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City dangerous by design

Poor urban planning makes city even less safe for women

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Poor planning makes parts of this city dangerous for women.

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When the doors of the downtown parkade elevator opened to the basement and I realized I'd pushed the wrong button, a fleeting moment of panic washed over me.

It was mid-morning, a few days after news broke about a young woman raped by a cab driver after a night out with friends. The parkade basement was dark, and I couldn't see much outside the elevator. Close the doors, close the doors, close the doors.

When the elevator arrived at the ground floor, a middle-aged businesswoman startled me as the doors opened. I laughed at my own ridiculousness.

 

-- -- --

 

There is no way to casually do a 180 without looking like a paranoid weirdo, so you just have do it. That was my thought as I walked from The Forks to the Exchange District one sunny evening, cutting through all the surface parking lots around Shaw Park.

Behind me, I could hear footsteps. There was no one else around and few cars. I was planning to cut through those short tunnels under the rail line, behind the ballpark. If anything happened under there, no one would see. So, I had to turn around and check who was walking behind me.

Ah. Just a young woman and her boyfriend in his American Eagle T-shirt. Through the little tunnel, then.

 

-- -- --

 

Should I take the underground to get through Portage and Main? Nope, those stairwells are dingy enough during the day. Now, at night, they're straight-up creepy. The door to the underground is probably locked anyway, and if it's not, I bet it's totally deserted down there. So, I'll stay above ground, walk a block out of my way up Portage Avenue and a block back to Main.

 

-- -- --

 

These are micro-second decisions, just snippets from a generally fearless mind mostly busy thinking about other stuff. But, all these snippets happened over a 16-hour period, 16 of the best hours of the summer, when the Fringe fills the downtown and I spend nearly every warm night walking back and forth between plays, the beer tent and home.

When tallied, the dozens of tiny adjustments all women make in public spaces every day add up to an oppressive waste of energy. It's a phenomenon widely discussed now, part of a resurgent brand of modern feminism bluntly tackling insidious rape culture and the corrosive effects of mundane misogyny.

We've seen tons written this year -- much of it painfully personal, some of it wryly funny and all of it angry -- about the #YesAllWomen phenomenon, where women buried Twitter in personal tales of violence and harassment in the days following another mass shooting. Locally, we had our own #YesAllWomen moment, when news of the woman raped by the cab driver broke and similar stories poured out -- close calls, creepy encounters and even assaults. There's also the excellent new discussion of the ancient phenomenon of "mansplaining," and, in cities all over the world, the "hollaback" movement against street harassment has taken hold. BuzzFeed even made a listicle of all the ways women alter their actions to avoid the kind of violence men don't even think about.

Men are responsible for violence against women, but crappy urban planning sure doesn't help. In just a few square blocks, it's amazing how poorly Winnipeg does at creating a safe walk home. Winnipeg's urban planning typically fails at the big stuff -- curbing sprawl, building a rapid-transit system, encouraging mixed-use density. But it also fails at the small stuff, such as street lights and sightlines.

On the flip side are cities like Vienna, where gender equality and the safety of vulnerable people is embedded in urban planning. That doesn't just mean better lighting and wider sidewalks for strollers, but also designing neighbourhoods and transit systems so women have much easier and faster access to all the family-related errands they still mostly do -- the daycare pickups, the grocery shopping, the stuff that absorbs hours in a day.

In Vienna, planners actually research the way various people will use a space, and then design around those needs. They watched the way women moved through streets and through the transit system, and even the way young girls used parks. Imagine what planners would hear if they did that in Winnipeg.

"I could just cut across this surface parking lot. Nope, too dark."

"Why are these street lights out? I'll nip across to walk on the other side, where the convenience store is open, just in case."

"I'll take Donald instead of Smith because there are always drunks outside the St. Regis Hotel who yell stuff."

"The Portage Place bus stop? Not a chance."

We don't really build cities around the way people really live, and we've never designed Winnipeg for pedestrians, let alone female ones. When half the population can't cross the city's most famous intersection half the time, maybe it's time we do.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2014 A8

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