Building Walkable Cities for all – New interventions from research and practice
In many cities around the world, especially women perceive walking alone at night as unsafe. A study by Istat revealed that 36.6% of women in Italy refrain from going out at night due to fear, underscoring a critical issue that needs attention. This article sheds light on vital steps to make walkable cities a reality for all residents, regardless of their gender.
This article builds on the session “Gender Dynamics of Walkability” at the Walk 21 Conference held in Kigali, Rwanda, on October 19th. Researchers and practitioners shared insights from their work in social movements, initiatives and field studies that aim to create more inclusive, safe, and empowering walking environments.
Community-Focused Research Methods
To reveal the walking experiences of urban dwellers, qualitative and engaging data-collection methods are essential. Researchers put more focus than ever on engaging with local communities, understanding their unique challenges, and empowering them to participate actively in the planning and transformation of their neighborhoods.
Understanding citizens as protagonists of change is the key concept leading the work of Instituto Caminhabilidade (Walkability Institute) in Brazil. The nonprofit’s collaborative project “Walking Together” was established to engage and empower women in São Paulo. Its central objective is to enable women to assert their rights and actively participate in the transformation of their cities. In participative workshops, groups of women map problems, rate the walkability of spaces, and come together to co-create tailored solutions. The project’s core belief is that women must play a central role in shaping walkable cities, as this requires a deep understanding of their experiences.
Similarly, a research project on walkability in both Cape Town and London prioritizes the engagement of local men, who take part in trainings to become peer researchers. The training process involves methods like mobility diaries and autoethnography, fostering their ability to become advocates for safe and inclusive walking environments. The peer researchers use their skills and knowledge in the collection of walking experiences from peers in their communities in addition to recording their own reflections and experiences through mobility diaries. This approach empowers them to provide valuable insights into their own mobility experiences as well as those in their communities.
The project team of “STEP UP” in Milan, Italy, focuses on mapping spatial features, city use, and hotspots related to the risk of aggression. By collecting data through the app Wher, a participatory mapping tool for women in Italy, detailed insights into safe and unsafe areas were gained. The 50.000 users of the app can rate spaces by their safety levels, choosing “avoid”, “be careful”, or “go easy” and engage in meaningful discussions with other community members. Insights from the app were complemented by geo-located open data and survey questionnaires. This approach allows for more responsive, inclusive, and representative decision-making.
While much of the current research focuses on the safety and experiences of women, it’s important to recognize that men’s mobility experiences are also influenced by safety concerns. This often-overlooked aspect of transportation research was highlighted by Gina Porter and Bulelani Maskiti.
Their research in Cape Town and London revealed that young men, particularly from low-income communities, walk the streets with considerable concern, especially at night. Men are often perceived as invulnerable, but this notion doesn’t align with their real experiences. The research participants reported high levels of stress and employed different strategies to ensure a safe journey. This includes considering how to dress and which valuables to leave behind to avoid robberies and physical violence.
Bringing men’s experiences into the debate is crucial for creating comprehensive and inclusive strategies for urban planning and to encourage active mobility.
Understanding the Variety of Influential Factors for Perceptions of Safety
Safety while walking varies substantially across different countries, cities, and communities, and it is noteworthy that the factors used to articulate perceived safety or concern are of diverse nature.
In many instances, perceptions of safety rely less on infrastructure and lighting and more on the frequency of public transport connections, the number of personal connections and familiarity in a given area, and the number of “eyes on the street”. But crucially, the experiences of women can be very different from those of men, and acknowledging this is essential in designing safer urban spaces.
One key difference in all contexts is the persistent gender-based violence (GBV) experienced by women. However, we can’t assume that women and men have the same experiences while walking, the only difference being that women face the additional threat of GBV. Men’s perceptions of safety and strategies to navigate these concerns are also strongly tied to masculinities, leading for example to an additional pressure to provide protection for women. This further underlines the need for context-specific solutions that are co-created with citizens to meet the demands of different groups of people.
In the pursuit of safer and more walkable cities, women have taken the lead in developing innovative interventions. These interventions go beyond merely addressing safety concerns; they aim to change the narrative around walking.
“Women Walk at Midnight” in Cape Town, South Africa, focuses on reclaiming public spaces and making them joyful, safe, and inclusive. The intiative was started by Amrita Pande, an activist and professor at the University of Cape Town and encourages women to reclaim the streets, particularly at night, by walking together and providin g safety in numbers.
In a space where men are expected to inhabitate public spaces, the simple act of walking at night naturalizes the presence of women. Amrita Pande
Participants of the walks associate words such as sisterhood, playfulness, laughter, camaraderie, strength, joy, and fellowship with their experiences. By letting local women lead the way through their neighborhoods, this movement is a prime example of grassroots interventions.
Leticia Sabino of Instituto Caminhabilidade in Brazil emphasized the need to engage and strengthen local women’s voices. The project, “Walking Together,” addresses the issue of accessibility in São Paulo, where communities are divided by major highways. By involving local women as experts in their own communities, they are empowered to influence urban design and advocate for safer, more accessible spaces.
More Insights on Gender Equity and Walkability at Walk21
Those most heavily reliant on public transport, usually women from low-income communities, are often confronted with real risks and anxiety at bus stops. During a ’walkshop‘ titled “Shade and light for pedestrians in low-income communities”, conference delegates explored gender perspectives of bus stops and evaluated a number of characteristics, such as subjective safety perception, lightening, shade, lifeliness of the surrounding or safe walking access to bus stops.
The idea was sparked by a study conducted in Los Angeles, USA, revealing that the city’s transport system was failing women and gender minorities. The study revealed that women in LA found insufficient lighting and shade, but especially the low frequency of public transport services creates a feeling of being “alone”, thus exposed, lowering the safety perception at bus stops, as fewer people pass by and waiting times are long.
One crucial topic touched upon at the walkshop was the assumption that women are mostly confined to the private sphere, a notion that transport systems often reinforce. The reality, however, is that women, especially those from low-income communities, frequently navigate unpleasant and unsafe urban spaces – while “being able” to stay at home is sometimes even perceived a privilegued of women in wealthier socio-economic groups.
In conclusion, creating walkable, safe, and inclusive cities requires a multifaceted approach. Engaging with local communities, considering gender dynamics as influential factors, and broadening our understanding of “gender” to men and gender minorities are all crucial steps. Women-led initiatives showcase the potential for transformative change and emphasize that walking should be a right, not a privilege. By addressing the unique challenges and perceptions of different groups, we can work towards urban environments that are safe and welcoming for all.