Addressing Women’s Urban Safety through the Right to the City. UN-Habitat’s Women Safety Audit Pilot Project in Warsaw, Poland, August, 2007


Women and Urban Violence

Threats of crime and violence are highest in cities, particularly among groups of women, and increasing incidents in urban public spaces are becoming of greater concern, especially when considering the rapid expanse of urbanization which has been occurring around the world for decades. This phenomenon has progressed to the point where over half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, thus shedding light on the pertinent importance of addressing women’s safety in the city. Although international human rights standards set objectives to guarantee women’s right to live free of violence, the particular urban environments where they experience violence need to be examined and action must be taken in local public spheres. If violence occurs in large part in the city, then action needs to be taken not only in the city, but through the creation of the city itself. While urban designs and planning do not directly create violence, they facilitate environments that can present greater or lesser opportunities for assault. Therefore, urban designs and plans must be examined in order to fully understand why women experience threats and actual incidences of violence. By understanding these threats, steps may then be taken to change the way women experience and live in the city without the threat of violence. All women have this right to the city, which must be understood as their collective right to safety and security in the spaces they inhabit.

The Collective Right to the City

Over the last few decades, neoliberal economic policies have caused an array of human rights violations and social inequalities. David Harvey articulates that this is in large part due to the fact that ideas of human rights under neoliberalism have  concentrated on a variety of individual rights, such as private property rights, while largely ignoring collective rights. In this sense, private property may be understood as infringing upon the right to the city, as a collective right. The right to the city is a collective right for all people who live in, access, and use the city and it entails not only the right to use what already exists in urban spaces, but also the right to create and define what should exist in order to meet the human needs to live a decent life in urban environments (Harvey, 2003). In short, it includes the right to use the city and to participate in the creation or recreation of the city. The realization of the right to the city has been carried out through collaborative processes between civil society groups and organisations, governments, and international agencies. This role of civil society groups and organisations is particularly crucial to realize this collective right to the city, as it is their experiences that inform the adequate and inadequate structures in which they live. Even more important is that a variety of civil society actors inform the right to the city as not all of its inhabitants experience the same environment in the same way.

This is particularly true for groups of women. Tovi Fenster notes that “fear and safety can be seen as a social as well as a spatial issue connected in many cases to the design of urban spaces.” It is this fear that prevents women from fully realizing their right to the city, as most policies which target ensuring women’s safety in urban public spaces tend to focus on the social aspects, while neglecting physical constructions. Dead-end streets, inadequately lit roads, and public parks which are typically dominated by male activities, are a few of the circumstances where social and structural circumstances instigate feelings of fear for women in public spaces. Through the right to participate in decisions regarding the creation of urban spaces, women may actively take part in the prevention of potential violence against them.


Community Safety Audit

The Community Safety Audit Process was first developed in 1989 by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) from Toronto as a tool to evaluate urban environments from the perspective of those who feel most vulnerable to violence. The recommendations made by an audit’s participants are later taken to urban planners and policy makers to make changes in the evaluated environments that will reduce opportunities for assault. As women face a greater risk of experiencing violence in urban environments, their involvement during the Community Safety Audits may be understood as exercising their ability to create a safer environment for themselves. By actively participating in making their urban environments safer for them to use, they are exercising their right to the city. It is the right to participate in the creation of a city that meets their needs and to feel safe during the use of these spaces.

UN-Habitat’s Women’s Safety Audit

Under the UN-Habitat’s Safer Cities Program, a women’s safety audit pilot project was conducted by the local UN-Habitat Office in Warsaw, Poland, on August 25, 2007. The audit was carried out in the Srodmiescie district in Warsaw’s city centre by eight female participants comprising women from the Warsaw municipality, police headquarters, UN-Habitat office, Chamber of Town Planners, a local NGO, and the media. UN-Habitat’s Warsaw office adapted METRAC’s Community Safety Audit tool to assess the safety concerns of women living in Warsaw. The audit’s report acknowledges METRAC’s audit process which considers a person’s identity when contemplating their experiences of violence in the city, based on gender, race, age, religion, ability, and sexuality. However through the adaptation of the tool, the Warsaw office focused on gaining only women’s perceptions and presumed that once an area is considered safe by women then it should be safe for all. This assumption neglects all other groups of inhabitants who are vulnerable to violence in urban public space which is especially important considering the fact that women often face multiple forms of discrimination, or in this case, violence based on intersecting identities[1]. Having said that, the audit should not be considered as irrelevant or not useful, but it must be understood that the results of an audit conducted with such an assumption are insufficient in assessing the safety concerns for all groups of inhabitants who use the environment.

The audit process entailed the female participants walking around the target neighbourhood at night with a questionnaire aimed at gathering their feelings of insecurity in relation to the urban design and structures in the environment. Later the Central District Hall hosted an evaluation session to gather the group’s joint recommendations for policy makers and urban planners based on a summary of their findings. The participants identified priority concerns related to lighting, signage, getting emergency assistance, infrastructural maintenance, and urban amenities. They also suggested improvements to enhance the urban safety and design of the neighbourhood. Participants noticed that most of the adequate lighting, signage and well-maintained infrastructure were surrounding large office buildings. Ironically, many of these structures were being monitored by guards to ensure that the buildings were kept safe from people. Overall, there was a sense that the city was more building-friendly than people-friendly, and therefore the participants recommended a diversification of the urban functions of the neighbourhood so as to attract a greater human presence. Other recommendations made to the city council and urban planners were to adapt urban designs to be focused more on making the city safe for pedestrians and less on buildings and structures.

Through the observations made by the participants of the women’s safety audit, it is clearly visible that the focus on buildings and structures is in line with valuing the private property rights of the select few over the communal rights of all people to live in a safe city. It is not the intention here to criticize measures which ensure the protection of buildings from theft and vandalism. It is simply to point out that the same concerns should be taken seriously for people’s wellbeing and personal safety and corrective measures should be implemented by city planners upon the advice of those affected by these concerns. Considering this case study, the fact that the concerns of a city’s inhabitants are not taken into account when urban designs and plans are implemented is further evidence that economic interests take precedence within urban environments and city centres and this emphasizes the need to take up the ideals held within the right to the city. An urban design focused on making buildings safer contributes to the protection of private properties while neglecting people’s collective right to live in a city that is also safe for them to use.

Unfortunately, in the two years since the audit took place in Warsaw, no progress has been made to date towards the implementation of the recommendations made by the safety audit’s participants. Although local authorities praised these recommendations and promised to take them into consideration, the UN-Habitat Warsaw office has not yet been asked to participate in any type of follow-up action.

Forgiving the unfortunate reality that no practical or progressive local results have occurred as yet from the pilot project in Warsaw, the process of the women’s safety audit is useful as an example of demonstrating the participatory planning process as essential to securing one’s right to the city. As Harvey notes, we shape the city and the city shapes us. This begs us to question if the city lends itself to violence because the structures in which we live are conducive to such behaviour, or if it is rather the priorities of those in control and the higher value attributed to the economic interests of the few over the well-being of everyone that result in the lack of safety measures within urban environments. The responses of the female participants in the safety audit suggest that the latter is true. Dark corners tucked in doorways help conceal perpetrators wanting to attack their victims, and city planners and policy makers must be aware of these risks and compensate for these threats with better urban designs. Of course, violence in urban spheres cannot be entirely attributed to the structures present in an environment, and comprehensive public policies must also address the social factors which make certain groups of people more vulnerable to threats and incidents of violence. When analyzing urban designs and environments through participatory planning processes as exercised through the right to the city, it is absolutely necessary to consider and include the people who use these spaces, which usually compose a very diverse mix of identities. Protection should be afforded to all who inhabit a city, and it should be the right of all people, especially those most vulnerable groups, to identify their concerns in the environments in which they live. This is the common call of the right to the city; the right to use and participate in the creation of safe cities for all inhabitants.



Bobak, Przemyslaw. Email communication. UN Habitat Warsaw office. April 16, 2009.

Fenster, Tovi, “The Right to the Gendered City: Different Formations of Belonging in Everyday Life” in “Journal of Gender Studies”, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 217-231.November 2005.

Harvey, David. “The Right to the City” in “International Journal of Urban and Regional Research”, vol. 27, iss. 4. 3 pages. December 2003.

Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children, Community Safety Program:

United Nations Human Settlements Programme. “Women’s Safety Audits for a Safer Urban Design: Results of the pilot audit carried out in Centrum, Warsaw.” UN Habitat Warsaw office. 18 pages. October 2007.

[1] This is to say that women may experience discrimination or violence based on their gender, but also based on their race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, or ability. It is through the intersection of these identities that a person may experience multiple forms of discrimination.


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