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SocietyNovember 19, 2019

The slow, important work of keeping women safe in our cities


Organisations from across Auckland have gathered to come up with solutions to make the city safer for women at night – including a commitment from Uber NZ to make it easier to report harassment and abuse, write Emma McInnes and Amanda Gilmore.

Over 70% of women in Aotearoa have been a victim of street harassment when using our transport networks, footpaths and cycleways, according to a recent Women in Urbanism Aotearoa survey. Roughly the same number of women don’t feel safe walking alone at night. Such fears are higher among Māori and Pasifika communities. These aren’t just numbers – they have a real-world impact. They mean that women are forced to make trade-offs that men frankly don’t, like should I catch an expensive cab instead of walking home after dark? Should I take the shortcut through the empty park, or take the long way around, where there is more lighting and people? These barriers in turn have a meaningful impact on women’s participation in public life.

When seven in every 10 women feel unsafe in our cities at night, we have a societal problem. Improving how women can safely and equitably move around our cities is something we all must tackle. We can’t leave it to individuals, researchers and politicians alone. To that end, recently Women in Urbanism Aotearoa, Uber New Zealand, and Heart of the City came together to amplify the voices of women when it comes to urban safety, and to start a productive discussion about potential solutions.

This event brought together 70 representatives from local businesses, the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, Uber and the NZTA, along with engineers and urban planners. We believe this was the first time such a diverse group had come together to tackle an issue almost all women know is a problem. We explored what organisations and government agencies were already doing to create more equitable access for women, as well as what more could be done, such as more human scale lighting; mixed use developments that encourage active cities and safer public transport.

We also talked about rideshare pick up and drop off zones, and the need for councils to work with urban designers and engineers to create safe and well-lit spaces. In addition, transport operators and rideshare platforms should be encouraged to develop GPS-based safety features to complement the safer pick-up infrastructure, enabling women to feel safe from the start to the end of their journeys.

Other countries have made inspiring progress in creating spaces that are designed for both men and women. In Vienna, city rules state that everyone must have equal access to the city’s infrastructure and resources, regardless of gender. And their ‘gender mainstreaming’ policy has massively impacted the area of urban planning. For example, the city’s parks have been retrofitted to encourage more girls to use them. Realising that women walk more than men (also the case in Aotearoa), Vienna improved its walking network, installing lighting, ramps and widening footpaths to the width of two prams. Increasingly, transport operators are recognising that walking routes are essential to an effective public transport network, and are investing in walkable catchments around their stations as well. In Cologne, underpasses are well-lit and fitted with interesting details, a far cry from the dark ones scattered throughout Auckland. And throughout Scandinavia, councils have recognised that more frequent public transport, not just the number of seats available, is important to reduce the time people are left to wait, potentially alone and in the dark.

We also need to work together to encourage reporting and enable bystanders to call out poor behaviour. Many of us simply don’t know how to intervene in an uncomfortable situation, or where and how to report something that has happened to us or someone we know. Both Uber NZ and Women in Urbanism Aotearoa are looking at ways to better equip citizens with that knowledge.

Events like the one held last week are important. Women’s safety isn’t a problem government and women’s organisations can tackle alone, especially when you consider the serious lack of women’s representation in New Zealand local government. Prior to the last local body elections, New Zealand had 33 local councillors named John, while women accounted for only 30% of councillor positions and only 20% of mayors. There are even fewer Māori, Pasifika and Asian women and men.

That’s why we need to pool our resources and work collectively if we’re going to see meaningful, lasting and widespread change. We know that public harassment is in part a cultural problem, and the more that women and bystanders feel comfortable calling out unacceptable behaviour, the faster we can get on track to creating safer cities. If local government in Auckland, and throughout New Zealand, can put designing accessible public spaces that work for everyone at the centre of their urban planning – while working with companies to make sure it’s part of business planning as well – we can keep the momentum going to help women in Aotearoa feel safer moving around our cities at night. And ultimately, when you design a city that’s safe for women, you design a city that’s safe for everyone.

Emma McInnes is the co-founder of Women in Urbanism Aotearoa. Amanda Gilmore is Head of Driver at Uber New Zealand

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