Sexism and the City

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun;
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl,
And, Lord, I know I’m one.

The anonymous author of the above – unlike the Animals, who popularised it in the 1960s – envisaged the narrator to be a girl rather than a boy. Her characterisation of a house as an agent of ruin is part of a prevalent thread in Western thought – the idea that the city is a place where bad things happen to girls. Clarissa, Caddy in “The Crimson Petal and the White” and the (male) narrator of the Pogues’ song “The Old Main Drag” – among many others – found that London made them into sexual objects to be used and abused. In this world-view, cities are places where “every man for himself” is a necessary maxim, since overloaded infrastructure, law enforcement and supply networks cannot possibly serve everyone’s needs. They are grubby, anonymising and above all, pitiless. It’s not that nobody noticed when Kitty Genovese was stabbed on a New York street in 1964; it’s that those who did notice saw that nobody else seemed to care enough to interfere, and followed suit. Conversely, in this view, small-town or village communities, with dense social networks, “where everyone knows everyone,” protect their own.

In a rapidly urbanising world, we should be concerned about whether this is true. More specifically, we should consider which factors, in terms of governance and built form, make girls and women in towns and cities more or less vulnerable to violence.

The relationship between urbanisation and risk is less simple than the above analysis suggests. The very characteristics which can generate risk or societal apathy in the face of violence can also lead to better outcomes for women. The looser social ties which are sometimes experienced in cities, while they may mean that a person is less protected by her community, may also mean that she is freed from some of the constraints that tight-knit societies impose upon one another. “In London, everyone is different, and that means everyone can fit in,” as Richard Curtis says in a recent promotional film. Societal constraints can mean controls on women’s movement, social and employment opportunities, or the assumption that domestic or sexual violence shame the victim and should not be discussed openly. Arguably, women in cities are more likely to have an escape route in terms of greater social permissiveness. It’s also too simplistic to say that urban societies are always less closely-knit than rural ones. The inner-city women described in the 1957 classic “Family and Kinship in East London” probably had much closer social ties than the inhabitants of a modern commuter village.

High population densities in cities can indeed overwhelm inadequate services, presenting unpredictable risks which may have a particular effect upon women; a study of sanitation facilities in poor areas of Delhi found that women and girls were particularly subject to sexual assault while visiting public toilet blocks. Conversely, however, greater populations generate the sort of economies of scale and concentration of resources which make facilities and services possible. In developing countries, girls in cities are more likely to have access to education, and women can access health services and support for victims of violence.

Law enforcement is, of course, a particularly important service with regard to violence – immediately, because without it, there is no recourse for the victims and no penalties for perpetrators; and philosophically, because without it, societal norms are determined not by justice, but by force. The extent to which a society accepts violence – against women or otherwise – is part of its ethos, and a society’s ethos and its institutions affect one another; so a law enforcement system that does not deal with violence against women is likely to be both a manifestation of societal misogyny, and a cause of it.

Just as the quality of a city’s institutions can affect women’s safety, so can its physical fabric. There has been a great deal of debate about which features of urban design are best for public safety, but there seems to be some agreement with regard to two main concepts: informal surveillance and territoriality.

Informal surveillance refers to the likelihood that criminal or anti-social behaviour will be witnessed and therefore, discouraged. Factors which can contribute to this include: higher population densities; the presence of a mixture of land uses (housing, retail and leisure) so that observers are constantly present in a place; good lighting and clear access routes; the avoidance of secluded routes or spaces; and mechanisms for the rapid re-use of deserted sites or buildings. So a busy, brightly-lit town centre environment may be more, rather than less, safe, than a quiet suburban street.

Territoriality refers to the idea that crime is less likely to occur in spaces which are believed to be owned and valued. People defend and respect the spaces that belong to them, whereas neglected places which are seen to be outside the jurisdiction of any institution or individual are free to be used for criminal activity. Positive factors include a clear delineation between public and private space, and good management, maintenance and policing of shared and public spaces. A sense of ownership may also be brought about by less obvious mechanisms, such as: clear urban layouts that people can navigate easily (legibility); appropriate scale of space in relation to its use (people feel uncomfortable in large, featureless spaces, for example) and buildings which fit in with their surroundings.

The two concepts are inter-related. Valued spaces feel safer; safer spaces attract more people; more people means more informal surveillance.

Of course measures that improve safety and reduce crime in general benefit everyone apart from criminals, and men are more likely to be victims of violent crime than women. However, there are aspects in which safety in general is particularly relevant to women. Firstly, because the proportion of women and girls who are victims is large in comparison with the proportion who are perpetrators – that is, most perpetrators (81% in the UK) are male. Secondly, because women are more likely to be the victims of sexual offences or domestic violence. Thirdly, because women’s fear of crime may be affecting them indirectly – curtailing their freedom by causing them to absent themselves from risky places or situations. In some situations, women, whose income is on average lower, may be particularly vulnerable to constraints on their freedom which could be overcome if they were richer – by driving from place to place rather than taking public transport, for example, or by moving to an area with lower crime rates.

A comparison with road traffic accidents (RTAs) is instructive here, although they do not, of course, constitute deliberate violence. Again, men are likely to be both the cause of RTAs and their victims: globally, RTAs are the leading cause of death for young men. However, again, dangerous situations may particularly affect women by curtailing their activities. Cycling in the UK is a clear example of this. In the UK, where cycling facilities are generally patchy and unsafe, most cyclists are male – and so are most people injured in cycling accidents. In the Netherlands, the cycling population has a fairly even gender balance. This indicates that women – who are less likely to be able to drive – are having their mobility constrained by fear.

I think we need to ditch our idea of the Big Bad City. We should stop expecting cities to be dangerous, because the dividing line between expecting bad things, and accepting them, is sometimes very unclear. Let’s start thinking of the city as the civitas, the place where civilisation happens – where both men and women are able to travel, live and associate freely without fear of violence.

The great thing is that we have the mechanisms to do this. We can ensure that a city’s institutions facilitate and require patterns of behaviour which generate a fairer and less violent society by rewarding those who live peaceably and respect others, rather than those who use force against others. We can make our towns and cities into places where crime is less likely to occur, and therefore, where people want to be.

We shape our cities, ethically and physically. Let us make them good ones.

Action SAFEPOLIS (2007). Planning Urban Design and Management for Crime Prevention Handbook. European Commission.

Coleman, A., Utopia on Trial: Vision and Reality in Planned Housing. Hilary Shipman.

Faber, M., (2002) The Crimson Petal and the White. Canongate.

Flatley, J., (2016) Overview of violent crime and sexual offences: Findings from analyses based on the year ending March 2015 Crime Survey for England and Wales and crimes recorded by the police covering different aspects of violent crime. Accessed at

Kay, D., Reynolds, J., Rodrigues, S., Lee, A., Anderson, B., Gibbs, R., Monkhouse, C., and Gill, T. (2011). Fairness in a Car-dependent Society. Sustainable Development Commission.

Leach, A., (2010) Why are female cyclists so vulnerable to lorries? Accessed at

Richardson, S., (1748). Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady.

Smith, A., (2005). Gender and critical mass: do high cycle flows correlate with a high proportion of female cyclists? London Analytics Ltd.

Women in Cities International, Plan International, and UN-HABITAT (2013). Adolescent Girls’ Views on Safety in Cities: Findings from the Because I am a Girl: Urban Programme study in Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala and Lima.

Women in Cities International and Jagori (2011) Gender and Essential Services in Low-income Communities.

Young, M., and Wilmott, P., (1957). Family and Kinship in East London. Penguin.


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