Niamh NicGhabhann: Public space design needs to address safety concerns

Planners and architects need to ask people where they feel unsafe, when, and why, writes Niamh NicGhabhann
Niamh NicGhabhann: Public space design needs to address safety concerns

Gardaí at the Grand Canal at Cappincur, Co Offaly, after Ashling Murphy, a primary school teacher aged in her 20s, was killed on Wednesday afternoon along the banks of the canal. Many of the responses to the horrific news from Tullamore focused on the space and time where it had happened — a well-frequented public space, with the attack taking place at 4pm. If we are not safe in these circumstances, where can we be safe? Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Like many people hearing of the horrifying news of Ashling Murphy’s violent death in Tullamore, my deep sadness and sympathy for her family was matched with a sickening feeling of familiarity. Of jumping out of my skin while walking down a well-lit footpath at dusk because a car of lads decided to scream out their window at me. Of crossing the road and walking quickly away from the footsteps behind me. Of taking my courage in my hands to turn around and look into their face just so they would know they had been seen, at least.

Did any of these men know about my fear, my racing mind, my heart pounding? Probably not. Did any of them mean me serious harm? Probably not. Did I know that? No.

Violence against women happens everywhere. It happens at a bus stop. It happens in the home. It is perpetrated by people you know, and by complete strangers. It happens all the time.

Perhaps it is the very endemic nature of this deep cancer in our society that stops us from being able to look at it squarely in the face. With my researcher’s hat on, I can characterise this as a classic example of a ‘wicked problem’.

In a review of this concept, scholar Catrien JAM Termeer and her colleagues have defined wicked problems as being difficult to define, having no immediate solutions, and potentially being the symptom of another problem.

Issues of climate change and global terrorism are frequently considered in this framework. The amorphous nature of these problems makes them hard to tackle and difficult to address.

Violence against women can feel overwhelming and easier to explain as ‘random attacks’ or ‘isolated incidents’

The truth, as writer Rebecca Solnit has pointed out again and again, is that these are anything but isolated or random, and our refusal to look this very wicked problem in the face stops us from finding solutions.

However, just like climate change, there is no one big solution that will solve this social problem once and for all. There are no panic buttons, helplines, or secret hand signals that will make it all go away and keep women safe.

However, there are thousands of different actions that can be taken that will make a difference. The ‘Rail to Refuge’ scheme in the UK gave access to train travel for those fleeing their homes, when the grim statistics showed a rise in domestic violence during pandemic lockdowns — this made a difference. An adequately funded counselling service available to vulnerable people makes a difference, as does the ‘That Guy’ campaign run by Police Scotland highlighting toxic behaviour in relation to sexual violence. These actions make a difference.

Many of the responses to the horrific news from Tullamore focused on the space and time where it had happened — a well-frequented public space, with the attack taking place at 4pm. 

If we are not safe in these circumstances, where can we be safe?

In a recent interview on the Sunday Business Post’s Five Degrees of Change climate podcast, Sinn Féin senator Lynn Boylan mentioned that she would always choose the busy streets to cycle on rather than the dedicated cycle path. Her reasons? The cycle path, while removed from cars, was secluded, hidden from crowds, and didn’t feel safe.

This is an important message that all involved in the planning and management of public space need to heed. Design solutions for public spaces won’t solve the problem of violence against women, but they can make a difference. They can be part of the many different solutions that we urgently need to take to move beyond the day of grief and on to solutions.

How can those involved in shaping our public spaces — designers, architects, councillors, planners — build this awareness into their approaches and work towards making these positive differences?

They need to start by listening to people. Ask people to draw their own personal map of where they feel safe and where they don’t feel safe in their locality. 

They will find out that the tree-lined avenue they might see as an attractive feature actually inspires fear into those who have to walk through it alone after dark

Ask people about the time that they would stop going out alone, and why. Ask people to identify where they fear queer-bashing, racial abuse, groping, cat-calling — these are the public space questions that need to be considered at the heart of our future towns and cities, our greenways, our future infrastructure. Ask people where they feel safe and what changes that dynamic for them.

Listen to people, even when their stories are uncomfortable and difficult to hear, and take that learning into the design of our public spaces. Listen to researchers who focus on the intersection between gender and the public realm — people such as Dr Lorainne D’Arcy in Technical University Dublin. We hear a lot about smart cities. We need to think about kind cities and safe cities too.

Of course, before this week most people would not have included the stretch of the canal in Tullamore as a place to be afraid of, despite the chilling fact that it was named after another missing woman, Fiona Pender. That place has now been changed for a community, and will be associated with violence and grief for some time to come.

This grief cannot and should not be washed away in the design of our public spaces. The memories of those who have been lost need to motivate our desire to keep coming up with the many, many different things that will finally create change around this wicked problem at the heart of our society.

  • Niamh NicGhabhann is senior lecturer in the department of history at the University of Limerick and a slow runner. Her research focuses on Irish art and architecture, including the history and design of the public realm.

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