Making Cities Safer for Girls and Women

The challenge

Melbourne and Sydney—two of the world’s most liveable cities—aren’t equally liveable for everyone. Crowded spaces, unpredictable people, and the risk of assault or harassment can make the urban environment an intimidating—and dangerous—place for some, especially after dark. Because experiences of feeling unsafe or unwelcome often go unreported, they aren’t captured in the data sets city designers and policy makers use when shaping urban environments. How should we incorporate these important but often under-represented voices into our design and decision-making processes? How do we insure that everyone feel safe and encouraged to participate in the city after dark.

In this article

  • How Free to Be, a digital mapping platform design by Plan International, XYX Labs at Monash University, and Crowdspot, is empowering young women to speak up how and why their cities don't feel safe.
  • What Free to Be found, after running studies in both Melbourne and Sydney.
  • How we're working with Free to Be to see if we can help alleviate one trend that seems to make young women feel unsafe in public: improper lighting.

A recent study, conducted by not-for-profit Plan International in conjunction with Monash University XYX Lab, asked young women and girls in Melbourne to share their experience of the city. Six hundred young women responded with how they perceive their safety in public places. The findings from the study were sobering for a city considered to be one of the safest in the world. 30% of respondents said they did not feel safe in public places after dark, due to experiences from unwanted attention—cat-calling and being followed—to incidents of physical and sexual assault. 

When individuals don't feel safe after dark, they don't go outside. This is troublesome as we attempt to create 24-hour cities with vibrant night-time economies. People get left out. Cities near the equator are swathed in darkness for 12 hours of the day. Go further north or south and winter days get even darker. This has grave personal consequences for someone who isn't able to go jogging, or run errands, because the sun sets before she gets of work. The social and economic costs of excluding a chunk of the population from large components of public life are wider still.

Obviously, some action was needed. In conjunction with Monash University XYX Lab and Crowdspot, Plan International launched Free to Be—a campaign to end sexual harassment. Free to Be is a digital mapping tool, which invites women to pinpoint city spaces where they felt either safe or unsafe and make a note of why. The goal is to create a forum where young female residents of these cities can let policy makers and city shapers know where thing aren’t working and how they can be improved. So far, Free to Be has created maps for Sydney, Delhi, Kampala, Lima and Madrid. When findings from the Sydney map were released, it revealed just how differently segments of our populations experience their city. The streets and parks of the harbour city were peppered with pins where women said they frequently experienced cat-calls or harassment. Over 2,700 pins were dropped. Of these, nearly 75% of pins denoted bad experiences (about 2,000) with over two-thirds reporting sexual harassment of some kind. This wasn’t only at night either— it included heavily trafficked and crowded places during daylight. One notable trend was that women felt a lot safer in crowds where other women were around. More diversity of people in the public realm.

While the outcomes of these studies shocked many, they provided valuable suggestions around how we can make our urban environment feel safer and more inclusive. One of the most common comments from participants who reported feeling unsafe, was about how poorly the area was lit. These areas also correlated with where women experienced cat-calling and unsolicited advances. But it’s not as simple as just adding streetlights.

A section of Free to Be's Sydney map, featuring 430 'bad' spots, and 190 'good' spots.

Hoa is a lighting designer specialising in daylight and experiential lighting design.

Hoa Yang, a lighting designed in our Melbourne office, had been following XYX lab for some time when they began to release data from their Sydney and Melbourne studies. Her team noticed the number of comments about lighting and wanted to see if they could contribute their expertise in lighting design to solving some of the issues being raised. Could changing the way we light our cities be an effective first step to making them safer places?

To consider this, it’s important to understand how spaces are currently lit. The current designs in Australia focus heavily on the evenness and intensity landing on the floor surface. Illuminance and uniformity are the values that appear in engineering and design standards and policies.  We see single poles with a downlight throughout out cities because they are the most cost effective way to meet these requirements. What the standards don’t take into account is the effect of different road colours, finishes or the brightness of the area outside of the concentrated beam of light. If the light is too focused, even though it meets the guidelines, it can make you feel like you are on display.

“Recent studies have shown a higher level of lighting doesn’t necessarily equate to a safe perception of the space,” says Hoa Yang. Basic lighting design principles tell us that increasing the brightness of the environment around an area makes for a much friendlier atmosphere"

Generally, when we design for safety, we rely on crime statistics to tell us how dangerous a place is, which informs the amount of lighting to install. But since harassment and assault so often go unreported, traditional crime statistics aren’t a great proxy for whether a space is truly safe or not—let alone how safe it feels. And that perception of safety makes a huge difference. It influences whether people avoid a certain part of the city, feel comfortable using social amenities like public transit, or even leave their house after dark at all. While this study focuses mainly on young women and girls, the findings may have a similar effect on other vulnerable populations, including older people, children and many groups currently underrepresented in professions who design and shape cities.

Hoa and her fellow lighting teammates had already been having conversations about better ways to design lighting.

“Our colleagues in Europe have been looking at urban night lighting for quite a few years now,” Hoa says. “But the conversation has yet to pick up in Australia.” Hoa and her team saw the Free to Be findings as the perfect opportunity to ignite that conversation, while insuring once-ignored voices were incorporated into the conversation from day one.

Her team is now working with XYX Lab, learning from their experience and insights, to consider how lighting can help to design safer cities. Over the next few months, we plan to co-host workshops to seek more input from young women on what would make them feel safer in the city, with respect to lighting. Hoa and her team will build a set of lighting prototypes based on their suggestions. After some evaluation, we hope to trial the most effective in some of the laneways that scored poorly in the Free to Be study. 

The above video is an example of a Free to Be workshop. By welcoming participants from different sectors of the community -- and of different ages, backgrounds and experience levels -- the workshop creates an environment to help individuals discuss their experiences and perceptions and come up with ideas that could have real world results for women and girls.

We plan to measure two aspects of each design, to try to understand the effectiveness of lighting design in creating safer spaces. The first is a quantitative measure. Our approach is to use luminance or exitance based metrics, aka how much light bounces off the surface and into the human eye. This will factor in the brightness of the immediate and surrounding context. The second is to collect qualitative data, by asking our participants about how they feel in the space. Neither of these approaches are typically included in traditional design guidelines. By exploring how these two data sets interact, we hope to develop a better understanding of where our current design practices fall short and where they can be improved. 

We hope this project will trigger conversations about how different people perceive their environment, and how we bake these differences into more inclusive city design. Our cities are becoming increasingly diverse. Those who shape and build cities need to reflect that in our design methods. We believe this is especially true when it comes to designing for, and with, the people most affected by the designs.

We are grateful to XYX Labs at Monash University, and Plan International for allowing us to contribute in a small way to their study.


  • Plan International, in collaboration with CrowdSpot and XYX Lab, have been running the Free to Be project since 2016. Download their findings by country here. Their recent report, Unsafe in the city, presents their findings, and recommends actions for changing behaviour, increasing girls' participation in decisions and enforcing laws and policies against sexual harassment.
  • Hoa and her team's contribution to the lighting aspect of the project with XYX Labs has only just started, so watch this space for our findings.

This story was written by Jeff McAllister as part of the Research Review series. The series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Hoa Yang
Hoa is a lighting designer in our Melbourne team. That's her on the front cover of this issue.

Ask Hoa about:

  • Best and new practice for lighting design.
  • Qualitative and quantitative approaches to evaluating lighting design.
  • The contribution lighting can make to night time spaces.


Dr Nicole Kalms and XYX Labs
Dr Nicole Kalms is a Senior Lecturer at Monash University and founding director of the XYX Lab which leads national research in space, gender and communication.

Research TEAM

Tim is a lighting designer in our Melbourne office.
Bree manages our Australasian Research program.
This research builds upon work by Anthony, Founder and Director of Crowdspot
This research builds upon work by Sophie, Research Manager at Plan International

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