Thoughtful design of public spaces can make a difference to women’s safety


The fact that Ashling Murphy was out for a run in the middle of the day when she was attacked and murdered is both disturbing and heartbreaking. It makes us wonder how something like this can happen and what we can do to make sure something doesn’t happen again in the future.

An article by Dr Niamh NicGhabhann, “Designing public space must address safety concerns”, in last Thursday’s issue Irish Examiner, analyzed the complex issue of violence against women. Examining the role of designers, architects, councilors and urban planners, she wonders if design solutions for public spaces will solve the problem of violence against women. Can they tell the difference?

Only when gender inclusive design is a key element of public space planning. Public space takes many forms. The space we use to move, exercise and entertain is very varied, including river walks, canal banks, mountain paths, public squares, parks, streets and alleys. Many of these spaces are not “designed” or “planned” per se, as they already exist. New developments, where spaces can be ‘designed’, represent a small proportion of the public space used daily by women. The real opportunity lies in understanding how existing public space can be made safer through design interventions.

Responsibility for the design and maintenance of most public spaces in Ireland rests with local authority engineers, who see these places primarily as spaces that people need to move around as quickly and efficiently as possible. Architects have been stressing for years the need for public realm and urban design upgrade projects to be design-driven and people-focused, rather than a small part of a traffic management plan. . Much of this work in the public domain is still done by civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering teams, with very little emphasis on people-centric design, let alone gender-neutral design.

What guidelines or supports exist to keep women safe in our public spaces? The Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets (DMURS) includes a number of design audits, road safety, pedestrian and cyclist audits, mobility and visually impaired, visual quality and community audits, but has not yet included an audit on women’s inclusion or women’s participation. security.

The NTA has made a move towards safety by including a checklist on “personal safety and feeling safe in the environment” in its recently released “Universal Design – Walkability Audit Tool for Roads and Streets”. Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), in 2020, published a more detailed study, “Traveling in a Woman’s Shoes”, which aims to understand and meet the different needs of women and men using public transport and active travel. The RIAI Town and Village Toolkit references safety and inclusiveness through passive surveillance. We are beginning to understand the need, but we are very late in meeting it.

Anne Cronin, in her Irish Examiner article from March 30, 2021, called on local authorities to ensure that a gender equality strategist is included in new travel teams operating in local authorities, stating: “We need to consider how these hostile environments fuel a firmly held view that the streets in many of our towns and cities are unsafe. She argues that a gender-inclusive approach benefits many excluded groups: people with disabilities, children, older people, underserved communities and ethnic minority groups.

We need to take the issue of violence against women in the public domain much more seriously. As designers, we can make public space safer for women, but there must be mechanisms to enable us to do so. The government must invest time, resources and funds in research. As Dr. NicGabhann says, “Listen to people, even when their stories are uncomfortable and hard to hear, and incorporate that learning into the design of our public spaces. In order to design and renew public space and make it safe for women, gender-inclusive planning must be a key part of the audit, consultation and design process. This requires new roles in local authority teams and requirements written into the procurement of design teams. Guidelines, informed by evidence-based research, should be developed and safety audits of existing public spaces should be carried out.

It is clear to all of us, given the events of the past few days, that the design of public space alone cannot fully protect women from violence. Who would have thought that a well-populated recreational road in Tullamore could be a dangerous environment in the middle of the day? However, it would be both cruel and irresponsible to shirk our duty to try. As a woman and an architect, I call on other women, men, architects, planners, engineers, elected officials and policy makers to advocate for inclusive design to create a safer place for women.

Rest in peace Ashling Murphy.

Ailish Drake is an architect with Drake Hourigan Architects. His work extends to the public realm and the design of public green spaces. She is a member of the Irish Pedestrian Network.

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