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What does the ideal safe space look like for women?

Asri Septarizky
Thu, 16 Mar 2023

7 min read

by Asri Septarizky, Fildzah Husna Amalina, Vanesha Manuturi

Have you ever felt uncomfortable in a public space or had an unpleasant experience that made you feel unsafe? Unfortunately, this is the reality for most women when experiencing public spaces. A national survey in 2019 by the Coalition for Safe Public Space (KRPA) showed that three out of five Indonesian women had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces—which means 13 times more likely to women than men. Our Women on Wheels study in 2018 also found safety on the road as a major issue among women cyclists. Almost 50% of women reported safety factors, such as the condition of bike lanes or crimes, as barriers when it comes to cycling in Surakarta—with other factors contributing to un-comfortability like traffic congestion or weather. 

Everyone wants to feel safe, and it is crucial to create environments to contribute to a sense of safety and security. But in reality, women still face significant barriers when using or enjoying public spaces, partly because their perspectives and participation are often not included in the process.  

Thus, in designing more safe spaces, first, we really need to really understand their experiences. A more gendered perspective is vital for urban design and planning to find more nuanced solutions, and it starts with letting women have a say about the space around them. What does the ideal safe space look like for women? What makes them feel safe — or unsafe — in a public space? What can be done to create more safe spaces that everyone can enjoy?

In October 2022, we asked these questions to five women aged 25 - 35 years old about their experiences with public spaces while living in Surakarta (Solo), Indonesia as part of a collaboration with Kontinentalist to amplify stories from South and Southeast Asia about safe, ideal spaces for women and gender non-conforming individuals. In the discussion, we used six photos of public space in Solo with different characteristics—such as streets, pedestrians, religious spaces, and recreation spaces—and asked participants to identify what they perceived as safe and unsafe, while exploring the collective experiences and reimagining what could have been different.


What creates a safe space?

Out of the six photos, participants unanimously identified three spaces and situations that they perceive as safe: a food court stall, a pedestrian way in the city center, and a sidewalk area in front of a traditional market.

The food court stall is located within one of Solo's famous culinary centers - the Gedhe Traditional Market - which is generally crowded day and night. However, participants said that the bright and open area created a comfortable setting for lunch and the communal seating—which is full of customers but not overly crowded—is also enjoyable, even if they need to share a table with other people. Another aspect is the open design and the strategic location, which makes it easy for people to go in and out of the building and also to evacuate in the case of a disaster. 

The other space that participants perceived as safe is the pedestrian way. One main factor contributing to the sense of safety and security, according to participants, is the presence of other people in the space. Stores with shopkeepers, security guards, or parking attendants make a space feel safer and more secure because somebody is constantly watching the pedestrian way, the participants said. "If something bad happens, we can quickly seek help from other people in the street," said one of the participants. Another contributing factor is the spacious area with greenery on both sides, which makes the walking experience more pleasurable, the participants said. Lighting also adds to a space's safety as some participants feel unsafe walking at night in such areas, especially in the late evening when it is dark, and many shops are already closed. The participants also emphasized that the government's commitment showed through pedestrian improvement projects like the one in the photo would make them feel prioritized.

A photo of the sidewalks of Gedhe Traditional Market was another public space considered as safe by participants. Participants said that the area was wide enough for pedestrians to walk comfortably without interfering in trading activities or worrying too much about thieves or pickpockets. In addition, the presence of women— for instance, women's sellers— increases their sense of safety because they feel like they're being watched over. Longer operational hours of the market, which runs until the evening, further contribute to the sense of security, especially at dark when crime usually occurs.


What makes women feel unsafe in the city?

While main streets are the most common public spaces that almost all citizens use daily, it is also where many people - particularly women - often feel unsafe. 

Every participant found the situation captured in the photo of women using a bicycle in traffic to be unsafe. In the photo, a woman cyclist is shown carrying a heavy load and her child on the back while trying to cross a busy street—a familiar situation to most participants who have had to walk and cycle around the city. A bustling street without proper crossing facilities and no traffic controllers or police overseeing is a challenging situation for most of the participants who are worried about accidents and risks. Eventually, as cyclists and pedestrians, pedestrians said that they often had to find their own ways to travel safely on the street.


A safe and ideal space is contextual

Based on the stories and experiences discussed in the group, one of the insights we noted is that safety is often a personal issue. Different people could see a space as safe or unsafe simultaneously, depending on their perspectives and experiences. This is why standardization in design is an important strategy to ensure safety as a precondition while improving the social factors.

When seeing the photo of the city's car-free day (CFD), for example, three participants perceived the situation as safe but two others said it was unsafe. Those who perceive the CFD as safe said that they enjoy the festivities with family members and children as it's a chance for them to enjoy the main road with a variety of activities, which is usually not possible to do safely on regular days. While some participants enjoy the crowd and the festivities, others find crowded places like CFD make them anxious. This perception was shaped by past experiences, such as being run over by passing group cyclists, disturbed by loud noises, or worse, sexual harassment. According to some participants, ironically, such a situation is so hectic that many are not aware of things happening to other people around them. Either way, some of the participants emphasized that it is important to monitor the space so that the street, circulation of visitors, and street vendors can contribute to maintaining safety and comfort.

Not only by features and design, some participants perceived safety and comfort from the activity within the space. For example, for one participant, religious places like a mosque made her feel safe as people who frequent the space are perceived to have a good intention to worship God. Other participants thought the familiarity with the religious place made them comfortable and used to doing such activities there. But, it is not always the case. Some participants noted the 'masculine' characteristics of the space in the photograph, like how many men gathered around the mosque's terrace, and said that women might feel uncomfortable being there or just passing by. "Sometimes it feels uncomfortable to be around men during packed religious events, especially if the mosques mostly have only one entrance," a participant said.


Creating safer spaces is a collective effort

The stories told by these five women living in Solo, while not necessarily representative of all women's experiences, mirror ongoing discourses on women's experience in public spaces and how we can create safer spaces in the city. 

From the discussion, we know that physical and non-physical aspects are essential in creating a safe space; hence, interventions from both sides should be encouraged. On the physical aspect, urban designers and policymakers need to think of better ways to accommodate women's need for safety manifested through the design features: a space with decent lighting, a space that could accommodate enough crowd according to the purpose, or a space with good circulation and coverage.

Meanwhile, on the non-physical aspect, most participants identified the presence of other people as a contributing factor to safe space. Jane Jacobs called the concept "eyes on the street," which is when we put more 'eyes' of people around and orient our buildings to our streets to oversee and ensure the safety of both residents and strangers. In a safe space, security is everyone's responsibility through looking after our community. Therefore, to realize a shared space is to build collective solidarity among citizens to fill those spaces with social values and commitment to ensure everyone feels safe and belongs in the city. 

One of the ways we can achieve this is by having more activities on the sidewalks and public spaces — especially if women are involved — that can add to the number of effective eyes on the street and contribute to the collective sense of safety. This also affirms the need to champion more diversity in our public sphere. 

To feel safe in the city regardless of gender, class, age, race, or financial ability is a right and shouldn't be a luxury a person can afford. We can reclaim this right by building public awareness on the experience of women in cities and the importance of public safety. With more awareness, safety and comfort can be part of the collective imagination of better cities in the future — a vision that can mobilize different efforts within the city. 

As a community, we can start fostering collaborations among citizen-led initiatives to push the agenda and mainstream the discussion further into the policy and decision-making process. On the individual level, we can support local movements in our area according to our capacities and roles, while, of course, keeping an eye on our surroundings and helping each other out in our neighborhoods and public spaces around us. The task to create a safer city for women is certainly a great feat that requires the commitment of stakeholders from all levels. Nevertheless, mainstreaming women's perspectives and building a collective imagination on public safety can shape new discourses and policies, and, ultimately, contribute to safer and more comfortable urban spaces that can be enjoyed by women and also everyone else.