What makes an urban space feel safe for women? Australian researchers have been finding out

Female traffic lights being installed in Melbourne. That'll help, obviously. Image: Getty.

When authorities decide that an area of the city is “not safe”, the usual response is more lighting, CCTV cameras, and police. But what if there are more subtle indicators of safety in the environment that they are missing? The Conversation

This is a question being asked by a team of researchers from the Monash University XYX Lab who are collaborating with Plan International Australia to identify and illuminate why women and young girls often feel unsafe in Australian urban spaces.

Late last year, Plan International launched a campaign asking young women and girls in Melbourne to engage with a web-based interactive map Free to Be and, over a three month period, comment on how safe and welcome spaces in the city made them feel.

They did so by dropping “pins” on the interactive, geo-locative map of Melbourne and suburbs. In total, 1,318 pins were dropped by around 1000 women – either green ones (marking “happy” places) or red ones (marking “sad”).

Some responses were obvious: Federation Square and the State Library were “happy” spaces. “It’s usually pretty busy and I feel safe and connected to Melbourne here,” said one woman of Federation Square. Observed another of the State Library: “Always a lot of people hanging around and it’s a safe spot to meet others.”

“Sad” spaces, however, often involved accounts of concerning incidents and places that felt frightening. Said one woman of Swanston Street near Flinders St Station:

It’s scary here at night time. It’s well lit and there are always police around, but it can be really scary. One of the reasons I don’t stay in the city late at night.

Another reported an incident where

Two male teenagers loudly harassed me about my gender because I wasn’t wearing make up and have a short haircut.

Flinders Street, Melbourne. Image: Pamela Salen/XYX Lab/Monash University.

Our analysis found some common themes. Busyness gave a place a buzz. But spaces that were crowded seemed to provide a cover for unpleasant incidents such as pushing and groping.

Sexual harassment was a major element of “sad” places. It ranged from cat-calling to propositioning to distressing sexual assaults.

One young woman wrote:

I rarely go out after dark in the city any more after years of harassment from drunk men. To be catcalled, then verbally abused in a very aggressive manner if I don’t respond or turn them down is incredibly scary. I don’t like that they’ve won over the space, but I don’t want to be bashed or raped. And the only way seems to be not for the men to stop but for me to leave.

While the highest number of sexual harassment incidents were recorded at Flinders Street Station, the most serious events reported occurred in Chinatown. In total, there were over 300 cases of sexual harassment reported over the three-month period and 69 reports of sexual assault incidents, which ranged from groping to more than one alleged rape.

Signs in ‘Happy spaces’. Image: Pamela Salen/XYX Lab/Monash University.

Interestingly, King Street – known for its strip clubs and with a reputation for violence – had markedly less red pins than other areas of the CBD. This indicated that women and girls have already self-excluded themselves from city streets that are explicitly identified as masculine.

This preliminary research raises important questions for architects, designers, planners and policy makers. For instance, are there environmental factors in the built environment that either support or discourage such behaviour?

One key description of “happy” spaces was that they were open, spacious and welcoming. It was also fascinating to examine the language, branding, signs, and advertisements in spaces described as both happy and sad.

By looking closely at three “happy” spaces (Hardware Street and Lane, Degraves Lane, and the State Library) and three “sad” spaces (La Trobe Street between Swanston and Elizabeth, Bourke Street Mall and the Flinders Street Station area), a pattern emerged.

Signs in ‘sad’ spaces. Image: Pamela Salen/XYX Lab/Monash University.

In the “happy” spaces, small and unique brands with positive messages and attractive graphics (Little Cupcakes, Clementines, Doughnut Time) were featured. Much of the advertising was hand-lettered menu boards, which seemed to create a friendly feeling.

In the “sad” spaces, restaurants were dominated by masculine names (Duncan’s, Mr Burger, Hungry Jack’s, Lord of the Fries, McDonalds). There were also subliminal and gendered messages such as logos that resembled large breasts and names linked to transgressive behaviour (The Joint Bar, Dangerfield, High Voltage City).

It was in these spaces that there was a high incidence of sexual harassment recorded by those with the Free to Be app:

Someone spanked my ass…

Had a drunk, mid-40’s man with his friend slap my ass hard as I walked past with my husband.

He walked past and grabbed my vagina.

Was harassed and followed into a shop by a man trying to talk me into sleeping with him.

Swanston Street, Melbourne. Image: Pamela Salen/XYX Lab/Monash University.

The analysis of the signage alongside the women’s comments suggests that there is a possible correlation in the way that language, as well as the precincts of franchisees, might affect the experiences of young women in urban space. Studying these “happy” and “sad” spaces in more detail will give us the potential to learn from them.

This research unfortunately reveals something that most young women already know: that the city is far from gender neutral. There is much work to be done to uncover how cities shape their experiences.


Nicole Kalms is senior lecturer, and Gill Matthewson a lecture, in the Department of Architecture at Monash University. Pamela Salen is a lecturer in communication design at Monash University.

A recent workshop held by the XYX Lab with Plan International and the City of Melbourne brought together Victoria Police, public transport authorities, councils, Our Watch and other interested people. It revealed a willingness across the board to investigate and address these issues. MADA’s new XYX Lab was officially launched on Sunday 26 March at the National Gallery of Victoria.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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