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How can we design safer cities for women?

06 September 2023

Susan Leadbetter, principal consultant at WSP, highlights the importance of incorporating the needs of diverse groups into design.

How can we design safer cities for women?
Adequate lighting can increase use of pedestrian routes at night. Image credit: Shutterstock

To date, planners and urban designers have overlooked the needs of women and girls when designing cities.

Not acknowledging their unique needs has led to the creation of some spaces that limit their movement.

In some instances, they choose longer routes, avoiding certain areas due to feelings of unsafety and insecurity.

Planners, designers and decision makers have the power to shape the built environment to create places that prioritise safety, security and equality.

What does a safe city look like?

There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of a safe city.

Safety is subjective and is experienced in different ways. Therefore, it’s important to understand what it means to different people.

Considering the needs of women and girls is one way in which this can be achieved.

This can include, but isn’t limited to:


A study by Arup found that lighting pedestrian routes to a daylight-equivalent level can increase their usage by up to 38% compared to if left unlit.

The same applies to cycle paths, where the usage can increase by up to 62%.

Lighting elements designers can consider include:

  • Understanding layers, context, and contrast is important when it comes to safety
  • Being careful not to introduce bright floodlights that also create pockets of darkness, glare or shadows
  • Thinking about multi-layered lighting, i.e. a combination of uplighting, wall mounted lighting and street lighting
  • Seeing lighting as a means to attract more people to a space, creating an increased feeling safety through presence and activity
woman walking at night
Avoid floodlights that create pockets of darkness. Image credit: Shutterstock


The idea that people make places safer by their presence dates back at least to Jane Jacobs’ (1961) notion of ‘eyes on the street’.

This involves shaping the built environment in a way that maximises visibility, which can discourage anti-social behaviour and makes people feel watched over.

By ensuring clear sightlines, avoiding blind spots, and incorporating open spaces, we create an atmosphere that people want to travel to and spend time in, as well as discouraging potential crimes.

Space activation

When more people are present, spaces become more liveable and less likely to be perceived as unsafe.

Well-activated spaces often extend usage hours, remaining busy and lively during evenings and weekends.

To create a truly active space, we can refer to the ‘Power of 10+’ concept which discusses how places should have 10+ reasons for people to be there.

This can be through art, music, food or providing meeting places.

An active space creates a sense of shared ownership and responsibility among community members.

This collective presence promotes safer environments where people tend to look out for each other and are more likely to report any suspicious or unsafe behaviours.


A well-maintained area contributes to an overall positive atmosphere.

Women and girls are more likely to feel comfortable and at ease in a space that is clean, organised, and well-cared for.

Ways to achieve this include:

  • Free from vandalism: keeping public spaces free from vandalism creates a cleaner and more welcoming environment. This reduces feelings of disorder and contributes to a sense of safety.
  • Prompt repairs: timely maintenance of broken infrastructure, such as damaged fences, railings or footways.
  • Maintenance: vegetation should be regularly maintained so it doesn’t obstruct natural surveillance or provide a place to hide or entrap people.

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Co-design should be a core element of every project

Designing safer places for women is more than just physical infrastructure changes.

It requires a deep understanding of the needs and experiences of diverse communities.

Too often, we design projects without considering the perspectives of those who will be using these spaces day in and day out.

Therefore, engaging with women, girls, and other end users in the design process is a necessity and should be more than a tick box exercise.

It’s also important to recognise that one size doesn’t fit all. Every environment is different and comes with its own challenges and opportunities. And every individual is unique.

Monitoring and evaluating interventions are equally important to help us understand what works and what doesn’t so we can take these learnings forward in our projects.

Involving women, girls and other diverse groups in the planning and design stages helps to demonstrate empathy and ensure that our cities are tailored to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

This will ultimately lead to designs that are more welcoming, functional, and safe.

Beyond physical design

There are wider societal challenges that cannot be fixed through design alone.

Education and awareness campaigns are equally important components of creating a safer city for women.

It allows us to challenge societal norms and attitudes that perpetuate violence towards women and girls.

Over time, this can empower individuals and contribute to long-term cultural shifts.

These sorts of measures can complement the design work we do and make our schemes more successful in the long term.

Paving the way for safer, more inclusive cities

Designing cities that are safer for women is an ongoing journey that requires collaboration, dedication, and a commitment to change.

Engineers, urban planners, policymakers, and communities must work together to implement holistic strategies that address the physical and social aspects of safety.

We must remember that urban design is most effective when it’s driven by the voices and experiences of the very people it seeks to serve.

By incorporating previously unheard voices we can create urban spaces and transport systems that aren’t only safer but also empowering and inclusive for all.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you actively seeking out an understanding of a diversity of experiences?
  • Are you collecting gender disaggregated data? Does this data represent a 24-hour period and all days of the week, rather than just ‘peak’ hour use?
  • Is there a dedicated person in the design team responsible for ensuring a gender lens is adopted by all team members? Do they have gender expertise? If not, can you partner with someone who does?
  • Is there budget to maintain the space after build?
  • How are ideas being tested with local women, girls and gender diverse people to check they work for them and their safety concerns?
  • Susan Leadbetter, principal consultant at WSP