The Sarah Everard story is a tragedy but not a surprise: a woman snatched off the street, her body discovered, and a London Metropolitan Police officer — an authority women are told we can trust to keep us safe — suspected of her murder. This happened despite Everard having done all the things women are supposed to do in the city at night: stick to well-lit places, wear bright clothing, call a friend. It made sense that my Twitter feed was full of women sharing stories of fear, harassment, and the daily safety precautions they feel compelled to take in order to simply exist in a public space. Any of us could be Everard at any time, and we all know it.
Calls came quickly to “Reclaim the Streets,” a phrase evoking a long history of women’s anti-violence activism, in which police have shown themselves to be less than reliable allies. Take Back the Night marches, which date to the 1870s and were popularized in the 1970s, protested police inaction to threats against women, and, in a famous Toronto example, police using women as “bait” to catch a serial rapist. The Slutwalks of the 2000s — which called for women’s unfettered access to safety in the streets, regardless of clothing, time of day, or behavior — came about after a police officer advised women “not to dress like a slut.” And, of course, in London on Monday, police arrested several women at a vigil for Everard in a particularly galling display given the charges against one of their own.
Amid the current furor and this long history, a question continues to cry out for an answer that doesn’t lead us back to the police: Just how do we make cities safer for women?
Perhaps we need to back up and consider the extent to which cities are made to accommodate women at all. Certainly men have dominated fields like architecture, design, and urban planning. There’s also a huge gender data gap in design. This translates into an urban world where everything from the snowplow schedule to the temperature of office buildings has been designed with a typical man’s life and an average male body in mind. Public transportation is set up to serve the 9-to-5 commuter who travels in a straight line from home to work, unencumbered by children and care duties. The amount of force he experiences when walking through a wind tunnel has been calculated using his body norms. He doesn’t find himself stranded with a stroller atop a steep flight of subway steps or searching for a clean public bathroom to breastfeed in.
Women have had to adjust their lives and bodily needs to an urban infrastructure that simply doesn’t fit, rather than the other way around. Within this framework, it’s not surprising that when it comes to women’s safety, cities simply expect women to change their behavior. What is surprising is how little has changed, even over a period of 150 years or more.
During the Industrial Revolution, the explosive growth of cities presented a threat to “natural” orders around class, race, and gender, and concerns about sustaining the moral purity of urban women were urgent. The advice doled out will sound familiar to any woman today: Stay home at night, have a male chaperone, travel in groups, dress modestly, avoid certain parts of the city, move to the suburbs, wear a wedding ring, don’t engage in activities like drinking, going to pubs, or meeting up for romantic liaisons. If we add “carry your cellphone” to the list, it’s pretty much ready to go for the 21st century.
In the wake of Everard’s killing, women are attempting to turn the tables on this advice, reminding us that it is, in fact, men’s behavior that needs to be controlled. Their call for a men’s curfew is designed to ignite this conversation and force us to confront the reality that women aren’t responsible for men’s violence. Amid the killings attributed to the Yorkshire Ripper in the 1970s, women also protested the restrictions they were supposed to employ by asking for a curfew for men. More broadly, women have long questioned why their safety has been an afterthought in city planning, with factors like traffic flow, attractive landscaping, and efficient use of space seemingly higher on the list of considerations.
In response to women’s activism, many cities have improved lighting and sightlines and added features like safety call buttons on public transit and in parks. But we need to think beyond lighting. Cities could improve public transit service in and out of residential areas outside working hours. They could employ more mixed-use zoning so areas of the city aren’t left unpopulated for half the day and night. Perhaps most importantly, they could make use of tools like safety audits to gather detailed community input about the experience of safety at the neighborhood level.
Violence against women isn’t, however, a design issue, nor will it be solved by better planning. It’s a social issue with a long, established history. So what role can cities play in generating the cultural and attitudinal changes — including among men — necessary to combat violence and harassment?
Anti-harassment public awareness campaigns are one option. Cities like Stockholm have banned sexist advertising from public spaces. Symbolic gestures such as naming streets and squares for women and including more monuments to women may also, slowly, shift the mindset that public space belongs to men. Cities can adopt gender equity standards to ensure that a gender perspective is brought to all planning decisions. Working to improve women’s representation in city government and services as well as training and retraining public sector workers on issues related to gender equity are important interventions.
Crucially, we must rethink who we assign to the role of overseeing safety. Everard’s murder is far from the only case where police officers have been charged with violent crimes against women, an issue that particularly impacts Black and Indigenous women. Women will not feel safe while those entrusted with this role continue to abuse their power.
These changes bring us closer to a vision of the feminist city. This is a city where all people have access to public space without fear of violence or harassment. Here, the safety, comfort, and lived realities of all women are to be equally valued, including those of trans women, queer women, women with disabilities, older women, low-income women, Black and Indigenous women, and women of color. Our outrage is ignited by harm against any woman, regardless of her race, profession, or parental status.
The feminist city declines to put more power in the hands of men by expanding policing, which has not been proven effective at preventing or prosecuting harms against women. It asks men to forget about proclaiming their own innocence and to instead take active steps toward equity in their homes and workplaces. It understands that women’s right to safe and unencumbered access to cities at all is a fundamental piece of a gender-equal society.
Leslie Kern is the author of two books on gender and cities, including Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World (Verso). She holds a PhD in women’s studies and is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick.