Dezeen Magazine

Girls of the Light by Hanna Bennihoud

"Design can do more to reduce the built environment's capacity for enabling misogyny"

Women sick of feeling unsafe in their cities may need to consider disruption as a means of effecting change, writes Helen Parton.

When women would rather be stuck in a forest with a bear than a man, according to a viral question on TikTok, that says a lot about women's negative relationship not just with those of opposite gender but also their surroundings.

My own lived experience as a woman in north London likely resonates with many women and others who feel marginalised in different urban spaces around the world: only using the shortcut alley near my house when it's light, cutting short a phone call taken in a local park due to being verbally harassed, giving up an activity I loved (singing in a choir) because I'd be catcalled on my way home every week.

Who can forget the troubling image of the red-haired woman being held down by several police officers at the Sarah Everard vigil?

Surely those charged with planning and designing can do more to reduce the built environment's capacity for enabling misogyny?

Across the world, there are individual examples of cities and spaces putting a more inclusive approach in place. Vienna has been held up as a pillar of gender-sensitive planning since the 1990s with its concept of "gender mainstreaming" which resulted in a comprehensive manual published as far back as 2011.

More than 60 separate initiatives have introduced a raft of practical measures such as wider pavements, improved street lighting and seating areas within outdoor sports courts that help girls claim space, giving them somewhere to socialise and watch over younger siblings.

In India, a report entitled dis)Connected Infrastructures and Violence Against Women looked at the cities of Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, and found a correlation between poor urban infrastructure and gender-based violence. By making improvements to public transport, lighting and sanitation in urban spaces, inroads could be made towards making places safer for women and girls, thereby enhancing their physical and social mobility.

As well as enhancements to the built environments, the state of Kerala also set up a specific police patrol to monitor the safety of women pedestrians.

Which brings me neatly onto the issue of law enforcement and women's safety. In the UK, who can forget the troubling image of the red-haired woman being held down by several police officers at the Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham Common in 2021, as well as the crimes perpetrated by serving police officers that have hit the headlines in recent years?

Meaningful, data backed, community-centric interactions are clearly key

It's interesting then to hear of The City Post-Policing, a London School of Architecture think tank led by architects DSDHA. It is looking at the "spatial, social and architectural implications of defunding the police to achieve a safer city free from misogyny, racism and homophobia ingrained within Metropolitan Police". Using Hackney as a test model, its ideas include the transformation of the existing police station, a toolkit ensuring community wellbeing and laundrettes as replacement urban police boxes.

Meaningful, data backed, community-centric interactions are clearly key in designing out misogyny – it's what makes the examples in the UK, Austria and India so powerful. Quality of community interactions was clearly on designer feminist and architect Sarah Ackland's mind when she doubted who could really come to a public consultation at 3pm on Wednesday during a Negroni Talk I chaired earlier this year.

The fact is busy women who might be juggling jobs, journeys across boroughs for school drops, elder care commitments or grocery shops are hard to track down and talk to, but they're among the ones most affected by poor placemaking, from pavements unsuitable for buggies to public transport routing which is more focused on commuting into the central business district.

Reaching outside the usual focus of architects' engagement is what prompted Ackland to use her love of running and talking to other women who run to explore the constraints in the built environment. If only Samsung had done the same in researching its 2022 commercial. This depicted the highly unlikely scenario of a woman going for a run at 2am and women's safety group Reclaim These Streets rightly called the brand out on it.

Of course, it's not just about passing through a space. Everyone should be able to enjoy our cities and spend as much time as we want in them. In terms of space to feel safe and, crucially, linger, Gbolade Design Studio employed a number of design features at Grahame Park in north London.

These included opening up a pedestrian path previously dominated by blind corners into a wider, more meandering walkway that benefits from natural surveillance thanks to the angled facades of the adjacent housing. A dining area and pizza ovens encourage shared activities.

Perhaps it's time to push the boundaries – even if in some cases this borders on civil disobedience

The Girls of the Light project by multidisciplinary creative Hanna Benihoud (pictured) really resonated with me too. Borne out of that "dark shortcut versus well-lit long way round" internal debate so familiar to many women, this project literally shone a light on places women usually avoided, by crowdsourcing geotags via Instagram for which Benihoud created a series of short, animated projections, in a guerilla-style approach to placemaking.

Underpinning the meaningful community engagement demonstrated at various location-specific projects led by architects and designers I've mentioned is, I think, a need for women and others who feel unsafe in urban environments to be a bit disorderly. If women are feeling overly regulated to the point of oppression by the built environment, perhaps it's time to push the boundaries in terms of their actions within it, even if in some cases this borders on civil disobedience.

Maybe then planners and architects will take notice. This is something Elizabeth Wilson reflects on in her book The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women.

And returning to the bit of north London I call home to conclude, perhaps the best example of disruptive transformation came around this time last year. When Beyonce came to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, women and the LGBTQ+ community transformed the High Road from a keys-in-hand-look-over-your-shoulder nighttime nuisance to an inclusive, glitter filled urban celebration. And neither a man nor bear was going to stand in that crowd's way.

Helen Parton is an architecture and interior design journalist and event moderator. She edited OnOffice magazine from 2015 to 2018 and the 2021 and 2022 editions of the Journal of the London Society. She currently contributes to a wide range of architecture and design titles.

The photo is by Andy Trace.

Dezeen In Depth
If you enjoy reading Dezeen's interviews, opinions and features, subscribe to Dezeen In Depth. Sent on the last Friday of each month, this newsletter provides a single place to read about the design and architecture stories behind the headlines.