Cities across the world share one similar struggle: keeping citizens safe. Each city has unique and complex challenges; however, above all, the health, safety, and welfare of a city’s citizens is a top priority. The Smart City movement has gained momentum over the past decade as cities have begun to develop place-based strategies using information and communication technologies and the Internet to solve their specific problems. The beauty of these technologies is that they are accessible and dynamic. Smart cities can develop not only through government agencies, but also grassroots campaigns and private enterprises. It takes a village, as they say, to build a smart city.
Smart cities are able to adapt to their changing needs by incorporating real-time data and citizen feedback. The smart city becomes a sort of artificial intelligence—responding to its environment and making decisions based on input. This new type of city has the ability to help keep us safe by managing resources, preventing crime, enhancing public services, and simply helping us find our way. As a designer, this is a fascinating realm for me. As a woman, even more so. What would make me feel safer in my city? How can we use these technologies to design better public spaces that feel safer (and are safer) for women?
Unfortunately, women across the globe are still frequent victims of violence and sexual assault, particularly in cities. A city can feel threatening to anyone, but female citizens report feeling more afraid in cities than males. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 45% of U.S. women said they feel afraid to walk alone near their home, compared to 27% of men. Those numbers increase for younger and lower income women. In other parts of the world women feel even less safe. For example, a reported 95% of Indian women feel unsafe walking alone in the city.
A woman’s experience in a city is no doubt different from a man’s. Apart from safety, women also have specific needs in a city, particularly if they are a mother, caregiver, and/or homemaker. According to the 2015 U.S. Census, 52 million women are stay-at-home mothers (compared to <200,000 men), which means they are managing most of the domestic duties like shopping and childcare. These women are likely experiencing the city with children in tow, which dramatically changes their point of view. Is this a safe place for my children? Will there be other women and children around? Will there be places for all of us to play, eat, sit?
A woman’s mobility in the city is also impacted by her role as a caregiver or mother. Using public transportation, grocery shopping, eating, or simply walking on the sidewalk are all quite different when you are responsible for another person, adult or child. Holding the hand of a child, pushing a stroller or wheelchair, and carting around shopping bags all change how an individual navigates in a city.
Smart technologies can step in and create useful services for people living in urban environments who could use navigational help. To be clear, women and other caregivers are not desperate victims living in fear unable to navigate cities. Let’s investigate what might be done to find solutions to their unique problems in the city.
To prevent crime, many cities have installed motion sensors that trigger security cameras in areas that have been reported as dangerous. Motion sensors are also used to turn on streetlights, making a dark area seem safer while also saving energy. Some cities also have safety reporting smartphone apps that citizens can use to report suspicious activity, accidents, or hazards in the city. These can help all citizens feel safer, but there are also apps being developed that help women report incidents of sexual harassment or violence.
For example, an app called SafeCity has been developed to help women in India “pin the creeps” and share stories of their experiences in their city. An app called Hollaback allows users from all over the globe to document and map sexual harassment in their cities as they experience or witness it. Both of these apps create maps that can be used to bring attention to problem areas and warn visitors to avoid them.
An app called Companion has been created to make women a little less nervous when walking alone. It allows you to enter your destination and the contact information of a “companion” who can follow your route on a live map. If something happens, like you start running or drop your phone, the app alerts your contact and/or the police.
Apps have been developed to foster safer mobility within cities as well. We’re all familiar users of GPS-based apps like Google Maps that help us navigate through cities, but most of these don’t take into account the type of traveler using the app. In London an app called Ldn Access is helping to map accessible routes for Londoners with disabilities, particularly those bound to wheelchairs. The app also helps the user locate accessible toilets and other services for the disabled. Surprisingly, an app with similar services for a mother traveling with children and strollers has not yet been developed (at least not that I could find).
Many other apps with women and children in mind have been created though, like the SitOrSquat public restroom finder app, the MommyNearest app which helps track all kinds of kid-friendly services like changing tables and stroller-friendly restaurants, and UrbanSitter which is an Uber-style app that lets you browse available sitters in your area and book them. Also, the paid members-only CityMoms app allows members to discover and schedule kid’s activities in their area based on the children’s interests and ages.
All of these apps incorporate crowd-sourcing so that each individual has the opportunity to share their experience. This is valuable data and it adds up. Apps that are targeted at women will undoubtedly collect useful and relevant data about how women are experiencing cities. Perhaps this data could change the way we design our cities? Will they become more family oriented? Safer?
As with any discussion of design and cities and technology, there are a lot of unknowns, but one thing is clear: women must be active participants in and advocates for the design and implementation of smart city technology. As representatives of over half the global population and caretakers of most of the world’s children, women deserve to feel safe in their cities. As designers, we must do our parts to create spaces that we would feel comfortable having our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and friends spend time in. We must not forget that cities are more than infrastructure alone. We have something stronger than concrete and steel to work with: data—data that can enhance our brick and mortar designs and make our cities not only smarter, but safer.
by Whitney Tidd, Associate ASLA, Women in Landscape Architecture (WILA) PPN Officer