Women Safety in Urban Public Spaces

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Women Safety in Urban Public Spaces


"It feels very uncomfortable to walk past that road at that time." These are the words we often hear from many people, especially women. Being architects and urban planners do we have any role to play in tackling this issue? It is the right of every individual to feel safe and access every space. Women, most of the time experience fear in public spaces and male dominated space. This paper aims to understand the key reasons that contribute to make a space unsafe and note peoples view of this problem. Secluded or dead buildings, secluded spaces, dense vegetation, poor infrastructure and lighting and improper maintenance most of the time result in spaces which would be perceived as fearful. On the other hand, the social structure is often extended into the spaces. A special case of Nagarjuna Nagar in Vijayawada has been studied to relate and take note of the perceptions of people. The results from this survey has been compared to many theories that have been developed over time by famous geographers and urban planners and designers and sociologists.

Key Words: Fear , safe spaces, women and spatial configuration, urban safety


"Sexual harassment at public places is unwelcome, unsolicited behaviour of a sexual nature including staring, gesticulating, touching, passing comments, trailing. These may not seem to be a big problem, but they can be quite upsetting. It makes women feel ashamed, humiliated or frightened." (Vijayawada Police)

What is an unsafe space? In real world, it is a conception developed by people over time. When a person refers to a space as unsafe, he arrived at the opinion due to their expericence in such spaces or mishaps encountered by other people in such spaces. Research in particular suggests three factors that mediate the impact of different sources of fear information: memorability, affectivity and informativeness ( Tyler and Rasinski, 1984).

Fear sources which give a clear picture of where the crime took place, on whom, by whom etc.. create a vivid image of environments of fear.Information about attacks which relate to women's own lifestyle (geographically and socially ) have a stronger impact on their images of danger as they are easily able to imagine the same thing happening to themselves (Gill Valentine; Images of Danger: Women's Sources of Information about the Spatial Distribution of Male Violence).

Safety or fear of crime in any space is not just limited to women. The psycological impact that fear plays in the mobility pattern of women should be considered as an aspect in design. “Although feeling unsafe is not confined to women, the fear that women feel in urban areas is quite particular. It is to do with physical and psychological honour... Although not all women have been raped or attacked, all have felt at some point that indescribable feeling of unease which ranges from merely feeling uncomfortable to paralysis”. (Samaoun, 2000: 29)

The fear that women develop over spaces restrict them to access a space. Women's fear of danger in a public space in high compared to a private space while the statics show up an entirely contrasting picture. Surveys show that women tend to fear crime more than men do but are less exposed to crime than men (Tiby, E. 1991). The main source of women's fear is the fear of an additional crime- a sexual attack besides robbery or burglary (Carina Listerborn; Women's Fear & Spatial Configurations).

As Doreen Massey truly argues in For Space that our social relations are being extended into the physical environment and thus spatial relations are political. This in a way adds to the entire scene. It can be found that India being a patriarchal society, reflects this structure and beliefs in the built environment. When a girl reaches 15 years, restriction would be laid on her communal pattern, where as a boy of same age is allowed to access any space at any hour of the day. We need to understand how strong the physical environment is, in shaping the lives of people. They are not given the benefit to loiter unlike men and instead forced to limit herself to the domestic domain instead of reshaping the public spaces to make her feel safe. ( Shall We Go Out? Women's Safety in Public Spaces in Delhi; Kalpana Viswanath, Surabhi Tandon Mehrotra).

Women are encouraged to carry out pepper sprays and learn self- defence tricks rather than trying to solve the collective social issue. People’s voices should be given utmost value and a consultative process should result into a solution. Only then can women access the full rights of being an urban citizen ( Shall We Go Out: Women's Safety in Public Spaces).

Carina Listerborn in Women's Fear & Space Configurations rightly questions "how democratic and justified is it to feel unsafe in a space which is an important aspect of quality of social life?"

In this context, there is a need to know about the significance of a public space in an urban context. Public spaces play a significant role in judging the quality of an city. As pointed out rightly by Kalpana Viswanath, Surabhi Tadon Mehrotra in Shall We Go Out: Women's Safety in Public Spaces in Delhi ,the quality of a city has to be judged by what it offers to its residents- the right to live, move around and work with dignity and safety. It outlines that the public space offers space and freedom to escape the holds and stress of a family or community. But, many it a time its left unnoticed that the social life a public space offers are often deeply gendered both in accessibility and right.

As this problem is very less bothered about, women have developed their own way to tackle this fear. The present day layout of cities leave people in a turmoil , most often, rather to take a safer route or a shorter route. This indicates the significance to discuss the spatial configurations.

The space syntax which builds a relation between social dimension and the built environment takes a key role in judging the degree of safety in a space. This plays a principle role in prevention of crime and tackling fear while accessing a space.

Carina Listerborn outlines three concepts earlier introduced by Bill Hillier in Space is the Machine to analyse fear and space configurations relations. She voices that fear rises with

a.) Urban emptiness- which is related to the concept of virtual community and urbanity and is measured by the mean integration value.

"Crime includes a wide field, from burglary to street- violence, and concentrates on an object or situation. In contrast, fear is related to how you experience and interpret the environment. Urban emptiness is an important aspect in both the cases." (Carina Listerborn)

b.) The lack of intelligibility- auxiliary travel routes makes one feel unsafe.

c.) Lack of visibility- Smaller visual cone increases the fear of being attacked.

Bill Hillier in Space is the Machine defines the virtual community as the pattern of natural co-presence brought about through the influence of spatial design on movement and other related aspects of space use. He also adds that a wrongly designed space does not achieve the natural patterns of social co-presence resulting in an empty space which kindles fear.

Urbanity, he argues is about time and space & its degree could be measured by counting the number of people commuting through a distance of 100m per minute.

If there is less than two people beside you within 100m it is the lower limit of urbanity and the lower level of human creativity are 8-10 work/100m distance of street.(Gronlund, B. 1998)

Fear is linked to the degree of emptiness and thereby likely to the degree of integration which depends on the spatial structure.

Researchers have shown different degree of integration values by comparing the tree-system with grid system.(Klarqvist, B. 1997)

An intelligible system is one in which well-connected spaces also tend to be well- integrated spaces. An unintelligible system is one where well connected spaces are not well integrated, so what we can see of their connections misleads us about the status of that spaces in the system as a whole. (Hillier, B. 1996)

Isovist in relation to intelligibility is significant to understand the immediate environment through visibility. It helps to calculate what is behind the corner or the bushes in case of fear but it is not dependable always as its ends are not clear.

Physical and social aspects of a place contribute to the experience of fear. Fear can be caused both by the presence and absence of people and people have developed various strategies to cope with it. (Carina Listerborn)

In the present day context of India, women are required to work outdoors, travel long distances to reach workplaces and now that population is alarming, mass housings are sprouting up. According to the Population Census 2011, 53 cities are identified as population over 10 Lakh , and referred to as Mega Cities. A total of 36,622 cases of crimes against women were reported from these mega cities in 2012 where as 33,789 cases were reported in 2011.The rate of crime was 47.8 times higher compared to the national rate of 41.7.Among 53 cities, Delhi has accounted for 14.2% followed by Bangalore (6.2%), Kolkata ( 5.7%) , Hyderabad ( 5.2%) and Vijayawada (5.2%).Vijayawada has reported 16.6% incidences of insult to the modesty of women.

Though Indian Penal Code identifies the following as punishable crimes against women which are the root causes for women's restricted mobility, the concept of fear and unsafe spaces that women are stuck with plays a crucial role.


  • Kidnapping and abduction for specified purposes
  • Rape
  • Homicide for dowry, dowry deaths or their attempts
  • Torture- both mental and physical
  • Assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty
  • Insult to the modesty of women
  • Importation of girl from foreign country( upto 21yrs of age)


There are already existing models of gender conscious planning to respond to the women’s fear of violence. They are:

Broken Windows: This focuses on the zero- tolerance to crime, closed circuit televisions and an exclusionary approach to creating safer spaces. (Mitchell, 2003)

Safer Communities Model: It has a foresight to make public spaces safer through activities, land use, social mix and involving users in designing strategies and initiatives for safer public spaces.


The kinds of places that are most feared include parks, green open spaces, beaches, parking areas/garages, tunnels, subways, back-streets, stairs, isolated bus stops, industrial areas and dark empty parts of the city like shopping areas or neighbourhoods at night. (Women's Fear & Spatial Configuration; Carina Listerborn)

It is found from a survey by an NGO - Jagori in New Delhi, that women feel uncomfortable in male dominated spaces such as cigarette shops, dhabas, taxi stands, certain street corners and certain parks. Women were reluctant to use these spaces and often accompanied by men to dhabas and tea corners. (Shall We Go Out: Women's Safety in Public Spaces)

  • Parks were identified as the public spaces women enjoy the most during a day with kids or peers while consider it highly unsafe after dark.
  • The low boundaries, dark thick green spaces and absence of locking systems add to the fear in parks.
  • Subways, which take a prominent role in the context of Delhi are turning unsafe due to lack of proper lighting, improperly defined entry and exit points, lack of signage, absence of guards which lead to the decline in the users of these subways.
  • The findings of the audits reflect that the presence of vendors add to the safety of a space and women feel it comfortable and familiar.
  • Street lights are often placed in the middle of the road and the bus stops and pavements are not properly lit with lights of their own, increasing the risk of women using it after dark.
  • Public toilets have also been marked as danger for women where many cases were reported of crimes and harassments.


Public and Semi public uses:

These categories of land include all the Government offices, Municipal offices, offices of other local authorities and other public institutions like temples, churches, mosques, and the like. The city provides public and semi public utilities and facilities all covering about 270 ha of land accounting for 7% of the developed area. Large public utility establishments are found in ward 15 (54 ha), ward 10 (49 ha), ward 24 (36 ha), ward 25 (26 ha) and ward 8 (22 ha).

In terms of proportions, ward 15 accounts for one fourth of its area under public and semi public uses, next being ward 24 with 19% followed by ward 10% (16%).

Most of the area along Mahatma Gandhi road in wards 10, areas surrounding NTR Health University, and areas near Gunadala hill in ward 24 are put to public and semi public uses.


What are the reasons that public spaces are unsafe for women to the extent that they control their mobility pattern?


To analyze the research objectives , an onsite site study was conducted in Nagarjuna Nagar main road in Vijayawada in the month of October 2014.


Nagarjuna Nagar is an area in Vijayawada city which is 2.4km from Benz Circle, a key junction in the city which is the point of convergence of NH-5 running from Chennai to Kolkata and NH-9 which leads to Machilipatnam, a circle that attracts heavy traffic and circle for Educational Institutes. The government hospital junction is the nearest junction and this area and is 140m away. There is a NTR Health University and Government Hospital and Siddartha Medical College on the side opposite to the highway. Another road in the vicinity leads to Autonagar. Nagarjuna Nagar in particular grew up as a residential colony from the time of its initial development. Later, the NH5 frontage is developing to meet the commercial needs of people and hence the activities and buildings uses in this area are effected. The study stretch path has been observed to have lack of vendors most of the time.


To realise the independent factors that effect the factor of safety of women, a stretch of road, from A to B has been picked up in this area and has been surveyed.

This area has relatively very low crime rates, but then the selection of this area was based on the experience of most of them who traverse this road.

Two points A and B have been marked in the map, where A stands near the NH5 frontage and B ends at a building which is currently being used as a girls hostel. This stretch of road has been divided into zones to know the experiences in individual spaces and the reasons behind that. The entire stretch of road has a mixed use of buildings- residential, commercial and park. Few parcels of the land has been left as waste land with overgrown trees. The factors that people think make difference to the personal safety of women was measured by a questionnaire that contained the following:

In each of the zone, what do you think are the reasons that effect the safety factor?

  1. Poor Lighting
  2. People visiting other buildings
  3. People living in the neighbouring buildings
  4. Dense Tree Plantations
  5. Lack of People/Activity/Vendors
  6. Waste/Barren Land
  7. Poor Maintenance of the Space
  8. Height of Buildings restricting view to the other roads
  9. No neighbouring buildings/Secluded buildings


The field study was carried out in the area in October 2014. The sample consisted of 70 members ( 12 male and 58 female ), ranging in age from 15 to 60, where most of them fall in the category of 15-30 years. They were briefed about the study and its focus . The interviewers had a map of the area of study and the marked routes and the buildings adjacent to the study path. The path is 400m long and were asked to answer the questions based on their experiences till date.

The start and end point was same for all the 70 participants, but views from

A survey questionnaire has been prepared and 65 members have been asked to answer that based on their experience and some general questions have even been asked to understand the individual's thought process.

The following figure depicts a map of the study path with individual zones of study marked and each of the building typologies have also been specified to help the interviewers recollect the space and their experience.

The 70 participants had to answer a standardized questionnaire at each of the marked zone to measure the perceived danger. This study is focused to understand the impact of specific physical factors and personal factors.


Gill Valentine in his publications outlines that it is fear which people develop that restrict the movement pattern where as Doreen Massey argues that most often our social relations are being extended into spaces and thereby regulates the mobility of people. Bill Hillier, on the other hand, talks about integration of spaces as a key factor that influences the safety aspects in a space. He adds that spaces may be well connected but not well integrated.

Results of a survey conducted by an NGO - Jagori in few parts of Delhi reflects that poor infrastructure facilities, poor or no lighting, absence of people/low density spaces and spaces next to dense vegetation are perceived by women as unsafe. The results also showcase the fact that women preferred streets with lot of activity than a pathway which is well built and maintained but doesnt have any activity happening around. The same result was obtained for a survey conducted by Shilpa Ranade, Shilpa Phadke and Sameera Khan. On the flip side, Carina Listerborn states that urban emptiness, lack of intelligibility and lack of visibility are the directly proportional to that a person experiences in a space.


  1. Anke Blobaum & Marcel Hunecke, July 2005 ; Perceived Danger in Urban Public Space: The Impacts of Physical Features and Personal Factors;Environment and Behaviour, Vol 37 No. 4
  2. Gill Valentine; Women's Fear & The Design of Public Space.
  3. Laura Hengehold; 2011; When Safety Becomes a Duty: Gender, Loneliness and Citizenship for Urban Women; WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly 39
  4. Rachel H Pain; December 1995; Social Geographies of Women's Fear of Crime;
  5. Gill Valentine; Department of Geography; Images of Danger: Women's Sources of Information about the Spatial Distribution of Male Violence
  6. Jennifer K. Wesely and Emily Gaarder; October 2004; The Gendered Nature of the Urban Outdoors: Women Negotiating Fear of Violence; Gender and Society, Vol 18 No 5
  7. Stephanle Condon, Marylene Lieber & Florence Maillochon; September 2007; Feeling Unsafe in Public Places: Understanding Women's Fears;
  8. Carina Listerborn; 1999; Women;s Fear and Space Configurations; Space Syntax Second International Symposium; Brasilia.