Our Research Director Claire Harding argues why we need rapid change to make women safer in the capital.
On the morning of Halloween, the clocks went back in the UK. For many Londoners, it marks the point that evening travel and socialising is entirely in the dark until the clocks change again in the spring. Many people can find it frightening to be outside after dark, fearing slips and falls, or attack by strangers. Women in London may feel particularly worried this autumn, after two London women, Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard, were murdered earlier this year as they walked to or from meeting their friends in the evening.
Women are sometimes told they shouldn’t be scared when they are out at night, because stranger attacks are very rare. This is true, at least for physical assault: catcalling and harassment are common. But it spectacularly misses the point. Women are socialised from childhood to fear rape, and to think they will be to blame when it happens. We make sure to walk home in pairs, avoid parks and canal towpaths, hold our keys in our fists, carry rape alarms, learn martial arts for self-defence. We order drinks in bottles rather than glasses so people can’t slip drugs into them. We take taxis when the bus would be cheaper. We wear flat shoes so we can run from danger. No amount of ‘reassurance’ can undo this deep conditioning, when our society has taught them to be scared.
Almost all women in London will have been scared at some point, but the threat can be particularly acute for women from groups which are often discriminated against. This includes Black and Asian women, women with disabilities, LGBTQ+ women, and people who are perceived to be from these groups (catcallers and harassers are not always particularly accurate in their hate). Discussions about solutions to make women feel safer at night must include women from all these groups.
Telling women to feel safe won’t work. Suggesting that we check in and out every time we decide to walk outside alone probably won’t work either, quite aside from the fact that the state really doesn’t need to know when we’re going home from the pub. A major part of the solution is about men changing their behaviour – not assaulting and harassing women, obviously, but also challenging and calling out other men who use misogynist language or pretend that their threats against women are “just a joke”.
This kind of change to the language used to and about women is possible – “jokes” which were socially acceptable about certain ethnic groups or people with disabilities a few decades ago are now taboo, and certain types of sexism in the workplace are less socially acceptable than they were a generation ago. But social change takes time, and women need to feel safer now.
Good urban design can’t stop criminals from committing crimes. But it can make them less likely and make women and other vulnerable groups feel safer. Well-designed lighting is a big factor, but more and brighter isn’t always better: quick transitions from brightly lit spaces like station forecourts to darker residential streets make people more vulnerable, especially as we get older, and our eyes become slower to respond to changes in light. Lights that illuminate people’s faces, so that you can see facial expressions and judge intent as we would in daylight, are better for safety than lights that make everyone look like a grey shadow.
Making places feel busy at night generally makes them feel safer: a well-managed night-time economy, with people coming and going from pubs and restaurants, can be better than a high street which is deserted at night. Similarly, a judicious mix of residential properties in places which are dominated by offices and daytime shops can make places feel safer for people leaving work late into the evening. Compared to other major cities, London has relatively little housing in its centre, and the parts which don’t have a busy night time economy can feel very quiet, and sometimes downright alarming, late on winter evenings.
Women restricting their activities in winter to avoid being out at night has been normalised for generations. But women’s safety isn’t a natural function of the seasons and the weather, it is a function of social norms and behaviour, and in how our places are designed. Now is the time for both the behaviour and the design to change.