Illuminating Equality: Public Lighting’s Impact on Safety and Gender Equality

Elettra Bordonaro, Principal and Creative Director at Light Follows Behaviour and Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), joins forces with Marina Milosev (BEng MLA) Planning Policy & Gender Specialist. Together, they delve into the often-overlooked realm of urban design, shedding light on the impact of public lighting on safety and gender equality.


Gender disparities in urban design

Traditionally, the realm of urban design and planning has overlooked the nuanced needs of women and girls, failing to embrace the intersectionality crucial to creating inclusive public spaces. Data, in fact, reveals that cities, rather than serving as equitable environments, have unintentionally perpetuated traditional gender roles and the division of labour. Consequently, the design of cities typically caters more seamlessly to the preferences and lifestyles of heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender men, leaving women and individuals with protected characteristics navigating spaces designed without their loved experiences, needs and aspirations in mind.

The twilight oversight

An often-neglected dimension within urban planning is the consideration of the after-dark environment. While meticulously crafting cityscapes, professionals frequently omit the significance of night-time dynamics. Strikingly, this oversight emerges as a prominent concern for women and girls, particularly when discussing feelings of safety and the overall atmosphere after sunset.

Furthermore, the after-dark environment is rarely considered in any urban planning process. Often forgotten, it is one of the main items addressed by women and girls when speaking about perception of safety and after-dark atmosphere. In delving into the discourse on gender inclusion in urban design and planning, it becomes evident that acknowledging and rectifying these oversights are pivotal steps toward fostering truly equitable and welcoming urban spaces for all.

Gender-neutral urban design

The influence of a ‘gender-neutral’ approach to urban design has compounded gender inequalities. Probably the most obvious and best-documented issue specifically faced by women and girls in public spaces is the perception of safety. The UN survey found that 36% of women felt unsafe walking in their local area at night in the UK, compared to 13% of men, and that 71% of all women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. It is part of everyone’s experience, the perception of not feeling safe and acting consequently, changing paths from daytime to night-time, wearing hoods and male clothing to avoid attracting attention, walking closer to open/lit shops or where there are more passers-by and avoiding specific shortcuts through parks and darker alleys. These avoidance strategies not only impact their personal wellbeing but also hinder their involvement in crucial aspects of life, such as work, education and social activities. As a result, this prevents them from fully benefiting from the investments and opportunities that accompany urban development. In simpler terms, the oversight of women’s perspectives in city planning directly limits their access to benefits, and this is a double-sided effect, as, in turn, it also hurts the city’s economy. Addressing this issue is not just about making spaces safer; it’s about dismantling barriers that hinder women from progressing towards equality. UN Women has estimated that it will take another 286 years to reach gender equality in public life, which is unacceptable. Therefore, it is the responsibility of all actors, including the built environment sector, to assume its share of responsibility.

Obstacles in public spaces

Beyond safety concerns, women and girls encounter various obstacles in public spaces, public services, infrastructure and transportation, where their needs are often severely overlooked; lighting is inappropriately designed, or a leftover element; urban spaces fail to celebrate women through monuments, artwork and road names; plus, toilets and sanitation facilities are frequently inadequate.

Repeated research into the gender-sensitive design of public spaces underscores the significant impact of public lighting on the perception of safety, especially for women, girls and individuals with protected characteristics. If there’s one change we need to make to alter the landscape, it is to urgently reconsider our approach to lighting. Therefore, there is a need for a different lighting approach if we want lighting and safety to be considered throughout the design process.

The importance of collaboration

To achieve this ambitious goal, a collaborative effort is required, involving individuals with expertise not only in lighting design but also in social science, urban planning, architecture, landscape architecture, public engagement and diversity and inclusion. Their collective task is to produce a perception study report that delves into the intricate relationship between public lighting and lived experiences, placing a particular focus on the experiences of gender and vulnerable individuals.

Combining quantitative measurements with community and stakeholder engagement, this multifaceted methodology aims to gather a comprehensive understanding of how public lighting influences perceptions of safety after dark and to inform recommendations for an inclusive after-dark lighting strategy.

Beyond the glow

At the same time, it is good to remember lighting cannot solve everything. Lighting is sometimes considered a utopic cure for all issues regarding public space. But it could as well be a placebo more than a real cure.

In fact, while public lighting is universally recognised as a critical factor influencing subjective perceptions of safety after dark, gaps persist in understanding the optimal quality of light and its impact on people’s experiences of the space. Additionally, the interplay between lighting and environmental factors, such as topography, vegetation and surrounding land uses, requires further exploration.

Lighting in itself can only augment the perception of safety if designed in collaboration with all other disciplines and based on a deep social understanding of the site.

Limitations of public lighting

Crude lighting recommendations that can be applied and ‘copied and pasted’ to any space should be avoided as they could actually be counterproductive and generate the opposite effect. For example, very bright lighting in social housing estates could act as a deterrent for people to cross by as, in terms of perception, it could lead to thoughts of policing and control versus valuing a possible social spaces.

Often, the perception of unsafety in public space is linked to a sudden change of atmosphere in the urban context, from a lit high street with plenty of retailers to a back alley or a social housing courtyard, a common experience in any UK city. It could be linked to poor visibility or neglected space. Poor maintenance, in general, could also play a big role in terms of perception, as safety is often related to the feeling of care of a space.

One of the most obvious examples, but not less interesting, is the idea that darkness is an element of unsafety. “it is too dark” and “It is not bright enough” are the first comments during engagement sessions about lighting. On the contrary, darkness could be synonymous with a luxury environment where bright lights are not needed as ‘you can afford darkness’ (see historical streets lit just by gas lighting versus floodlit spaces in the suburbs).

Shining a path to equality

Light, therefore, represents itself an opportunity to address issues of urban inequality. It can be used to focus value, care and creativity on public spaces, estates and future mixed-use housing and can help build social inclusion and civic life across urban spaces.

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