“Earlier this year, a boy hit me on the street near my house.”

Unwelcoming: an empty street at night. Image: Pixabay.

Earlier this year, a boy hit me on the street near my house.

He didn’t hit me hard. But he still hit me. He still hit me.

No man has ever hit me before.

About a month before this incident, a man tried to follow me home.

I was walking across a bridge that separates central Bristol from my neighbourhood, when he started running behind me and shouting to me. There was no one around. I kept walking across the bridge, towards the crossing which had just changed to a Red Man.

Please let there be no traffic, I kept whispering to myself. Please let there be no traffic.

If there was traffic, I’d have to stop, and he would catch me. If there was traffic, I wouldn’t be able to get away.

I got across the road and the traffic stopped him. Without thinking, I turned from my normal route home across the quiet churchyard and down a quiet street to walk down the busy road and through the brightly lit supermarket. It takes longer this way, but like women all around the world I told myself I’d be safer where the lights are brighter. I told myself this, even though a few weeks earlier a drunk man had shouted obscenities at me in the place I now reached out to as some kind of brightly coloured, muzack-ed sanctuary.

After the supermarket, I walked on the main road with its street lamps and its pubs and its neon shop fronts.

It was on that street where, a few weeks later, the boy hit me.

I could tell you all the things I told myself, the answers to the questions you get asked when a boy or a man hits you on the street. It wasn’t late. It was about 9.20pm. I wasn’t drunk. (He was. He was very, very drunk.) I was wearing… I can’t remember, probably jeans. My leather jacket.

I was walking home the safe way, the main street way, the street-lit way, and a group of drunk teenagers approached me, jeering, and the largest boy swung his arm and hit me across the face, the side of his hand knocking against my glasses.

I shouted at them. I was proud of myself for that.

The next day I had to go back down the street to the supermarket. A man bowled out of a pub doorway and crashed into me, swore at me for being in his way.

I burst into tears.


For weeks afterwards, I had a changed attitude towards my city. I approached walking home with a heightened sense of fear – a level of fear I’d perhaps naively not had before. When friends peeled off from the street on our way home from the pub, I faced the rest of the walk home with my heart pounding. For the first time, I carried my keys sticking out of my knuckles, Wolverine style. I was pathetically grateful when a friend lied – saying he fancied a stroll and walked home via my flat. I hung around the cab rank with groups of women friends, glad to have people to share a taxi home with.

I’m not alone with that fear, or with the decision to change my behaviour to manage my fear. Half of 42,000 European women responded to a survey saying they restricted their freedom of movement to avoid gender-based violence. Women everywhere have learned to develop a hard stare, to carry their keys in their fists, to pretend to talk on a silent phone.

In our desire to keep ourselves safe, women walk fewer steps than men, research shared in the Guardian last week suggested. Weighing up our risks of being on the street, we are more likely to catch buses or get taxis home over short distances. Fear not only changes our behaviour on the streets, it costs us money and harms our physical health.

It’s six months since a boy hit me on the street, and on Thursday I’m convening a panel called ‘What if women built cities?for Bristol’s Festival of Future Cities. How would we build cities, to make them safer places for women? To make them places where women aren’t forced into cabs, aren’t forced to tentatively ask for an escort home, don’t weigh up whether it’s too late to take the shortcut through the churchyard, don’t nervously eye the clock and think we should probably leave, now, before it’s too late?

After all, if we walk home on our own past a certain hour, and something happens to us, then we know the first question we’ll be asked is:  Why were you walking home on your own anyway?

There are practical things I can think of to build safer cities for women: more street lights, more public toilets with female attendants. Wider pavements, especially outside bars where groups of drinking men congregate with cigarettes. We could have more and better policing at taxi ranks, and the recent London Uber decision shows we need improved regulation of these services. There’s the need to build more social housing – women are the hidden face of our homelessness crisis, trapped behind B&B and hotel room doors.

But fundamentally, we need to build a different society.

In her book, Radical Feminism, my fellow panellist Dr Finn Mackay interviewed women about their experiences on ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches. Many responded to say how it felt like they were ‘trespassing’ when they marched – that the act of taking up public space felt revolutionary and transgressive. Their responses show how much women internalise and put up with the feeling that the streets aren’t for us.

When men choose to shout, harass, follow, even abuse us on the streets, they are asserting male entitlement and power. This is our space, their actions say. And you are not supposed to be here. If you are here, then you need to be ready for us to judge, mock, threaten, attack you. If you don’t want to be judged, mocked, threatened or attacked then go home. Get back in the domestic sphere, where you belong.

To build cities for women, we need first to build a society that respects women. We need to build a society where a woman can walk home at any time of the day or night, taking any route she chooses, without being made to feel afraid. We need a society where women aren’t quizzed about those choices, when the worst happens and men attack us.

We need a society where women see public space as for them, in the same way men do.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. 

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Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.