Monday, June 16, 2014

How Urban Planning Can Prevent Sexually Based Crimes

A woman in New Dehli, India protesting epidemic of rapes
Hello Everyone:

Today I want to write about an extremely uncomfortable, yet important subject-rape.  With so much attention in the media focused on the subject and the recent brutal rapes and murders by hanging of girls in India, I feel that this is a timely subject.  Specifically the role that urban planning can play in reducing the epidemic of brutal and deadly assaults on women in India.  This post was inspired by Neil Padukone's article in City Lab from The Atlantic, speculating how better urban planning in the subcontinent can mitigate the epidemic of rapes and murders of women in the capital city of New Delhi.

In December 2012, a twenty-three year old doctor, referred to in the article as "J" was gang raped and murdered in the Munirika neighborhood of southwest Delhi.  In the wake of this horrendous crime and others, New Delhi gained the disgraceful distinction of India's "rape capital."  In the aftermath, rape prevention measures have slowly gained traction but many have, correctly, criticized Northern India's misogynistic cultural traditions in the face of national activists' demands for better public safety initiative.  However, Mr. Padukone points outs, "But one simple, yet vital, issue has been under-discussed: how urban design influences safety, especially for women and girls.

Delhi girls protesting
The majority of the Indian capital is built in a manner sometimes referred to by urban planners as "single-use" design.  This means that sections of the city are dedicated almost exclusively to one purpose: industrial, residential, retail and separated from each by open space, road, or other barriers.  The original thinking behind this planning concept was ensure that people didn't live in cramped quarters or next to industrial plants.  On the face of it, sounded like a good idea at the time but following industrialization, Delhi copied the American model of suburban sprawl to the point where the distances between destinations was so great that walking, taking public transit, or bicycling became nearly impossible. Safe travel almost always meant taking a car.

Visualizing violence against women
You can contrast "single-use" design with "mixed-use" design, which strategically integrates residential, retail, commercial, et cetera into the same area-places easily accessible by foot, public transit, or bicycle.  There are a number of reasons planners prefer this approach to design, including creating a smaller carbon footprint, increased access to social and economic opportunities.  This easy and efficient access to work, recreation, home and childcare make dealing with all these responsibilities easier, especially for women.

One of the patron saints of mixed-use planning, Jane Jacobs, called the positive aspects of this design strategy "eyes on the."  What this oft-repeated aphorism implies, "if an area is used for multiple purposes, there will always be somebody-a homemaker, shopkeeper, pedestrian, peddler, or office worker-keeping a passive watch, inadvertently but effectively policing it 24 hours a day."  Street vendors are the most common example of "eyes on the street," something the police understand very well.  Potential criminals are discouraged because of the possible witnesses that can intervene or prevent sexual harassment.  On this point, I beg to differ because sexual harassment can also take verbal form not necessarily physical form.  When physical harassment does occur it is often done in such a way that potential witnesses don't see the actual act.  Mr. Padukone also writes "Mixed-use planning provides a social accountability system: much as it takes a 'village' to raise a child, it can take a whole neighborhood to keep her safe, a reality brought home by the recent "bell bajao" campaign that urges neighbors to intervene against domestic violence."  Again I take issue with the Neil Padukone because he doesn't seem to realize that there people in India, and by extension throughout the world, that view sexual and domestic violence as private matters.

Indian women protesting again
To be certain, the Delhi's wide open spaces does not cause rape.  Citing Chris Kilmartin, the author of The Masculine Self, "the sources of sexual violence are a culture of hyper-masculinity which tells boys that aggression is natural and sexual conquest [is] enviable."  It almost sounds like Mr. Kilmartin could be referring to the uptick of rapes on American college campuses.  Mr. Kilmartin further writes, "...laws and language that cast women as inferior, pliable, even disposable.  We teach boys to disrespect women."  How true this is. Nevertheless, the sprawling suburban subdivision strategy of urban design, in the Indian context, was championed by New Delhi thus providing an enabling environment for sexual and other crimes to proliferate.  I would also argue that British architects and planners working in India during the British colonial period had something to do with this suburban sprawl.  We can contrast this single-use sprawl with Mumbai's denser more mixed-use land use.  The difference being is that Mumbai has a generally lower incidence of sexual violence and the more isolated parts of the city, Shakti Mill for example have seen higher incidence of sexual assaults.

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 Yet, this sparse single-use planning is what most Indian cities are still trying to copy.  As a matter of government policy, street vendors are being shooed off the pavement because of their unsightliness.  Throughout India, development follows the Gurgaon model-high-rise apartment complex kept far from malls and offices, connected by car-choked streets devoid of any liveliness.  These long stretches of desolate roads abet crime and, yet despite this, are still being replicated in new Indian satellite towns such as Noida, Navi Mumbai, and Yelahanka.

Over the coming fifteen years, over 300 million are expected to migrate to the cities.  As these migrants slowly climb their way up the ladder toward the middle class, they will, with all certainty, take on the trappings of their newly acquired social status, with personal space being the greatest of luxuries.  This perceived demand for personal space is what drive the explosion of this obviously misguided planning and development model that has put large isolated apartment blocks throughout the country.  As these deserted island-like development spread, the demand for luxury housing grows into a debilitating housing bubble.  India's economic downturn has not been a good thing, the tightening credit market and new government provide an opportunity to reconsider just how out of date the single-use model of urban development  is and how mixed-use development can offer a better way to prioritize physical safety and livable streets.

Bogotá, Colombia provides us with an important case study of how the mixed-used model of urban planning and design can work in the developing world.  As recently as twenty years ago, Bogotá was the very definition of danger; laid to waste by drug wars and gang violence.  The city urbanized at a rates of nearly 90%-higher than India's current 35%.  However, interventions by dedicated leadership dramatically altered the urban landscape with more efficient mass transit mobility, recaptured public spaces, mixed-use design, and attention paid to people and pedestrians.  The result was a highly applauded model of urban development: reduced violence, increased social access, and a greater sense of civic pride and safety which includes an annual "Women's Night Out," which raises awareness and has begun to stem the tide of gender violence.

I would like to conclude by saying this, rape, sexual assault, sexual violence, call it what you will, all means the same thing in my opinion.  It is taking an act that is meant to be a supreme expression of love between TWO CONSENTING PARTNERS and weaponizing it.  When one partner is so intoxicated that he/she cannot give consent, THIS IS NOT SEX, IT IS ASSAULT.  Good urban planning and design, as advocated by Neil Padukone in this article, is a step in the right direction.  What will also make a difference is when parents take it upon themselves to have regular, open, and honest conversations with their sons and daughters about sex, drugs, and alcohol.  Yes, it's uncomfortable and embarrassing but those feelings will pass more quickly then the anger you will feel when your daughter is raped or your son stands accused of a sexual crime.  If we've learned anything from the recent media attention on sexual crimes is this, sexual and domestic violence are not private matters anymore.  They cannot be swept under the carpet or dealt with privately.  The aftermath affects all of us in the public realm.  This must change and change begins with YOU.

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