Safe to Thrive: Building Safer Cities for the Next Generation of Women and Girls

Known for its laneways, green spaces and delicious coffee; Melbourne is the liveable city. That considered, something just isn’t adding up. If Melbourne sets the standard for greatness – why do over a third of its women not feel safe in public spaces at night?

Having a number of go to personal defense mechanisms (keys in fist, phoning a friend, moving quicker) is reality for women across the city. Stories like the rape and murder of Melbournian comedian Eurydice Dixon last year in Princes Park was an unfortunate cautionary tale and increased the perceived lack of safety for women.

Plan International’s Take Back The Night Initiative surveyed women across Australia and found that 30% of young women and girls avoid public places after dark and 23% refusing to travel alone on public transit as they do not feel safe.

So why aren’t urban planners getting it right? And what can we do about it?

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From a planning point of view, what’s the problem?

The real limiting issue here is that most cities don’t really understand the dimensions of safety because we measure it in all the wrong ways. Most city-makers look to crime statistics to infer a sense of safety. Crime statistics only report on one side of the story - reported incidents -  and don’t touch on perception of safety (which is a major limitation to participation in public life) nor do they include the huge volumes of incidents that go undocumented. Curiously, as neighbourhood improve, crime often goes up - because people report more.  This often results in bandaid solutions that do little to address fundamental causes or impact long term change. This has set a standard that insurance companies and property developers mimic.

From a design perspective, there has been increasing focus in improving safety of public spaces in recent years, mostly centered around the Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) framework. This has made enormous gains in some aspects of safety. CPTED highlights strategies and principles for improving public spaces through design - such as improving lighting or removing visual barriers like shrubs or fences - can lead to a reduction of crime and thereby improving the quality of life for communities.

The limitation of CPTED, like crime statistics, is that it focuses on physical improvements to spaces, overlooking the deeper challenge of perception.

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Measuring what matters

At Neighbourlytics, we use social data to improve our understanding of perception in neighbourhoods. We work with urban designers, local councils and property developers to build a deeper understanding of local places. Specifically, we look at proxies for:

  • Levels of activity - as active places typically have stronger feelings of safety and comfort. It’s the passive surveillance model described by Jane Jacobs in ‘Eyes on the Street’. We also look at what times of day and days of the week to understand the day and night time economy.

  • Diversity of activity - inclusiveness is important. The types of activity and their density are proxies for the type of place. Are there events and activities for children and families? Or for diverse cultural groups?

Perception of place through images and stories - How do locals’ describe the experience of the neighbourhood?
If we are to improve the safety of public spaces, especially for women and girls, we need to start measuring the intangible perception of spaces, not just the number of crimes committed. Social data is a great place to start and there are a number of exciting ways to use data to do this. New data storytelling platforms like She’s a Crowd (led by Melbournite She Starts alumni Zoë Condliffe) provide an open source platform for sharing and measuring incidents beyond just crime statistics. Similarly, Safety Pin, an Indian based tech company that provides user generated safety information about your neighbourhood through their free app.

An improved public environment can have a catalytic impact on a city. Creating public spaces that are perceived as and actually are safe is the end game. We can’t have true impact without measurement so we must start with the resources, data and information at our fingertips. Using this data to our advantage means inclusive public spaces can be created with safety as a focus.

That’s a beautiful thing to be aiming for, isn’t it?