I was a curious kid. I climbed trees. I explored the creeks near my home. I rollerbladed on trails paralleling the Pacific Ocean. As a kid, the world was this big, beautiful place to explore, and I dove into all of its wonder without question.
Then something happened as adolescence kicked in. Society started to teach me that I wasn’t just a kid adventuring in the great outdoors, but that I was a girl in these spaces, and that somehow that was different. This realization was born of an increased and confusing awareness of leering and harassment from men as I walked down the sidewalk, horrifying news stories about violence against women, and a general societal pressure to be “good.” In one way or another, the media seemed to stress that “good” girls make “good” choices that keep them out of danger. Girls who found themselves in dangerous situations must have made bad choices, gone to silly places, to have this happen to them.
I wrestled with how all of this weird, new knowledge fit into my solo explorations of urban parks. The only way I could find to grapple with the inundation of this reality was with fear—so, I tamed the curious kid, and the cautious girl never adventured out without at least bringing her dog along for the trip. When my dog became too old to keep up, there were some places to which I simply didn’t return. As time passed, I let the dark fog of fear surround those places in a story of all the scary stuff that must be lurking inside, and forgot all the magnificence I’d previously found in them. And I knew that the “stuff” I feared wasn’t what inherently lies in nature, but instead the bad people who might.
While I’m no longer a girl—I am a woman—these fears still grasp me sometimes and try to keep me from occupying the wild spaces within my own city. And I’m not alone. I’ve talked with female friends about urban parks and they express concerns about being assaulted. I tell them about my walkabouts through city forests, and I’m met with a response of, “Oh, I heard that place was kind of, you know, sketchy.” What she means, maybe without even realizing it, however, is, “I heard that’s not a place women should be.”
This mindset plays out in actual numbers. A study by the RAND Corporation looked at 174 neighborhood parks in 25 cities with 100,000 or more residents and observed that only 40% of the children and 35% of the teens in those spaces were female.
In the past few years, I’ve been breaking down the walls I created to protect myself from all the wild places society taught me I shouldn’t be, and the more I explore urban parks—and, I’ll admit it, initially with the company of a man—the more I realize how much light and healing rests within these treasures. I realize what a loss it would be to continue to shroud them in a dark cloud of fear. Each time I explore them, the curious kid in me gets to be free again. Free from social constraints. Free to explore. Free to simply be. And each time I taste this freedom, ever more fervor builds in my heart around the fact that women need to reclaim these urban parks. Women need to be allowed to occupy space.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be vigilant and ignore the unfortunate aspects of our society’s current treatment of women, but I am saying that we shouldn’t let ourselves be held hostage by them. We can’t let the media’s scary stories take away our right to occupy space.
So, how can we, our cities, and our allies make this reclamation a reality? Luckily, many places are already leading the way in these efforts and provide positive examples to answer this question and inspire further work.
Seeing Women as a Force for Revitalization
When Portland, Oregon was looking to revitalize Holladay Park, the city brought in urban park planner, Dan Biederman, to see what could be done for the green space that had historically been seen as unsafe. Biederman’s company found that the typical composition of the park could at times reach up to 70 percent male. This statistic quickly led them to an easy solution for transforming the park.
The Oregonian reports:
Biederman’s company was looking for one figure as a sign of success: How many women hang out in the park?
“An overwhelmingly male environment is one that does not feel safe to many women and children. A female-plus-child dominant environment tends to feel safer to all users,” said Matt Jacobs, a consultant for Biederman’s company.
After adding some events and resources to the park to attract more women to the area, Holladay Park’s makeup has since changed to about 54 percent female and children. With an average of 1,061 visitors a day, its revitalization has largely been seen as a success.
Ultimately, when women are given the space to thrive, cities, in turn, thrive as a whole. We need to better recognize the positive force women offer in the revitalization of our urban areas. Having more women utilizing urban parks will open up the door for more people in general to come explore what these green spaces have to offer.
Designing Spaces with Women in Mind
The United Nations’ Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence Against Women and Girls explains, “A ‘gendered perspective’ occurs when planners, designers, decision-makers and community actors look at problems with the needs of both women and men in mind. In the planning process, this means that all policies and design interventions should be reviewed by women and by officials in order to determine whether or not they will make women’s lives safer and more convenient.”
One of the Centre’s highlighted case studies using this planning approach is St. Johann Park in Vienna, Austria. In Vienna, city planners made data-informed decisions on how to structure areas “to ensure that parks were public spaces designed from a gender-sensitive perspective that drew on women’s and girls’ specific safety needs and desires.” Some of the criteria found to add to women’s comfort within an urban park included: better signage and clear information of the area’s spatial layout, the presence of park rangers or other avenues for assistance, good visibility and maintenance of trails, and access to multi-use recreational areas.
Vienna’s park designs looked at the different ways men and women used these spaces and how greater opportunity could be given to women to participate in activities where they formerly may have felt threatened. The study explains, “In order to avoid gender roles being prescribed by public space, spatial planning and design can be linked to the objective of achieving gender equality.”
This urban park project led officials to incorporate this perspective into all future city planning decisions based on evaluations of what features made their parks more accessible to women and girls. The Atlantic’s City Lab quotes Eva Kail, gender expert in Vienna’s Urban Planning Group, in an article that further explores this citywide effort: “For me, it’s a political approach to planning,” Kail says. “It’s about bringing people into spaces where they didn’t exist before or felt they had no right to exist.”
Being Advocates for Demographic Change
We need to use our voices, both women and men, to tell our cities that we want these urban parks to be spaces for women, too. We need to share success stories from other places that have found innovative ways to allow women to occupy space without fear.
This can be as simple as highlighting parks named after women and their unique histories. It can also include organizing awareness events or activities that promote days for women to be actively visible and supported in a city’s parks. But, most importantly, it needs to include more women in leadership positions making decisions around the use of these public spaces.
In 2008, a group of women in Toronto, Ontario formed the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee to transform a deteriorating greenspace in their community called R.V. Burgess Park. Through their advocacy, these women formed a partnership with the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Division to eventually reconstruct the park into a bustling cultural hub and welcoming community space. The committee continues to work on empowering more women in their community to develop and implement public enhancement projects.
When we advocate for better public spaces and include women in the process, we create more inclusive environments for all.
While doing research on this topic and getting excited about what is going on in different cities across the globe to better include women in these urban spaces, I realized I didn’t know much about what was going on in my own beloved Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. to address these issues. So, I typed “women and Rock Creek Park” into Google, and right before hitting the search button, thought, “I don’t know if this is such a good idea.”
However, I was pleasantly surprised when, rather than finding a catalog of horror, I found a robust list of groups and activities for women within the park—National Park Service ranger-led talks about women and the Civil War, a “Women of Dartmouth” group going on a nature walk with a local author, Women’s History Month tours of the woman-owned oldest building in D.C., a women’s Rock Creek Park tennis meet-up, and more.