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City Women: It's Risky Out There : Feminist Planners at UCLA Call for Safer Urban Public Spaces

May 08, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Dolores Hayden has a vision of freedom--it's a woman walking at ease through urban malls, streets and parks.

Yet for many women, the city represents nothing more than an obstacle course to be navigated between the neutral zones of home and office. Hazards to be avoided include poorly lighted bus stops, park benches commandeered by hoodlums and overgrown shrubbery that may conceal an attacker.

A professor of architecture and urban planning at UCLA, Hayden met Saturday with others in her profession who share her vision of "freedom of the streets." The conference at UCLA touched on none of the usual tactics in the war on violence against women. Instead, the group looked at what architects and urban planners can do to deflect some of the assaults on women on city streets.

First Public Airing

This was the first public discussion of this approach to the problem, according to the conference organizers, the Feminist Planners and Designers Group of the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UCLA.

Although men also are potential victims of violence, the feminist planners group said women are the ones who most fear assault in public spaces. "I have never lived without fear (of attack)," Seemin Qayam, a graduate student in urban planning, said. "I think that's a woman's problem."

Qayam's sense of danger on the streets has its roots in "Victorian patriarchal views that reserved public urban life for men only," Hayden said.

Hayden said that the woman who failed to stay in what was perceived as her rightful niche at home in years past became fair game for harassment--and worse--in factories, offices, theaters, parks and restaurants.

"Because the urban working woman was no one urban man's property," Hayden observed, "she was (regarded as) every urban man's property."

In the late '60s, many urban planning architecture students got their introduction to the field in a textbook called "City of Man," Hayden said. For her, the title reflects the fact that although women have taken to the public thoroughfares in great numbers, planners and designers seem to be stuck in the Victorian mode in which women's needs do not enter into planning decisions--other than the design of kitchens and laundry rooms in private homes.

"Our goal is to get this (the issue of women's safety in public places) on the planning agenda," Gail Dubrow, a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA, said. Dubrow said conference participants are planning sessions on the topic, to be introduced for the first time at an annual meeting of the American Planning Assn. (the national organization for architects and urban planners) scheduled for Los Angeles next year.

Gerda Wekerle, professor of environmental studies at York University in Toronto, warned the group that it may take time to forge alliances between city planners and anti-violence activists (one of the purposes of the conference was to bring together people from these two camps). In the summer of 1982, a series of six brutal attacks on women in public places prompted the Metropolitan Toronto government to establish a task force on public violence against women and children. While serving on a subcommittee of that task force, Wekerle said, she found that "organized women's groups had not made the connection between public planning and violence, and neither had the planners."

Committee members were frustrated by "a total absence of data on security in public places," Wekerle said. The police did not routinely note the physical environment in which crimes occurred.

Security Inspections

The committee was nonetheless able to locate 29 reports in which mention was made of the crime site. They found that 21 of those assaults occurred after dark when street surveillance was minimal; 21 occurred outdoors, and 20 of the victims were attacked in uncontrolled areas, or those zones that are between buildings and not in the jurisdiction of private security forces. Six attacks were related to transit--buses and subways.

Among the group's recommendations (measures that have yet to be implemented) were that police regularly collect data on the environmental aspects of crimes. (An LAPD spokesperson said their report forms indicate whether the crime site is a gas station, hotel, etc., but that no detailed note is made of possible environmental contributing factors to a crime--such as poor lighting.) They urged that security inspections be required for high-rise buildings, and that future site plan approvals take safety factors into consideration.

"Planning and design has remained a peripheral issue (as it relates to violence)," Wekerle said. "It needs to be more central."

Among those attending the conference were workers from facilities for rape and battering victims. A representative from the Riverside County Coalition on Domestic Violence said that she, like many of those present, had never before looked at city design as a factor in crimes against women, "but it makes a lot of sense."

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