How do we ensure that everyone feels safe and encouraged to participate in the city after dark?

In a recent article in Dezeen, British writer Caroline Criado Perez, author of the book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men argues that much of today’s architecture and design does “not work properly for females.”

Criado Perez says that zoning laws do not adequately take into account the lives of many women.

"Things like zoning are really very biased against women," Perez told Dezeen.

"This idea of zoning has been designed around this idea of a very traditional male-centric lifestyle."

According to Criado Perez, "We haven't designed public spaces to account for the violence that women experience, and not just to protect women from the violence, but also to account for the way that it's always in our heads."

Making cities better, safer and more female-friendly

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 percent of respondents said they did not feel safe in public places after dark, due to experiences from unwanted attention—catcalling and being followed—to incidents of physical and sexual assault.

The goal of Free to Be is to create a forum where young female residents can let policymakers and city shapers know where things aren’t working and how they can be improved.  How people perceived a space was anchored in their experiences—particularly experiences of harassment and abuse, which often go unreported and thus do not show up in the crime statistics city shapers and policy makers use when designing urban environments. So far, Free to Be has created maps for Melbourne, Sydney, Delhi, Kampala, Lima and Madrid.

When findings from the Sydney and Melbourne maps were released, it revealed just how differently segments of our populations experience their city. For example, in Sydney over 2,700 pins were dropped. Of these, nearly 75 percent of pins denoted bad experiences, with over two-thirds reporting sexual harassment of some kind. Negative experiences often occurred in daylight hours, often in crowded areas.  However, night time saw the most negative pins dropped.

One piece of data caught the eye of Hoa Yang, a lighting designer in Arup’s Melbourne office. Over a third of young women and girls in both Sydney and Melbourne mentioned lighting as a contributing factor to their experiences, good or bad. This type of empirical data around how lighting makes people feel at such a large scale has never been collected in the past.‍

As a lighting designer, Yang was blown away by the number of people who even mentioned lighting in their urban experiences. So, Yang and fellow lighting designer Tim Hunt reached out to XYX Lab see if they could help the team to determine exactly what it is about lighting that affects the perception of safety— delving beyond ‘too bright’ or ‘too dark’.

As Criado Perez says, "really simple things" such as more lights at and placing public transport stations in better-lit areas would help make women feel less vulnerable and at risk.

In a true human-centred approach, the team began digging through the Free to Be data set to unpack what participants said about their experience around lighting. By analysing Free to Be’s crowd sourced experiences, they were able to determine key sites to start analysing qualitative measurements to understand these urban experiences holistically from a social and hard science lens. Yang and team member Chris Alexander then visited 86 Melbourne locations where people had dropped pins – positive and negative.

They recorded technical characteristics of the lighting in the areas like colour temperature, vertical and horizontal illuminance—how much light emits from a source—and luminance, which is how the eye perceives light. The team also examined the physical qualities and context of the locations themselves. How wide was the footpath being lit up? Where there any trees in the surrounding area that might break up a pedestrian’s line of sight?

Making cities better, safer and more female-friendly

The main finding?  The design standards used for lighting compliance in most countries don’t take the multitude of the way humans experience light into account. In fact, the findings show that we tend to light for cars rather than for the people on the streets.  The team also found that the quality of the light, not the level or quantity, is the most important factor in how people perceive an environment. Light rendering – how similar the colours in an artificially lit environment resembles the way it would in daylight – is particularly important.‍

This creates a higher degree of familiarity with the space, allowing people to be able to make out their surroundings and be able to distinguish the difference between a bush and a person.

“Our current standards priorities lux levels–which are easy to measure. Yet we don’t see the amount of light coming out of a street light. We see what bounces off the surfaces around us,” says Yang.

Author Criado Perez argues that these design failures are not intentional, but rather the result of a "data gap" in the amount of information that is collected about women.

To consider the implications of this, it’s important to understand how spaces are currently lit. 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.‍

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 down light throughout out cities because they are the most cost-effective way to meet these requirements. What the standards don’t take into account is how people’s eyes see light, or our perception of brightness.

Making cities better, safer and more female-friendly

The way light bounces off different road colours, surface finishes or the brightness of the area outside of the concentrated beam of light are all things that can affect our perceptions of brightness and safety in a space. If a space is only designed to consider the amount of light being emitted by the light source and not the contextual makeup of the space, even though it meets the guidelines, it doesn’t take the human experience if seeing and feeling light into account.

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.

Criado Perez asks: "Where is the workplace in relation to the home? Or in relation to the nursery? Or the doctor, or the dry cleaner? Has the public transport system been designed in such a way that it enables you to do all those things?"

As city shapers, we need to get better at designing with inclusivity of experience at front of mind. We need to learn to question the appropriate of standards rather than simply aim for compliance. By combining holistic evidence-based experience design, cutting edge research techniques, and cross-disciplinary collaboration we can work toward including more voices that were previously ignored in city shaping conversations.

By designing for the challenges faced by the most marginalised members of our communities, quite often we end up creating solutions that positively impacts us all. In creating safer, more inclusive and more equitable cities we are creating vibrant communities that can be enjoyed by all of us, no matter what time of day.

Our cities are becoming increasingly diverse. The decision makes who shape and build cities need to reflect this in our design methods.

This story was written by Jeff McAllister as part of the Research Review series and adapted from information from ARUP and Dezeen.

Images by Ian Stauffer, Milad B. FakurianMax Rovensky and Johannes Roth on Unsplash