The challenge of making public spaces safer for women

Belinda Lo and Olivia Greenwell meet once a week to go running at sunrise along the Merri Creek, in Melbourne’s inner north.

They love the greenery, the birds and the quiet.

“It’s an oasis in the city,” Ms Lo said.

But they would never do it alone.

“The reality of women in our public spaces is we’re actually not safe to run alone,” Ms Lo said.

“We’re always having to look over our shoulder because of potential predatory behaviour of people hiding in the bushes, potentially going to assault us or harm us in some way.

“It’s the reality that girls and women grow up with, and we all know it.”

The local council commissioned a report to examine safety issues along the Merri Creek at Coburg, where there was an alleged rape in 2019.

Monash University’s XYX Lab, which studies gender-sensitive design practices, surveyed more than 800 people, and found although people loved the area’s green space, there were issues with perceptions of safety.

“Since the [alleged] attack, women have been absenting themselves from the creek either permanently, or at certain times of the day, or under certain conditions,” the report found.

It said women experience public spaces differently to men, and often change their behaviour, doing things like walking with a friend or dog to protect themselves from violence.

It found environmental solutions alone would not fix the problem, and more needed to be done to address violence against women.

It suggested adding things like park benches and scheduling community events, to attract people to the area.

For Ms Greenwell, that would make a huge difference.

She said, during the recent COVID-19 lockdowns, she felt safe enough to run by herself, sometimes even at night.

“There were people around, walking their dogs, and it felt safe because there were a lot of people around,” she said.

The Deputy Mayor of Moreland, Mark Riley, said that was something council would look at closely.

“The more people there, the more comfortable you can feel sometimes rather than feeling alone, so it’s important to activate the space,” he said.

The Merri Creek includes several underpasses, where the path crosses under busy roads.

Many women told the researchers they wanted more lighting, with some describing the underpasses as “creepy”.

“Darkness is a strong trigger for raising levels of caution and fear, such that many women curtail their after-dark activities,” the report found.

However, a number of people were also opposed to lighting that would disturb the animal life.

The report called for lighting in key areas, like the underpasses and footbridges, but found CCTV was unlikely to work, given the large area of the creek.

Like many trails along creeks, parts of the path along the Merri Creek are quite narrow or crumbling.

“Paths that are narrow force women closer to strangers who might grab at them or make unwelcome comments,” the report found.

The report also suggested adding more routes in and out of the parkland, so women could escape potentially threatening situations.

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