Sexism in Urban Design – Designing for Equity


By Julia Bell

How we use a city can depend very much on how safe and comfortable we feel within it. It can also impact equity in public spaces for woman. Led by Dr Nicole Kalms, XYX Lab is investigating space, design and gender in Australia Cities.

Initially, the investigation began by examining public transport spaces as 2015 figures suggest “almost one in 11 sexual assaults that were recorded in public places happened on public transport. Furthermore, the Victoria Police statistics showed sexual assaults on trams, trains, buses and taxis jumped from 167 in 2003-04 to 268 in 2012-13”. (The Age, 2014)

In response to these frightening figures, XYX Lab has begun examining public transport spaces in order to propose policies and toolkits for women generally, and also for project partners and policy makers.

In relation to public transport safety, Kalms suggests that generally the approach to improving conditions is ungendered, and involves the introduction of CCTV cameras, ‘safety zones’, and alarm buttons for all users, which may deter an attacker but generally only become useful once the assault or harassment has occurred.

Kalms goes onto suggest that “at present, public transport service providers have yet to account for women’s gendered experience of public transport spaces, and imply that users regulate their own behaviours and that safety in public transport is their own responsibility.” Meaning, don’t travel on your own, sit close to the drivers cabin, don’t sit in empty carriages, stand in a well-lit area or in designated “safety zones” with proximity to emergency buttons (Metro Trains 2016).

In other countries, such as Japan and Brazil, the problem of harassment on public transport has become so severe woman only carriages have been created that are manned by policemen during peak hour travel.

The XYX lab’s approach is different, through a design approach which combines activist driven design research with solution-focused framework. The XYX lab does not just focus on public transport. It reviews Australian cities, wanting to understand how sex, gender and sexuality impact the culture of cities. The outcome of XYX lab is to design ‘probes’, but also communication strategies and toolkits for women and stakeholders.

“The XYX Lab wants to produce projects which challenge the causes and consequences of gender inequity in Australia. We have been working with LGBTI communities and partnering on projects around women and girls’ safety in cities, and also in public transport spaces.”


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