On walkability, part 4: City streets and safety

(This is part of an occasional series of posts on walkability. You can also jump to part 1, part 2, and part 3. Incidentally, I’m writing this at home during a snow day, which makes me think that my next walkability post should really be about snow removal.)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about crime where I live. A fairly horrible and much-publicized stabbing happened in October, quite close to downtown New London and not far from where I live; there have been a couple of other incidents since then. Lots of people have said that they think twice about walking around downtown now, especially after dark. On the rare occasions when I keep late hours, I’ve been taking taxis even short distances rather than walking by myself through the (almost always deserted) streets.

Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking that most women are conditioned to avoid walking by themselves for fear of violence, and sexual violence in particular, and that this is, among other things, part of a long history of tactics to keep women confined in the home:

I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me—all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils, all asserting it was my responsibility to control my own and men’s behavior rather than society’s to ensure my freedom. I realized that many women had been so successfully socialized to know their place that they had chosen more conservative, gregarious lives without realizing why. The very desire to walk alone had been extinguished in them—but not in me.

—Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 241

I’ve been fairly fearless about walking around after dark for most of my life, even in some places where, in retrospect, I should probably have been a lot more cautious. In Chicago, as an undergrad, I probably ran a much higher risk of being mugged than in most of the other places I’ve lived. But I couldn’t stand the university’s constant warnings about how we’d all be murdered if we ventured off campus. I knew they were worried about student safety, but it smacked of fearmongering to me.

In Philadelphia, where crime does happen (albeit in much higher concentrations outside of Center City), I used to commute home from my Sunday evening reference shift via SEPTA train and bus, getting home at around 11:30. Waiting for the bus late on a Sunday evening was a little nervous-making at first, but I soon realized that if anything seemed not quite right, there was a 7-11 a block away where I could take refuge. I never had to, though. Sometimes there were other people waiting for the bus; sometimes there weren’t; nobody ever made me feel threatened; and I probably spent more time worrying about my extremities getting frostbitten on the colder winter nights than about potential assailants.

This post on walking in Philadelphia by Kate Davies, whose needled is one of my new favorite knitting blogs, resonates with me for a lot of reasons:

I lived and worked in Philadelphia for much of 2006, and one of my greatest pleasures during that year was walking about the city. I particularly enjoyed, after an evening seminar at U Penn or Temple, returning to center city on foot, alone with my thoughts, admiring the flickering lights at a distance, seeing them draw closer, then walking among them at close quarters. The streets of Philly are full of life at all times of the day and night, and the idea that I shouldn’twalk about them did not really occur to me. Yes, of course there are crack weasels on street corners, but I have no business with them, nor they with me. And frankly I’d rather walk on a street with people on it (for whatever purpose) than one that seems desolate or empty. I agree with Rebecca Solnit about most things, but not with her view that a woman walking at night is inevitably disenfranchised by her sex, her sexuality.

I’ve felt the same way about most of the places I’ve lived in: what determines the safety of any given public space is the number of other people one is likely to encounter. Crime is less likely to happen in a place full of witnesses. I’ve seen Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes on the street” in action any number of times.

But none of this is to say the fear isn’t real, or that street harassment isn’t a genuine and enraging problem. More eyes on the street makes the street a safer place. But the question of how to eradicate the gender-specific harassment and violence (apart from, oh, I don’t know, maybe raising young men to not regard women as pieces of meat?) is a larger issue that doesn’t get addressed nearly often enough, whether as an aspect of walkability or in and of itself.

Bottom line: a place isn’t walkable if people are afraid to venture out of their houses. And a place still isn’t walkable if only half the population can move through it without fear of being hassled, intimidated, or worse.


4 Responses to “On walkability, part 4: City streets and safety”

  1. A thoughtful post. It saddens me that fear of other people, real or imagined, has done so much to tether men and women to our homes and, importantly, our vehicles.
    The reality is that nationally women are in greater danger of injury or death by car as drivers, passengers, or pedestrians than they are in danger of injury or death by strangers on the street.
    The auto industry taps into our fear of both dangers by promoting products like OnStar, which helps foster the notion that our cars are a safe haven from threats from nature (deer! ice!) and people (carjackers! bad drivers!). The auto insurance industry isn’t much help here either–witness the Allstate “Mayhem” campaign.
    Education on where the greater threats lie is essential.

  2. dale says:

    Yes and yes and yes. One of the things I most dislike about most modern cities is the creation of huge “fear zones” where you are neither safe from predators nor under friendly eyes. People scuttle from one refuge to another. It’s horribly dehumanizing, and positively cultivates human predators. If you don’t want crime, you shouldn’t build cities that encourage it.

  3. Meilee says:

    Great post, Amanda! Ann Arbor was the first city I lived in where I did a lot of walking, and I really loved it (except during the blizzards, of course). Here, I walk 1.5 miles to the bus, spend 40 minutes on the bus, and then walk another 1.5 miles from the bus stop on campus to my building. The same goes for when I come home at night. I enjoy the time listening to lectures or podcasts, and I have to say that the scenery for half the way is residential on one side with a beautiful wooded creek on the other. But when I walk this trip at night, I do often feel like I’m safer nearer the bus stop (which is next to a Metro station where there are A LOT of people) than I am on the longest leg of the trip, where I normally see no one . . . and then those woods start to look a little creepy. Music and podcasts help to ease any anxieties, but then I wonder whether wearing the earbuds makes me less aware of my surroundings, leaving me prone to some would-be perpetrator. I don’t usually think of these sorts of things, though, unless I hear on the news about women being attacked (e.g., last month, there was a serial rapist reported in the area several times). It’s often hard to know which way to feel: is paranoia/fear going to keep you safer, or is feeling (too) secure going to put you in danger? I guess treading some line between is the route I usually try to take.

  4. Amanda says:

    I know what you mean. A friend and I went to Boston last spring, and at one point we decided to go for dinner in East Cambridge, near the MIT campus. We walked through an area that was so completely and utterly deserted that it made us wonder out loud if a bomb had gone off, or the zombie apocalypse was about to begin, or something. We got to the restaurant unscathed, but the total emptiness of the streets was creepy and unnerving, and we hustled along as fast as we could. And it’s always hard to know how much paranoia is too much in those kinds of situations.