women as 'having a bad reputation'.

Similar results were reported in the Toronto Women in Safe Environments (WISE) research [4] (see figure 1.1 above). Women said they felt unsafe in places which:
      • are dark and have poor lighting
      • are deserted
      • are not visible to others or nobody watches over the place (ie there is no natural surveillance)
      • have no access to help
      • have inadequate security
      • have hiding or entrapment spots (Hiding places included trees and bushes. Entrapment spots are small confined areas adjacent to, or near, a well-travelled route, shielded on three sides by some barrier, in which an aggressor can hide or trap a victim.)
 
Photo: Women report feeling more vulnerable to violence in dark or isolated locations where visability is limited and no-one is around. Graffiti and vandalism often signals unsupervised areas and unsupervised behaviours. 
 
 
Women report feeling more vulnerable to violence in dark or isolated locations where visability is limited and no-one is around. Graffiti and vandalism often signals unsupervised areas and unsupervised behaviours.
 
What do women feel afraid of?

For many of the women who called the Liverpool phone-in, their main concern was the fear of violence (when prompted, 85% of callers said they feared physical attack. (See figure 1.2 above). Callers also said they feared harassment or robbery because it may lead to violence or a situation they could not control. In particular, many feared sexual assault.

The following comments from three respondents were reported:
      I have experienced harassment of a sexual nature. You don't know how far they will take it. You're outnumbered. They can overpower you.

      I am terrified of rape. As a woman it is the worst thing that could happen to me.

      This (robbery) doesn't frighten me - I would just hand it over. I'm just fearful of the violence involved.

The perception that violence is possible is an important defining factor in 'problem' areas. Women report feeling more vulnerable to violence in dark, isolated locations where visibility is limited and no-one is around. Some women said that if violence happened in areas like these, there would be nothing they could do to defend themselves, and no way to get help.

How have women responded to feeling unsafe in public places?
      I don't use them (laneways). I wouldn't use them anywhere. It's just asking for trouble.

A respondent to the phone-in

The women who responded to the Liverpool phone-in had developed a number of 'strategies' which they used to keep them safe. For example, not going out after dark, not going out alone, using taxis rather than public transport, changing their walking paths to avoid certain places and people.

Of the 18 strategies mentioned by women in the phone-in, 16 involved women taking personal responsibility for avoiding 'dangerous' areas. [5] Almost all of the strategies restricted women's mobility, interaction and participation in public life.

A study conducted by Fairfield Immigrant and Refugee Women's Network in 1996 asked women from non-English speaking backgrounds about their strategies for keeping safe in public places. As in Liverpool, these women kept safe by placing restrictions on their activities. They reported that because they were afraid for their safety at night they were less likely to attend social events and activities, less likely to participate in education programs and less likely to accept jobs which would require working or travelling at night. [6]

Australia-wide research of women's safety, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1996, confirmed that these strategies are common. Women's Safety Australia reports that:
    • 38% of Australian women reported that they did not walk alone in their area after dark because they felt unsafe.
    • only 16% of women reported using public transport after dark and alone. Of these, 35% felt unsafe doing so.
    • of the women who did not use public transport during the last twelve months, 30% said that it was because they felt unsafe doing so. [7]

Where do women feel safe?

There are some public places where women reported feeling safe. For example, areas with good lighting, which are supervised by police or security staff, and in particular if there are lots of people around. The shopping centre during the day was often mentioned in the Liverpool phone-in as being safe because all of these factors were present. [8]

Feelings of community and being part of the 'local neighbourhood' also helped some women to feel safe. Being familiar with an area, and being close to home, knowing people in the street and being known by them, having a quiet street away from pubs and clubs and with little through traffic were mentioned. Length of time in the neighbourhood was also found to be a factor - the longer a woman had lived in the area, the safer she reported feeling.

However, the same complexities remained. Women reported that feelings of safety in their neighbourhood could diminish at sunset and night time, or if particular events occur such as groups of youths gathering at the local shop and shouting and yelling.
      I even watch my own shadow, if you see two shadows appear, that means there is someone near you.
      One woman's story from Ask Any Woman video

      I look over my shoulder all the time, I've always got to guard up.
      One woman's story from Ask Any Woman video

Women identifying the problems - a summary
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Women's experiences tell us much about the problems we need to address. Some key factors emerge. These include:
  • Not all public places feel unsafe to women.
  • Feelings of safety in a public place change over the course of a day. Particular times and/or particular users can be part of the problem.
  • Fears for safety are worse at night.
  • Public places where women feel unsafe are usually places where women feel vulnerable to violence.
  • Many women particularly fear sexual assault.
  • Public places where women feel unsafe often have certain characteristics in common. They may contain or be:
          – dark, with poor lighting and/or poor or unclear signs.
          – isolated and unused.
          – enclosed, not visible to residents or passers by .
          – perceived as having lots of hiding places.
          – known to contain entrapment spots.
          – poorly maintained and poorly managed.
          – areas which encourage users or groups of users who are perceived as 'unsafe' - for example, some licensed premises, methadone clinics etc.
  • Unsafe public places are different from one area to the next. For example, the railway station area was a main problem area in Liverpool, whereas in Parramatta a main problem area is the Church Street Mall. A local understanding of the problems and a locally developed and driven response is likely to be the most effective.

Tackling these problems requires a framework which starts by asking women to identify the public places where they feel unsafe. It also asks them to identify their specific problems.

Listening to this experience and knowledge enables targeted and effective solutions which will help to reduce women's fear and improve safety.


Photo: "What I think would make the streets safer for women is more women out and about - if women feel comfortable going places, then they attract more women." Amanda Hill - Ask Any Woman video 
 
 
"What I think would make the streets safer for women is more women out and about - if women feel comfortable going places, then they attract more women."

Amanda Hill - Ask Any Woman video


Further reading
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Australian Bureau of Statistics 1996, Women’s Safety, Australia

Australian Bureau of Statistics 1992, Crime and Safety Survey

Clements, E. 1993, Safer Box Hill Police Community Consultative Committee Safer Communities Project Report

Coleman, S. 1996, Free from Fear: A report on the safety issues of Non-English Speaking Background Women in Fairfield City Fairfield Immigrant and Refugee Women's Network

‘Fear of Crime' Queensland Criminal Justice Research Paper series vol 1, no 2 1994

Gordon, M. and Rigor, S. 1989, The Female Fear The New York: Free Press

METRAC 1990, 'Women Taking Space' Women and Environments vol 12, no 1, March/April

Metropolitan Action Committee on Public Violence against Women and Children (METRAC) 1987, 'Women Plan Toronto' The Women in Safe Environments (WISE) report York University Faculty of Environmental Studies

Norton, R. 1991, Fear of Crime. Perceptions of the local crime problem and victimisation in a local community within Fairfield local Government area Fairfield City Council

Safe City Committee of the City of Toronto and City of Toronto Planning and Development Department 1992, A Working Guide for Planning and Designing Safer Urban Environments

Safe Women Project 1994, Ask Any Woman: A report of a phone-in on women and safety in Liverpool local government area

Salmelainen, P. and Coumarelos, C. 1993, 'Adult Sexual Assault in NSW', Crime and Justice Bulletin no 20 , NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research

Trench, S., Taner, O.C. & Tiesdell, S. 1992, 'Safer Cities for women: Perceived risks and planning measures' Town Planning Review vol 63, no. 3

Walker, J. 1992, 'Estimates of the costs of crime in Australia', Trends and Issues no. 39, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra,

Whitzman, C. 1992, 'Taking Back Planning: Promoting women's safety in public places - The Toronto experience' The Journal of Architectural and Planning Research Summer


Endnotes
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  1. Trench, S., Taner, O.C. & Tiesdell, S. 1992, 'Safer Cities for women: Perceived risks and planning measures' Town Planning Review vol 63, no. 3, page 282
  2. Metropolitan Action Committee on Public Violence against Women and Children (METRAC) 1987, 'Women Plan Toronto' The Women in Safe Environments (WISE) report York University Faculty of Environmental Studies
  3. Safe Women Project 1994, Ask Any Woman: A report of a phone-in on women and safety in Liverpool local government area, page 25
  4. Whitzman, C. 1992, 'Taking Back Planning: Promoting women's safety in public places - The Toronto experience' The Journal of Architectural and Planning Research Summer, page 172
  5. Safe Women Project 1994, page 35
  6. Coleman, S. 1996, Free from Fear: A report on the safety issues of Non-English Speaking Background Women in Fairfield City Fairfield Immigrant and Refugee Women's Network, page 5
  7. Australian Bureau of Statistics 1996, Women’s Safety, Australia
  8. Safe Women Project 1994, page 32-33


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| Introduction | Women Talking about Safety In Public Places | Community Safety and Women's Fear Of Crime | Partners In Community Safety | A Community Safety Forum | From Wasteland To Heartland | Raising The Issue Of Women's Safety In Your Community | Contacts |






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most recently updated 3 June 1999