December 11, 2018

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Opinion

For women, opening Portage and Main is a safety issue

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians will create a safer downtown environment for women.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians will create a safer downtown environment for women.

Women often experience the city differently than men. Many women who regularly occupy the urban environment consider their navigation of the city carefully and avoid areas with a higher potential for a dangerous situation to arise. The reopening of Portage and Main to pedestrians would have a positive impact on safety in downtown Winnipeg, especially for women, and most notably at night.

Hollaback! is a non-profit organization that combats street harassment in cities. Its 2013 study noted that more than two-thirds of Winnipeg women experience harassment, including honking, leering, whistling and comments of a sexual nature, at least once a month, and more than one-third experience street harassment at least once a week. These occurrences limit a woman’s right to safe and harassment-free public space.

Winnipeg became the first Canadian city to join the UN Global Safe Cities Initiative in 2013. This initiative aims to reduce harassment and sexual violence against women and girls in public spaces. An equitable city is a city in which all people — regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, race, physical ability or age — have equal access to the city. Downtown should be the heart of a vibrant modern city; however, there is a lack of actual and perceived safety at Portage and Main that prevents much of the population from engaging with our most famous intersection.

A 2014 study conducted by Winnipeg Safe City concluded that 27.5 per cent of reported sexual offences in Winnipeg occur in the northwest area of downtown. Between 2011 and 2015, 22.9 per cent of assaults in this area occurred in South Portage, a zone which includes Portage and Main.

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Women often experience the city differently than men. Many women who regularly occupy the urban environment consider their navigation of the city carefully and avoid areas with a higher potential for a dangerous situation to arise. The reopening of Portage and Main to pedestrians would have a positive impact on safety in downtown Winnipeg, especially for women, and most notably at night.

Hollaback! is a non-profit organization that combats street harassment in cities. Its 2013 study noted that more than two-thirds of Winnipeg women experience harassment, including honking, leering, whistling and comments of a sexual nature, at least once a month, and more than one-third experience street harassment at least once a week. These occurrences limit a woman’s right to safe and harassment-free public space.

Winnipeg became the first Canadian city to join the UN Global Safe Cities Initiative in 2013. This initiative aims to reduce harassment and sexual violence against women and girls in public spaces. An equitable city is a city in which all people — regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, race, physical ability or age — have equal access to the city. Downtown should be the heart of a vibrant modern city; however, there is a lack of actual and perceived safety at Portage and Main that prevents much of the population from engaging with our most famous intersection.

A 2014 study conducted by Winnipeg Safe City concluded that 27.5 per cent of reported sexual offences in Winnipeg occur in the northwest area of downtown. Between 2011 and 2015, 22.9 per cent of assaults in this area occurred in South Portage, a zone which includes Portage and Main.

How physical environments are designed can affect a sense of safety and limit or enhance a woman’s access to the city. The public entrances to the Portage and Main underground are unsafe, especially for women at night. The dark, unsupervised stairwells are beyond the sightlines of the adjacent streets and sidewalks. Once a pedestrian reaches the underground crossing, they are met by a privately owned mall with shops that close shortly after 5 p.m. The underground concourse after hours is sparsely supervised and difficult to navigate.

Clear sightlines, navigation and views are important for safe movement throughout the city. The concrete walls above ground at Portage and Main create blind corners and limit visibility to the sidewalk for nearby motorists and pedestrians. While avoiding the underground stairs, a pedestrian at street level must still navigate a path that offers limited opportunities to exit if an unsafe situation arises. Adding pedestrian crossings at Portage and Main will provide alternate paths of travel, allowing individuals to avoid dangerous situations and find refuge more quickly when needed.

Surveillance technology and professional supervision can aid safety; however, these measures are costly and do less to increase perceived comfort than the presence of others. The simplest and most cost-effective way to make an urban environment safer is to increase the amount of foot traffic by encouraging pedestrian activity. Increasing the number of pedestrians improves safety, prevents street harassment through accountability and provides immediate access to assistance if an incident occurs.

A pedestrian-friendly environment that includes restaurant patios, storefronts, entertainment, green space, public seating and lighting has made the Exchange District more attractive to people throughout the day. In contrast, the design of Portage and Main repels pedestrians, forcing them underground or towards alternative routes. This calculated reduction in pedestrian activity creates a dead zone, with few pedestrians, storefronts or building entries, which heightens the feeling of isolation and lack of security.

In 2017, a poll conducted by Mainstreet/Postmedia revealed Canadians believe Winnipeg is the least-safe city in the country. We can begin to change this negative perception by implementing a design that encourages more pedestrians to be on the sidewalk, creating strength in numbers during the day and night.

The Forks, downtown theatres, Old Market Square and Bell MTS Place are visitor hotspots. A direct and obvious connection on foot between these places will provide a safer and more enjoyable experience for the 110,000 people who are downtown each day.

Everyone should feel safe in their own city. Removing the walls and inviting more people back to Portage and Main will increase the sense of safety in the area and improve navigation and movement through the downtown. Perceived safety can have a large impact on the livability of a city for women and girls. Women should be afforded the same right to evening mobility in the city as men, free from the concern of harassment and violence.

Reopening Portage and Main will help Winnipeg’s downtown feel more comfortable at all times of day, for all genders.

Erin Riediger is an architectural graduate student and interior designer.

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