Building Safer Public Spaces: Exploring Gender Difference in the Perception of Safety in Public Space through Urban Design Interventions
In London, perceptions of safety in public spaces increased with the removal of solid walls, especially among women.
In recent decades, efforts to encourage the use of public spaces, such as new parks and public transportation amenities have increased, particularly in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. The rejuvenation of such spaces contributes to social inclusion, feelings of belonging, mental and physical health benefits, and boosts to tourism, recreational activities, and property values. Many public spaces, however, remain inaccessible to certain marginalized groups, with concerns about personal safety remaining an important constraint to women's participation in and decision to travel through public places.
Prior research on the physical factors affecting the public's sense of safety in shared spaces - including greenery, building alignment, and building-street ratios - suggests that spaces with poor lighting, vacant lots, and inadequate signage or public toilets affect women, in particular. Findings are often neglected in policy practice, however, due to insufficient evaluation tools or empirical evidence available to urban planners and designers.
In this study, the authors explored how perceptions of safety in public spaces were shaped by three theory-driven design interventions: 1) availability of public toilets, as research shows inadequate provision limits women's safety and mobility; 2) elimination of solid walls, which serve as a common strategy for promoting safety by increasing visibility; and 3) graffiti removal, as studies have suggested graffiti can increase fear of crime acting as sign-posts of unattended public spaces. They used an image-based randomized control trial to simulate the interventions, asked participants to rank each according to perceived safety, and evaluated the interventions' impact on perceptions of safety, comparing men and women's responses.
Solid wall removal resulted in a strong statistically significant increase in perceptions of safety among women. Also for women, graffiti removal resulted in a weak but statistically significant increase in perceptions of safety. None of the interventions resulted in a statistically significant change in perception of public safety among men.
- Tested collectively, the three interventions significantly increased perceived safety for the total pooled population of men and women combined (estimate = 0.415, S.D. = 0.146, p = 0.005). This increase in perceived safety was statistically significant among women (estimate = 0.572, S.D. = 0.215, p < 0.008), but not among men (estimate = 0.238, S.D. = 0.205, p < 0.247).
- Removal of solid walls was the only intervention with a positive, statistically significant impact on perceived safety for the total pooled population of men and women combined (estimate = 0.900, S.D. = 0.273, p = 0.001). This increase in perceived safety was particularly strong among women (estimate = 1.136, S.D. = 0.329, p < 0.001), but not among men (estimate = 0.652, S.D. = 0.420, p = 0.120).
- Graffiti removal had a positive impact on perceived safety for the total polled population of men and women combined but the change is not statistically significant (estimate = 0.297, S.D. = 0.331, p = 0.370). This increase in perceived safety was statistically significant among women (estimate = 1.084, S.D. = 0.207, p = 0.039). A decrease in the perception of public safety after graffiti removal was present among men but this change was not statistically significant (estimate = -0.458, S.D. = 0.358, p = 0.241).
- Building public toilets had a positive impact on perceived safety for the total pooled population of men and women combined but the change is not statistically significant (estimate = 0.258, S.D. = 0.280, p = 0.357). This increase in perceived safety was not statistically significant among women (estimate = 0.201, S.D. = 0.207, p = 0.672) nor among men (estimate = 0.348, S.D. = 0.304, p = 0.251).
- There were no significant gendered differences in perceived safety of non-intervened street images for any of the tested interventions.
These findings indicate that women are more sensitive to improvements in public spaces than men, suggesting that gendered approaches to urban design and planning are necessary for creating safe and inclusive built environments.
Three theory-based interventions prevalent in existing literature were selected for evaluation: (1) the provision of public toilets, (2) the elimination of solid walls, and (3) the removal of graffiti. Photo simulation techniques were used to create control (without an intervention) and treatment (with an intervention) images for each intervention, with other features (cars, people, weather, and more) consistent across both conditions.
From July 16-20, 2018, 104 people walking through the London School of Economics (LSE) campus were recruited at a stand outside the library. After completing a demographic survey, participants were presented with a series of six randomly selected images of public spaces, featuring either a control setting or treatment setting. They were instructed to imagine walking in the pictured location and rank their perception of safety on a sale from 1 (not at all safe) to 10 (very safe). Both the order of each pair of images and the presentation of a control or treatment image were randomized.