What does a sociological approach to safe cities reveal?: Findings from a national workshop in India
In order to make cities safer and public spaces more inviting for all, EMBARQ India studied how women perceive – and how they are perceived in – India's urban public spaces. Photo by EMBARQ.

In order to make cities safer and public spaces more inviting for all, EMBARQ India studied how women perceive – and how they are perceived in – India’s urban public spaces. Photo by EMBARQ.

While concerns of violence against women are not new, women’s safety in public spaces has received significant attention in India in the past two years. Cities are seeing increased demands around making public spaces safer for women, ranging from better infrastructure, effective policing, more stringent punishment for perpetrators, creating “eyes on the street,” and more. Specifically, planning for safer public spaces goes beyond physical features and requires attention to how men and women express themselves in – and interact with – public space; analyzing who uses them, when, how, and for how long

To understand men and women’s experiences of public spaces, EMBARQ India conducted a national workshop on Gender and Public Space at its CONNECTKaro 2014 conference. The 90-minute workshop was attended by around 50 participants – with 21 women and 28 men, predominantly upper middle class, aged 20-50 years. It consisted of professionals and students. The participants were asked to sketch their experience of an outdoor public open space, responding to seven questions. They were then divided into two groups – men and women – to collate their experiences, and regrouped to discuss their findings. The workshop revealed key factors like sense of security, caste, and social class that must be considered when planning for safer public spaces.

The burden of security limits women’s enjoyment of the city 

The workshop revealed the unexpected and alarming extent to which security bears heavily on how women negotiate their daily activities, both consciously and unconsciously. Both men and women listed many of the same the qualities that made pleasant public spaces – including vegetation, public toilets, and quiet. However, there seemed to be a difference in what constituted unpleasant spaces. Women bore the burden of security in addition to factors such as traffic safety and unmaintained public toilets that both groups reported. Crowds, absence of lighting, people, and the time of day were important parameters for women’s use of public spaces in light of this security concern.

Eyes on the street encourage women’s presence in public spaces  

While “eyes on the street” are generally considered natural surveillance systems, the people those eyes are attached to seemed important to the women at CONNECTKaro. In short, women’s presence made this group of women feel safe. Thus, it is important to understand what kind of activities bring and retain women in public spaces.

Contrastingly, the presence of men did not inherently make them feel unsafe. Rather, groups of men – particularly working class men – sparked general apprehension amongst this group of upper middle class women. When probed, the participants seemed to recall from a collective memory or perception, suggesting that class and caste perceptions influence which eyes on the street contributed to their sense of safety.

Familiarity enables both risk and conformity 

For the women at the workshop, familiarity with a specific space enabled them to take risks in environments otherwise perceived as unsafe. However, this could also be a double-edged sword, in which familiarity can also police the ways in which men and women feel they can behave. For instance, women’s feelings of safety and comfort could be conditional on conforming to the expected behavioral norms of that particular space or community.

Finally, there was also a striking difference in the mood between the men and women’s groups at the workshop. The men’s group laughed and joked throughout while there was a heavier, more intense mood in the women’s group during the process of sharing stories and experiences.

The table below details some of the compelling statements men and women made during the CONNECTKaro workshop: 

CONNECTKaro brought men and women together for a discussion on the role of gender and public spaces. Image by EMBARQ.

CONNECTKaro brought men and women together for a discussion on the role of gender and public spaces. Image by EMBARQ.

Re-thinking the approach to safe cities: From protection to inclusion  

While urban planning and design measures often advocate for improved street lighting, mixed uses, and eyes on the street, there is also a need to understand how perceptions of safety are cognitively, sociologically, and spatially constructed.

As argued in Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai’s Streets, the demand for safer public spaces for women must not be met through the exclusion of other minority groups, be they migrants – especially working class men and lower castes and/or Muslim men in the context of Indian cities – or through a patriarchal surveillance of women’s bodies and actions. Similarly, instead of seeing the city as a place of threat that women need to be protected from – we need to see and design public spaces where women would like to spend time, or “loiter,” or “to not have a purpose to enjoy public spaces, use public infrastructure after dark, or indulge in consensual flirtation and sexual encounters.”

Thus, a project for making a city safe for women is not only about physical improvements, but also about their right to loiter without excluding other minority identities. This requires further research on what makes women of different income groups, castes, religion and regions spend time in public spaces, and what kinds of eyes on the street encourage women’s presence in public spaces.

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  • Anirudh Tagat

    Thank you! Yes, this makes a lot more sense now. I also thought Cathy’s comment was very useful — combining various approaches to urban development, is, if you will, the missing piece to achieving a more holistic idea of it. And that’s essentially what might help disentangle the different kinds of exclusion (from public spaces) more clearly.

  • Sonal Shah

    Dear Anirudh,
    This is a very pertinent question. There have been numerous debates on how socio-economic class and caste are related in urban India. Their relationship is a much bigger discussion, which we may not be able to go into detail here. Articles, point how one one hand instances of violence against women are about caste violence, honour, punishment, putting in place etc, whereas on the other, the “unbelongers are increasingly identified as disagreeable outsiders, criminals” etc. I hope these are useful!

    http://neha-dixit.blogspot.in/2014/06/rape-in-india-reading-between-lines.html

    http://www.udri.org/udri/MumbaiReader10/19%20Shilpa%20Phadke,%20Shilpa%20Ranade%20&%20Sameera%20Khan%20-%20Extract%20from%20Chapter%20%91The%20unbelongers%92,%91Why%20Loiter%20Women%20and%20Risk%20on%20Mum~1.pdf

  • Sonal Shah

    Dear Cathy,
    Really enjoyed reading the blog about incorporating social factors / experiences / conditions in all stages of projects / policy. Especially as an architect-urban planner, I think this approach is extremely important to question our discipline’s conditioning. Many thanks for sharing the blog. We really look forward to reading more and would love to collaborate!

  • Sonal Shah

    Dear Samhitha,

    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts! Like you mentioned, no singular approach will contribute to women’s sense of security and comfort. Street lighting is extremely important; but may not be sufficient. And while we may take it as a given, it is unfortunate that our cities, including Bangalore have consistently dark, unlit streets! :(

    Yes, your questions provide a great starting point to have participatory discussions on how safety is produced and negotiated in different parts of Bangalore. It would be great to build upon and take the discussions forward / deeper?

  • Cathy Baldwin

    Enjoyed this article! In Washington DC, I am constantly
    arguing for greater usage of social science methods and incorporation of a
    sociological/anthropological/social psychological view into urban development
    policy, planning and design work — to explore how the social dynamics of a
    place impact on peoples’ behaviour there. The physical features of a place in
    combination with the behaviours and interaction among people in a city place
    ultimately effects what individuals among the group can ‘achieve’ with their
    presence in a place. Achievement can be measured at the level of the short-term
    impacts on an individual: e.g.psychosocial wellbeing, or at the longer term
    level of society itself: e.g. more women in the public realm may increase their
    visibility in the economy. To this end, we need sociological input at three
    stages of any urban development or renewal program: scheme conception,
    design decisions and implementation, monitoring and evaluation. See this blog:
    http://thecityfix.com/blog/new-approach-social-factors-urban-development-cathy-baldwin/

    As a social scientist, it gets to me constantly that in urban development, its
    impact on the planet is important, the economic implications for a city administration
    and a developer and perhaps on the local economy are considered, where the
    psychosocial and social impacts on the population are regarded as too marginal
    and soft and fluffy!! Put simply, without human wellbeing, quality of life,
    social capacity to act collectively and achieve things etc, there will be no
    economy or human planetary life!!

  • Samhitha Bs

    Dear Folks, this is a good initiative but I personally feel that eyes on street is not the only probable solution. Being born and brought up in Bangalore, the city centers are planned to have mixed development. But I am afraid that still the notion of security isn’t felt in the city. There should be something more that is triggering this issue and should be addressed first rather than going by the standards of providing street lighting, mixed use etc which according to me is something that goes without saying. Also, coming to the street surveillance, there are parallel discussions going on in the design forum as to this new phenomenon so surveillance which was introduced to bring in the notion of safety, has added another layer of public insecurity. Lets get deeper into this matter than addressing it at the surface level

  • Anirudh Tagat

    It’s pretty interesting that caste comes up in almost all the points made here about a sense of safety. I would expect socio-economic class (which is what ‘class’ might mean here) to have an impact, but a purely social (and traditional) construct such as caste is rather unusual. What does ‘caste’ refer to in this context? Unless it was specifically mentioned by the respondents?