Interview: “Urban planning, focused on public safety and well-being of all citizens, must include issue of women's safety”


Nataša Danilović Hristić
Nataša Danilović Hristić, Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Architecture, Urban and Spatial Planning of Serbia has been working on improving safety of public spaces in the country from an urbanistic perspective. Photo credit: Courtesy of Nataša Danilović Hristić.

Following the UN Women research on violence against women and girls in public spaces that showed that 45 percent of women in Serbia are afraid of rape in public spaces, UN Women Serbia in cooperation with the Institute of Architecture and Urban and Spatial Planning of Serbia organized five thematic workshops aimed at improving safety of public spaces. The workshops were organized from 31st May to 8th September 2023 in the framework of the project “Safeguarding Women and Girls in Serbia”, funded by the British Embassy in Belgrade. Nataša Danilović Hristić, PhD in Architecture and Urban Planning, Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Architecture, Urban and Spatial Planning of Serbia, who was the project coordinator, explains the importance of these workshops and the results that were achieved.

Can you tell us about the content of the workshops? Who were they intended for and what was discussed?

Workshops were differently tailored for a spectrum of multidisciplinary professionals and experts, including decision makers on national level, local authorities, urban companies, public communal companies and services that take care of the use and maintenance of space, police forces, faculties and NGOs. Architects, urban planners, spatial planners, landscape architects, traffic engineers and security experts made up the majority of the audience. The workshops included theoretical introduction to the topic of safety, looking at space from a "women's angle", practical exercises and creating a set of ideas that can make open public spaces in cities safer for women and girls, as well as public debate about the obstacles in our legal framework that are making harder the implementation of these measures in urban planning.

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to urban planning and women's safety?

The main challenge is certainly to introduce the topic of gender sensitive attitude and women’s safety into the list of mandatory conditions that an urban space must fulfill. Our goal was first to point out the problem and the different experiences and perspectives that women and men have of the living environment. Traditionally, the house was a space mainly used by women, while public spaces were more of a male domain. But things have changed a long time ago. In our culture we have conquered public spaces since women of all ages are active, they go to school and work, go out for fun, go shopping, they look after children in parks, use public transport, commute and hang out outdoors. If women feel safe and comfortable in all spaces at all times, others will too. That's why urban planning, focused on public safety and well-being of all citizens, must include the issue of women's safety.

What are the characteristics of unsafe public spaces, in the context of the safety of women and girls?

Neglected, unmaintained, unsightly, lonely or dark public spaces are characterized as unsafe and their appearance provides an opportunity for violent acts to happen. Such spaces could be or are used for various criminal activities and security threats. If we know that something like that happened or there is a chance to happen, we will create a mental map that eliminates certain space or path from our direction of movement and that leads to limited mobility. Finally, because of the surroundings, we are forced to restrict our stay in the open space, to adapt to the circumstances and to depend on others.

How can we make public spaces safer for women and girls?

Vibrant spaces, pleasant and inspiring for staying outdoors are the key to success. They must be clean, tidy and undamaged. The use of surveillance cameras or increased patrolling is an example of a measure with a limited and not always positive effect. Instead, we suggest spontaneous "neighborly" monitoring of space, limited height of the structures, orientation of living spaces and others that are in frequent use towards open spaces, urban furniture that is resistant to vandalism, artistic design of exterior elements, appropriate greening, adequate night lighting, good and adaptable network of the public transportation and similar preventive measures. The spectrum of possible architectural and technical intervention is really wide and diverse.

The final result of workshops and whole project, but also kick off for future actions is the “Roadmap for Implementing Urban Safety Measures in Urban Planning Process”.  What does it contain and why is it important?

It is a proposal for public policy making and is intended primarily for decision-makers. The roadmap contains recommendations, assesses and evaluates the possible effects, proposes amendments to the existing legal framework and gives suggestions for improving the methodology of drafting plans. The aim is to help formulate and implement an appropriate public policy for safer urban spaces, in line with other acts and laws relevant to this topic. We created it as a set of steps or alternative paths that allows us to get faster to the main goal. Some of the steps that we propose are broader education, formation of the knowledge base, making of the Manual for architects and urban planners, improvement of public policy including data collection and citizens’ participation.

Could you list some of the most important proposals for the amendment of legal acts?

We concentrated on the Law on Planning and Construction, which is the most important for our profession. First of all, new terms such as ‘’urban safety’’ and ‘’gender sensitive space” should be included in it. Moreover, it should be pointed out that the topic of unhindered movement and access should be applied not only to persons with disabilities, children and the elderly, but also to women. Other legal document, The Rulebook on the Content, Method and Procedure of Creating Spatial and Urban Planning Documents prescribes the content of the plans in more detailed way. We think that it is important to have data on number and structure (gender, age, etc.) of residents in the area of planning to make spaces that will be adequate for all citizens living there. 

In what way was UN Women support helpful?

There must always be someone to make the first step, to pull and push others towards the goal, to have a vision of a different and better society. We are very grateful to UN Women for starting the initiative in which we gladly participated, gave our best and shared our knowledge. It must be constantly repeated that the question of women's safety does not exclude anyone, it actually benefits everyone. Every proposed measure is reviewed precisely in this sense. We sincerely believe in this project and are additionally filled with optimism since we saw the positive reactions of the participants at the workshops and their desire to act immediately towards changes.