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.
Obviously, some action is needed. Creating non-threatening spaces is important to making them accessible. It affects the wider community as well. Increasingly, we are working and socialising after dark, a concept excitedly referred to as the ‘night time economy’. There are clearly economic and social consequences if large portions of our population are reluctant to participate.
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.
“Recent studies have shown a higher level of lighting doesn’t necessarily equate to a safe perception of the space,” says Hoa Yang, a lighting designer in our Melbourne team.
Hoa 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.
“Basic lighting design principles tell us that increasing the brightness of the environment around an area makes for a much friendlier atmosphere,” Hoa, says.
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.
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