Exploratory walks in Banja Luka highlight the need for safety of women in public spaces

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Civil society representatives, architecture, engineering and geodesy students participate in an exploratory walk around Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to assess how safe public spaces are for women and girls. Photo: UN Women/Hilma Unkic
Civil society representatives, architecture, engineering and geodesy students participate in an exploratory walk around Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to assess how safe public spaces are for women and girls. Photo: UN Women/Hilma Unkic

Is the public space lit at night? Is the passage wide enough for a baby stroller? Are there security cameras in less crowded places? These are some of the questions that women from Banja Luka, a town in the north-west of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), discussed during the exploratory walks held in September 2022 as part of the Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces initiative. Supported by Sweden, this global UN Women initiative, and the first of its kind in BiH, aims at changing attitudes about sexual harassment, focusing on urban planning that is both inclusive and gender sensitive.

Representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs) and students at the Faculty of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy of the University of Banja Luka participated in two walks – one at night around the central train station and bus terminal, and the other one during the day, near the university. Participants discussed that women need to feel safe and protected in the cities where they live. And for this, public spaces must be adapted to their needs.

One of the participants, student Jelena Mamlić, believes that architects can do a lot to create safe spaces for all citizens. However, gender sensitive planning is often neglected in the curriculum at her faculty. “We discuss this topic every time we start a project, but then it gets overlooked or forgotten as the work progresses. We mostly focus on the building aesthetics and forget to think about what kind of a space it represents for women.”

Prior to the walks, representatives of the city administration, non-governmental sector and the Faculty of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy participated in a training on gender inclusive urban planning. The lead trainer, Kathryn Travers, an expert in gender, safety and urban development, and a policy specialist at the UN Women Ending Violence against Women (EVAW) section in New York, explained that gender sensitive planning primarily requires more women in decision-making positions.

“It is important to understand how male dominated the urban and transportation planning sectors have been and continue to be, whether engineers, architects, transport workers, or decision makers. Thus, cities were built by men for men.” Travers explained that the transformation of cities into safe and inclusive communities should be accompanied by the empowerment of women and girls, as well as other important stakeholders.

A set of recommendations on how to improve safety in public spaces will be presented to the City of Banja Luka, said Nađa Hasanović, UN Women BiH EVAW Prevention Coordinator.

“Our intention is that the City of Banja Luka recognizes the importance of the recommendations and follows up by including budget resources for their implementation. We will develop guidelines on how walks can be used as a safety assessment tool for adapting public spaces to women’s needs. These guidelines should be used in the long term by the city administration and other urban planning stakeholders in everyday practices of designing public spaces.” There are also plans to replicate the initiative in other BiH cities.

Banja Luka was selected to be the first city in BiH to pilot the initiative. This is due to the city’s commitment towards public safety, gender equality, institutional mechanisms to protect against gender-based violence, and a strong network of CSOs working on women’s rights. By taking part in the Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces initiative, Banja Luka has joined over 50 cities around the world that are sharing a vision of inclusive public spaces.