Safer City Audit for Women: Focus on Secondary Cities in South Africa

In the year of  2021 between September to December, the SARChI for Inclusive Cities at the University of KwaZulu Natal’s School of Built Environments and Developments Studies conducted City Safety audits in six secondary cities.  In all cities, the audit was done in the morning, the afternoon, and at night. The audit observations were photographed, and opinion polls were fully described. The purpose of the City Safety Audit was to estimate and appropriate the degree of safety or lack of it in the cities.

The findings in all six cities constantly highlighted safety issues that not only put residents in danger but also hampered their equitable access to necessary services and economic involvement in these areas. These issues also frequently exacerbated women’s and girls’ marginalization. Although the level of safety, or lack thereof, varies from city to city, these cities share some characteristics. Women and girls are profoundly impacted by safety, or lack thereof, in a variety of ways, including their capacity to move about freely without fear, attend school and recreational activities, use government services, and feel safe and supported in their own cities.

In most cities, the audit found a wide range of street lighting-related anomalies on the streets. Better illumination and women’s feelings of safety have been linked by research. In cities or areas of cities with low night-time lighting, crime that targets women has also been noted to be prevalent. After nightfall, most people on the streets are men, and women do not feel safe walking about the city at that time.

The audit found that most of the signage in all six cities uses symbols rather than words to provide instructions or information to everyone. The usage of symbols has been shown to help provide a universal form of communication, allowing even foreign visitors and illiterate people of our communities to understand the signals. Only one city has pedestrian-friendly maps, whereas the other five cities, have none but occasionally have boards with directions to public services or attractions. It was found that not all cities have tactile street signs. People of all abilities can navigate the streets more safely and easily thanks to a system of tactile street signs.

Walking is integral to the liveability and sustainability of our cities and should regain its place as a safe, convenient, and pleasant option for most trips. Yet the study reviewed that due to a lack of attention to the needs of pedestrians, and a tendency to favour motorized transport, pedestrians are at risk of death, injury and disability. Women are the primary carers of children and the elderly. As a result, they often work part-time, go shopping, run household errands, make multi-stop trips, and take people to extra-curricular activities. Women have more complex travel patterns than men and undertake more trip chaining. The bad state or nonexistence of footpaths put women at risk. There are also noticeable difficulties of crossing busy roads for women pushing trollies, prams, or carrying grocery – especial during busy days of the month.

The city safety audit examined public safety and perception of rescue within the CBD areas of all six cities. The experience shows that there are people generally in the CBD, shopping malls and Downtown areas of these cities which form a relatively high level of informal surveillance during the day.

In all cities, a link has been established between grime and a sense of safety or lack thereof. Grime has a detrimental effect on property value, which causes changes in activities and land uses in some areas of the city. Changes in urban space are sometimes defined by a pattern of deterioration where resident-based regulation of street life loses way to disordered social and physical circumstances known as incivilities. Physical incivilities include abandoned buildings, graffiti, litter, vacant and trash-filled lots, unkempt yard etc. Social incivilities include public drinking or drunkenness, rowdy and unsupervised teen groups, sexual harassment on the street, open prostitution/ sex work, and public drug sales and drug use. There is connection between these incivilities and crime, residents’ fear, and further erosion of the urban fabric. Women bear the heaviest brunt.

In conclusion, the general finding was that across these cities, certain parameters were better than others depending on where and when you are in the city. It is relatively safer in the uptown area of the city than the CBD and downtown area. It is safer to be in the city during the day than evening or night. The SARChI for Inclusive cities recommends more effective and evidence-based interventions at the local level to strengthen resilience and improve safety of communities. Through effective planning and engineering, cities can make roads safer for pedestrians, particularly women. There is need to recognise that safety is a fundamental right of living in a city and that, while a multitude of actors and sectors have responsibilities for creating safer communities, ultimately the state’s responsibility is to guarantee the right of all inhabitants to be safe. Improved police visibility is required. The institutionalization of gender mainstreaming and gender equality in urban safety and crime prevention strategies requires more traction. Women and girls must systematically be involved in the diagnosis of the safety of their city, from an intersectional approach. Significant to succeed against the challenge of implementation will be to take an overarching approach to women safety issues rather than a fractured one, and for cities to work with women rather than seeking to direct them. Local municipalities should undertake safety audits with communities to establish safety needs and strategies. They should also report on designs aimed at addressing the safety of women and other vulnerable groups, as well as develop comprehensive safety plans and allocate corresponding budgets for implementation. Cities must be held accountable for adopting a gender perspective in their safety policies and plans.

NB: Watch out for full peer view publications and policy brief on this project

Principal Investigators:
Professor H.H Magidimisha-CHIPUNGU
Professor Lovemore CHIPUNGU