Concerns about personal safety in public space are pervasive for women and gender-diverse people. Individual perceptions of safety alter behaviour in terms of accessing leisure and recreation spaces, in turn having a significant impact on health and well-being. For many, moving around their local community is complex and requires the avoidance of certain places, restricting movement and changing preferred patterns.
Many of these self-protective behaviours and hypervigilant practices are specific to women and gender-diverse people who must strike a balance between freedom and safety. What results are places where specific, minoritised groups may be reluctant to exercise, play and connect. This is not an inclusive or equitable community.
Gendered inequality in public spaces is the result of systemic power differentials that pervade economic, political, cultural, and policy. In Australia, women and men’s perception of safety is markedly different and has the largest gap of all OECD countries. In Victoria, the gap is wider still and women’s perception of safety is declining.
For many women and gender-diverse people, the stress and anxiety that comes when exercising in public space discourages multiple physical and mental health benefits. This ultimately prevents many from developing stronger social connections and a sense of belonging in Victoria.
“The fear stresses me out. I walk as quickly as I can and look over my shoulders every other second.” – Female, 30-34 years
“I am extra vigilant so I don’t enjoy myself as much.” – Female runner, 40-44 years
Interestingly, local streets, parks, squares and walkways in Victoria saw a marked increase in the numbers of people walking, running and cycling under COVID-19 restrictions especially during lockdown in 2020 and 2021 when exercise was one of four reasons that people could leave their homes. The importance of equitable access to spaces for recreation, exercise and open space was under scrutiny with questions raised about the impact on safety and wellbeing for women and gender-diverse people.
CrowdSpot and Monash University XYX Lab have partnered with 22 local and state government organisations to develop YourGround, a digital platform that advances knowledge of safety in public space for women and gender-diverse people. Interim results have already identified safety and behavioural change required in recreation spaces to assist LGA’s in delivering their Gender Equality Act 2020 obligations. This collaborative engagement model has significant benefits and cost savings where local councils are able to benefit from the shared strategy and outreach of the project, as well as contrast and compare their dataset and with a consistent methodology.
Central to the project is the interactive online map that enables women and gender-diverse people to anonymously ‘Add a Spot’ and share their experiences of safety -related recreational experience in public space. Community involvement, through the interactive map, is at the heart of the project. This data collection process builds a valuable user-generated spatial dataset to help form a range of location-based insights for improving recreational experiences in public space.
This research seeks to capture changes to public and recreational spaces through the perceptions and ‘lived experiences’ of women and gender-diverse people. The disaggregated findings – when collated and analysed – provide insights to LGAs that will make cities, towns, parks and community spaces more inclusive and equitable.
The introduction of Victoria’s Gender Equality Act 2020 sees an increased responsibility for LGAs around gender equity, with the legislation requiring all defined entities to undertake a Gender Impact Assessment when ‘developing or reviewing a policy, program or service provided by the entity that has a direct and significant impact on the public’. The rich data from YourGround will contribute to planning and policy and to LGAs meeting their obligations under the Act.
“Despite the good lighting and facilities, I always feel a little trapped between two large open spaces when I’m jogging at dusk or after dark. I would prefer to avoid it if there aren’t a few other joggers around.” – Female, 40-44 years
“This is a very small water park with footpaths down each side. There is no lighting and no public view of the paths. There is seating at one point, but I would not use it as it is secluded. During the day this space is okay but after dusk I do not feel comfortable without my big dog.” Female, 45-49 years
“The footpath narrows to a pinch where the street trees are planted and this forces you to walk close to the brick fence where men often sit and ogle/cat call. You’re forced to walk within touching distance of them unless you walk out onto the road.” – Female, 25-29 years
“This spot is a train underpass with poor visibility in its design. You can’t see if someone is walking into the underpass from the other side and you feel trapped. I don’t walk through here anymore when I should be able to feel safe to do so.”- Female, 30-34 years
Designers, architects, urban planners, councillors, facilitators, and equity experts, can’t make assumptions about what women and gender-diverse people experience. This research works with lived, sometimes hidden, experiences to make an impact. As a grassroots, crowdsourcing tool YourGround is revealing the experiences that restrict access to exercise and freedom of movement and is providing important insights to those tasked with making key decisions.
The interim results of the YourGround interactive map show that many women and gender- diverse people remain vigilant and on alert when out for recreation, exercise and relaxation. Behaviour change and caution often aren’t enough with at least 40% of those reporting an unsafe place not going back alone and another 13% who never go back at all.
“I often run faster through here or try to slow down before I get there if there is a cyclist/another trustworthy recreational runner not too far behind me.” – Female 25-29
Even before the pandemic, significant evidence linked health and wellbeing to recreational space access.1 During lockdowns and restrictions, parks, paths and public space became even more important as gyms, pools and sporting facilities closed. Outdoor space also b ecame a place to decompress and connect in a COVID safe way with family and friends.
“I wish I could enjoy this space.” – Female, 40-44
The early findings from the YourGround map indicate the ways in which feeling unsafe might undermine wellbeing for women and gender diverse people, as they feel the need to change their behaviour, consider safety in their daily routines and have their enjoyment of public parks, trails and facilities compromised.
“I find a stick and just carry it by my side as it makes me feel a little safer.” – Female, 60-64
“I will not walk this stretch alone day or night. If I walk with a female friend I am still looking over my shoulder the whole time. If I am riding my bike I will go alone but I am still vigilant.” – Female, 40-44
To make themselves feel more secure in public space, YourGround users have shared the following tactics including: walking, cycling or jogging extra fast to get through a particular area; carrying an object that could be used in defence; not going there in the dark or early in the morning; changing exercise or travel routes to avoid certain areas; not wearing headphones so they are more aware of the presence of strangers and potential perpetrators.
Importantly, the experiences shared in the first seven weeks on YourGround also indicate that upgrades and investment in public space can make a difference. Submissions indicate that things like well-considered lighting, murals, pedestrian crossings, better footpaths, trees and new buildings increase perceptions of safety for women and gender-diverse people. For instance, 70% of respondents identify being able to see ahead a major part of what makes a place feel safe.
Being on the street was the location least likely to be deemed safe, followed by parking lots and public transport. 17% of trail spots were identified as safe – but there was a marked difference between runners and walkers, with runners twice as likely to find trails safe as walkers (30% compared wiht 15%). Such meaningful and nuanced data often provides surprising insights that can make a difference to communities by uncovering the contexts and situations that restrict movement.
A comprehensive publicly-available report will include a visual breakdown and analysis of the project once submissions close on 31 July 2021 and identify the good and bad hot spots with the locations of the most popular submissions to the map. The data will provide insights into how we can make our cities, our towns, parks and community spaces more accessible, inclusive and equitable.
With clear links to a range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) YourGround will advance the goals of good health and well-being by promoting the importance of well-being and enhancing our understanding about what makes places feel safe. The project empowers all women and gender-diverse people to share their stories and experiences to create impact on the ground in their communities.
“My experiences in this park have been really positive. There are always lots of other women of all ages using the park which makes me feel safe even when walking in the evening” – Female, 33 years
“This feels like a safe, friendly place to be with my dog. I love it” – Female, 45-54 years
As women and gender-diverse people are among some of the most vulnerable groups to be hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, this project seeks to understand this connection in relation to recreational safety in public space and provide the insights for those in policy and planning to make real and substantial change.
Help map a safer Melbourne for women and gender-diverse people: drop a pin by 31 July and share your experience.
YourGround is a collaboration between XYX Lab and CrowdSpot to crowdsource women and gender-diverse people’s perceptions of safety in public space across Victoria.
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