Women and girls face huge disadvantages when it comes to accessing parks - Dr Anna Barker
This year’s International Women’s Day focus is on ‘Embracing Equity’ – challenging us to move beyond ‘equal opportunities’ to the more inclusive and real-life idea of ‘equity’. Whilst parks and public spaces are open to all there is still a long way to go to make sure they are used and experienced as safe places by everyone. Yorkshire is home to many traditional Victorian parks. These beautiful spaces, that speak to an immense civic pride, should be better designed and managed with women and girls in mind.
As many as four in five women in Britain say they don’t feel safe in public parks after dark. In a country where it can get dark as early as 3pm and where six months of the year pass with fewer than twelve hours of daylight, that’s a significant restriction on women’s use of vital public spaces.
On top of this, national research shows that, compared to men, women are three times less likely to feel safe in a park during the day and they feel less safe in parks than public transport, residential streets and busy high streets. While there are no comparable statistics for teenage girls and boys, over half of girls aged 11-21 years do not feel safe outside, according to Girlguiding.
All of this shows that many women and girls face huge disadvantages when it comes to accessing parks and open spaces. If women don’t feel safe in public spaces, this affects their ability to move freely around our towns and cities, and it denies them the huge physical and mental health benefits that parks can bring.
In our research, funded by the Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin, we spoke to more than 100 women and girls about how safe they felt in their local parks, and what could be done to improve the situation.
Their replies were varied. For some women, better lighting on commonly-used routes would mean they could confidently walk home from work on a winter’s afternoon, or walk their dog in the early morning feeling safe. For others, the presence of park staff or dedicated ‘help points’ would encourage them to spend time in public open spaces.
One thing almost all women agree on is that seeing other women is a sign a park is safe, and help is available if they feel threatened. Perception drives behaviour, so while we don’t argue that public parks are inherently unsafe, what matters is how women and girls feel about using those spaces and we need to take that seriously.
Women and girls prefer being near the edge of parks. So perimeter paths, easy escape routes and open areas where they can see what’s around help them use parks more confidently – but this isn’t helped by impassable boundary fences and unmanaged vegetation.
For teenage girls a sense of openness is even more important. Fences and barriers – like those around multi-use games arenas (MUGAs) - take away escape routes and make girls feel trapped and unsafe. Girls were also concerned about play spaces being dominated by boys, and the lack of areas in parks for them. The girls we spoke to prioritised sociability – so things like age-appropriate swings and group seating can make them feel like parks are spaces for them.
Our research showed that social attitudes towards women lie at the heart of the issue: widespread misogyny, unwanted comments and street harassment. So alongside changes to public space design and management, we need fundamental change to the cultural norms that sustain violence against women and girls and underpin their fears.
Much good work is going on. In Wakefield, the West Yorkshire Mayor has used Safer Streets Funding to support the Empower project – a series of events, workshops and classes for women with everything from Boxercise to yoga. Organised events like these extend women’s use of parks, and seeing other women in their local parks creates the sense that these are enjoyable and, crucially, safe places to spend time.
There are other reasons to be optimistic – our research has continued looking at how to create spaces that feel welcoming, safe and inclusive for women and girls. We’re collaborating with the Mayor of West Yorkshire and two other organisations - Keep Britain Tidy who manage the Green Flag Award scheme, and Make Space for Girls – on a new set of guidance to be launched in May.
Our research shows that women and girls believe much can be done to improve parks for them, but this requires sustainable funding and investment.
In times of austerity, there is still much we can do to increase equitable access to the benefits of spending time in nature, getting active and connecting with their community.
Dr Anna Barker is Associate Professor in Criminal Justice & Criminology at the University of Leeds School of Law.