Why building back better means designing communities for women

Emily Hamilton and Tim Webb, Trustees of the National Park City Foundation, reflect on the safety implications on our streets and in our parks, including how we can make the London National Park City welcoming for everyone. 

The sickening, frightening circumstances surrounding Sarah Everard’s death has shaken women and men everywhere. Tragically, Sarah is not the first woman to have disappeared from our streets and to have been killed. The circumstances feel all too familiar for many women whose mind is racing when walking home alone. Our thoughts are with Sarah’s boyfriend, family and friends at this deeply difficult time.

At the National Park City Foundation we passionately believe everyone everywhere should feel and be safe at any time in the London National Park City. Yet we know the reality is that many people simply do not feel safe on our streets and in our parks.

Whether it’s a woman experiencing harassment, local people intimidated by gang violence, or people  being mugged, we are nowhere near where we need to be in ensuring everyone not only feels safe but is safe.

Last Saturday evening women with flowers gathered in Clapham Common during the day and evening to mourn Sarah and to mourn the fact a woman cannot just walk home. Whether they should or shouldn’t have gathered because of the pandemic is a different debate. The issue is that so many women felt a powerful need to come together to express their collective anger of lives warped by sexual harassment and assault. It is a national outcry with thousands holding their own vigil at home.

That this series of terrible events unfolded during International Women’s Week and the run-up to Mothering Sunday, both dedicated to celebrating women, is heartbreaking.

We’ve so much more to do as a society to achieve gender equality and equity. That includes helping everyone feel and be safe on our streets and in our parks.

Tim Webb wrote the insightful article below in February, before the awful truth of Sarah Everard’s whereabouts was known, but it could have been written this week, as the experiences women are sharing in his research just goes to emphasise that this is not a new occurrence. However, Tim’s research shows crime in parks is actually at an all-time low, so we hope it provides some reassurance to people that London’s parks are generally safe places to be. In terms of demanding gender equality and equity, that’s something we all need to keep working for together.

There are some fantastic examples we can learn from like Vienna, a city which has been working on gender mainstreaming for many years, for example widening over a kilometre of pavements to better accommodate prams, wheelchair users and elderly people. In Spain, the city of Barcelona is rethinking urban life, designing changes with women in mind by providing more public toilets, ensuring transport is joined up and fully accessible. Here in the UK, we know even small changes like putting benches in green spaces can help make women feel more connected to the space and therefore more likely to use their local green space. These modifications combined with behavioural changes such as more men working together to challenge their peers on harassment, or educating young boys to have empathy and respect for girls, women and people different to themselves are all ways we can deliver tangible, lasting change.

Shining a spotlight on park safety in London – Feb 2021

Our parks appear busier than ever. Visitor numbers are probably about the same as they were during their elevated peak in the original national lockdown, it is just that the days are shorter, so numbers are concentrated in fewer hours. There is less leisure and more pressure as the lockdown fatigue takes hold and hope falters. Park outings have become workaday practices with people pacing out their excess energy, or running for fitness before the light fades.

The pleasure of having time to simply “be” in a park has been wrapped-up and put on a shelf along with our summer clothes. The UK is not naturally an outdoor nation in the way southern France, Spain or warmer climes are. Here, Café culture was strictly an activity for when temperatures rose above 20 degrees centigrade. Because of the pandemic, we’re now happy to huddle in thick coats, scarves and gloves over our steaming drinks as long as it’s not raining.

We do not like to admit it, but parks have a societal issue we must address. Casual harassment or sexual intimidation.

Ask any woman and you will most likely discover they will routinely take the long route home to avoid dark parks, pretend to be mid-conversation on their phone as they walk briskly through, or hold keys bunched-up in their tightly-balled fists. Many won’t have trailing ponytails and will cover themselves head to toe in dark, shapeless clothing. A jog in a dark park is out of the question. Their behaviour and lives are unfairly shaped and twisted by their fears and experiences of sexual harassment, violence, racism or intimidation.

I can only repeat these facts having quizzed friends, colleagues and park users. I admit to being shocked by the experiences of female friends I’d never describe as easily intimidated, prone to exaggeration or susceptible to scare stories.

The figures are astonishing. From parks, university campuses and bus stops to our local high streets, girls across the UK are harassed every day. 1 in 5 young women has experienced harassment in the UK during lockdown. 94% want it made illegal [see www.ourstreetsnow.org for info]. Relentless harassment is holding girls and women back, impacting their mental health, restricting their freedom and making them feel unsafe. Anyone should be safe to enjoy a park or public space whenever they want.

Black Lives Matter and the Stop Street Harassment movements re-set the bar of public behaviour, pushing it upwards. Covid, adjustments to Brexit, the sickly economy and social inequality are dragging it back down; its descent aided by the desperation of people struggling to keep their homes or put food on the table. The more people we have in parks, the safer they become.

Under lockdown crime levels dipped a little. Responding to my Freedom of Information request, the Metropolitan Police supplied data on reported park crime. The Police records show men are twice as likely as women to be victims of crime in parks, but we can’t be sure that women always report crimes. Anecdotal evidence suggests many feel nothing will be done or that it’s too small an offence to warrant dialling 999. The same could be said for men too.  I’m not going to pretend crime doesn’t exist, but it is far from being on a level some social media contributors would have us believe; in fact it’s at a seven year low.

The table below shows the total number of all crimes against women in London parks reported to the Police.

At a time when we need safe places for our physical and mental health more than ever, is our fear of dark parks holding us back? However hard or however long you wash your hands, you won’t be able to wash away the fear of what might happen in the park in the dark. Adding insult to injury, lots of people are masked because of the Covid pandemic, so even friends can look sinister at first glance.

The Metropolitan Police recorded all reported crimes in parks by type. These figures are for women and men. They show violence is the most common offence, followed by theft of property and drug offences. Sexual assaults are in sixth place.

Across the last seven years
Rank Type of Offence
1 Violence Against the Person
2 Theft of property
3 Drug Offences
4 Robbery against persons
5 Public Order Offences
6 Sexual Offences
7 Arson and Criminal Damage
8 Vehicle Offences
9 Possession of Weapons
10 Burglary
11 Miscellaneous Crimes Against Society

So, what can we all do?

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust webpage is full of advice on personal safety, mainly for women but the guidance is good for men too: https://www.suzylamplugh.org/personal-safety-out-and-about

Parks went through a safety crisis once before when lots of shrubs and fences were ripped out and intrusive lighting systems were installed. That ‘progress’ came at the expense of the biodiversity in the parks. We now know that designated running routes and zoning areas to meet the needs of different visitors through parks are the way forward. Exercise areas are well lit, close to public areas and have wide clear views where people can’t hide. You can twin-up with a friend for an evening jog. Some Friends of Parks groups have discussed women only jogging evenings where there would be wardens monitoring designated routes.

Experimental lighting is being trialled in the Netherlands where streetlights have a wildlife friendly red glow, great for bats and other nocturnal creatures, but switch to low-energy white light when sensors detect the approach of people.

If you do exercise pre-dawn or post-dusk, the best advice is to wear bright reflective clothing to increase your visibility. Head-torches can help avoid twisted ankles from potholes and will of course light-up dark corners; but as your eyes adjust to their bright beam your peripheral vision will be reduced. Most people will instinctively stick to well-lit, busy areas for exercise. Some runners have started to liaise with friends to coordinate running times, effectively creating “busy” running routes.

There are personal alarms and apps you can download for peace of mind, such as the “Map My Run” app. Its live tracking feature can be shared with trusted friends, allowing them to monitor your location and progress.

Five other personal safety apps:

  1. bSafe
  2. Circle of 6
  3. Scream Alarm!
  4. Silent Beacon
  5. Watch over me

I contacted all sixteen of the candidates standing this May in the election to be the next Mayor of London, asking specifically for their policies on parks. As you’d expect, the bigger names referred me to their long manifesto documents and others simply said it is currently too early to be that specific.

To avoid having to publish details of all candidates for fairness, I am not going to name individuals, but I can say none of them plans to invest in parks. I acknowledge the role of Mayor of London has no direct control over the management or funding of parks but I would welcome their support in championing parks and the potential of green spaces to deliver “public good”.

As we come out of the Common Agricultural Policy [CAP], the UK replacement will pay farmers and landowners (not in urban settings) when they use their agricultural land to deliver “public good”. Surely, our future Mayor should be campaigning hard to ensure the same approach is taken for our parks and public spaces?

We will be living with Covid for years to come, even after the population has been vaccinated. We cannot put it back into the Pandora’s box of viruses it escaped from and don’t know what others may follow. On the plus side, we are probably better equipped than we ever have been to meet any new challenge.

We had let our guard down with emergency stocks of vital public health kit and equipment allowed to dwindle. Lessons have been painfully learned. But when it comes to the important role parks and public green spaces have played, we must all have been distracted. Christmas came and passed with no gift-wrapped present for parks. Future funding has been cut not increased.

Our parks are at the centre of our communities and like our High Streets, they are in trouble but remain much loved. These are the places where we automatically come together in times of crisis, joy or communal actions.

We have not had a Minister for Parks since Rishi Sunak was promoted to Chancellor and the Cross Party Select Committee on parks has been silent through the pandemic. We need leadership, a strong vision with funding and less reliance on the goodwill and hard work of volunteers.

Parks were and continue to be the safety valve for the UK’s population, helping to keep us fit and sane amid the trauma, loss and fear. They must be recognised for the important environmental role they play, and treated as the valuable infrastructure they are, not dismissed as a nice but expensive community perk. People need parks and parks should be elevated to important assets, essential for healthy communities.

Parks management is complex and highly fractured with lots of different owners, managers and stakeholders. It is a model which grew organically as our towns and cities expanded. But it is now a broken model. While all parks benefit from local controls and the support of their devoted communities, we need better national leadership, central funding and agreed standards which are properly resourced, monitored and policed.

One outcome of the Covid pandemic is that more people are working from home, so have a little more control over their own time, allowing them to exercise locally during daylight hours. There is a #GetUpGetOut campaign encouraging sunrise running or walks. It is a great time to experience local parks and spaces in the silver morning light when wildlife is waking.

The other photogenic time to get out is “golden hour” as the sun sets, casting long shadows and igniting nature’s colours.

We all need these public spaces too much to give them up to a minority of desperate lawbreakers or our own fears and concerns. Do continue to use parks and green spaces but do so safely and do report any suspicious activity or harassment when it’s safe for you to do so.

Remember the Covid rules too. Maintain your distance, respect and greet other park users and do follow the Suzy Lamplugh Trust guidance. Above all, enjoy and love your local park for all it brings to your community, then share that joy with your local MP and councillors, demanding existing parks be properly funded and managed to meet the needs of children families and all surrounding communities. We also need new parks created in deprived areas, reflecting the true value and role of these important spaces as vital public assets.

After all, everyone everywhere should feel and be safe at any time in the London National Park City.

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