“Sad” pins: locations where young women report feeling uncomfortable or unsafe, southern end of Melbourne CBD

Researchers from Monash University published an article in The Conversation yesterday, Safe in the city? Girls tell it like it is, reporting on a campaign inviting young women to show those locations in Melbourne where they felt comfortable and those where they felt unsafe.

They did so by dropping “pins” on the interactive, geo-locative map of Melbourne and suburbs. In total, 1,318 pins were dropped by around 1,000 women – either green ones (marking “happy” places) or red ones (marking “sad”).

The project shows the geography of the way women are routinely harassed and casually assaulted by men in the course of their daily business. The “happiest” places are Hardware Street/Lane, Degraves Street/Place, and the State Library. The “saddest” places are La Trobe Street between Swanston and Elizabeth, Bourke Street Mall, and the Flinders Street Station area.

The authors are from the architecture and design departments at Monash University, so it’s probably not surprising their focus is on whether there are “environmental factors in the built environment that either support or discourage such behaviour”.

They report their analysis showed some common themes:

Busyness gave a place a buzz. But spaces that were crowded seemed to provide a cover for unpleasant incidents such as pushing and groping. Sexual harassment was a major element of “sad” places. It ranged from cat-calling to propositioning to distressing sexual assaults.

They suggest the signage in the area is a factor:

In the “happy” spaces, small and unique brands with positive messages and attractive graphics (Little Cupcakes, Clementines, Doughnut Time) were featured. Much of the advertising was hand-lettered menu boards, which seemed to create a friendly feeling.

In the “sad” spaces, restaurants were dominated by masculine names (Duncan’s, Mr Burger, Hungry Jack’s, Lord of the Fries, McDonalds). There were also subliminal and gendered messages such as logos that resembled large breasts and names linked to transgressive behaviour (The Joint Bar, Dangerfield, High Voltage City).

This is a self-selected survey so the usual cautions apply (for example, someone named Tony placed a red pin at the top end of Little Bourke St because it’s “the place where dozens of street medics, injured people and their supporters were pepper sprayed by police during the counter – Reclaim Australia protests in July 2015”).

Is the geography shown in the exhibit primarily the result of environmental factors? Can design make an important contribution to addressing the problem?

In terms of city policy, I think the results show that while the ‘eyes on the street’ mantra’of architects and planners is useful in some contexts, it’s not likely to help much for many of the offences reported here. As the authors say, crowded places “seem to provide a cover for unpleasant incidents such as pushing and groping”. If men feel they’re behaviour isn’t ‘wrong’ or won’t be noticed, they’re unlikely to be deterred by the presence of a crowd.

The key issue revealed by this exercise is that socioeconomic and behavioural factors are most important in explaining the problem, not environmental ones. A large number of respondents who put up “sad” pins in the CBD say they were harassed by men they believe to be homeless and/or drug-affected. For example, six of the nine “sad” pins in the Bourke St mall are the result of negative encounters with men presumed to be homeless. Many of the respondents who put “sad” pins on and around Flinders St also believe their aggressors were homeless. Curiously, the authors make no mention of this clearly vitally important explanation.

I’m not sure how robust the signage comparison is, but it’s plausible the sorts of businesses in a particular location reflect the tastes and budgets of those who gather there; it’s unlikely all of the CBD is uniformly attractive to all socioeconomic groups. The sort of men who gather around the State Library end of Swanston Street might not be the same, on average, as those who gather around the Flinders St end of Swanston Street.

It seems to me the role of design in tackling the behavioural problems revealed by this project is modest (see Is ‘eyes on the street’ straining it?). Many behaviours have a geographical/environmental manifestation, but that’s usually a symptom rather than a cause. More traditional approaches – like those based around policing and supported accommodation – are likely to be more useful in dealing with offensive male behaviour toward women (see What to do about rough sleeping?). Sadly, many men simply don’t think these behaviours are criminal or unacceptable.