Councils’ bid to make public spaces safer

As authorities confront violence against women in Australia, experts raise fresh doubts about the utility of CCTV, often a key tool for councils.

With 65 women killed in an act of violence in Australia since the start of the year, a number of whom were killed in public spaces, and with nine in 10 women reporting they were harassed in the street at least once, there is mounting focus on developing violence prevention programs in public spaces.

The brutal assault and murder of women like Eurydice Dixon and Jill Meagher, both of whom were within metres of CCTV cameras, has raised questions around whether CCTV is effective in making women safer in public.

While CCTV is often touted as a useful tool to discourage violence and assist with prosecution of crime, Dr Bianca Fileborn, a criminologist with expertise in sexual violence at the University of New South Wales, says that there are doubts over its utility alone in protecting women against violence.

“CCTV in general is contested in terms of how effective it is in preventing and responding to crime in general but when we’re talking about sexual violence in particular, it has a very week deterrent or preventative effect,” she told Government News.

Samantha McIntosh, Mayor of the City of Ballarat, which has been running a novel a project to make its urban spaces safer, says that CCTV alone is not effective in reducing violence against women.

She argues that councils should be exploring other ways of addressing the sexual assault crisis.

“Just CCTV cameras in a laneway is not enough; it may in the response but not necessarily the be all and end all in terms of prevention,” Cr McIntosh says.

Dr Fileborn says that targeted urban design, steered by women, is one of the most effective ways to respond to the rising incidence of sexual violence.

“Even just from an equity and access perspective having women involved in space design so they feel safe and are able to use public spaces and participate in public life is extremely important because there is decades of research that demonstrates how much women restrict what they do in public spaces,” she says

Urban design to create safe spaces

In Ballarat, the council has been receiving praise for its innovative public safety approach that includes locating unsafe spaces for women.

The Right to the Night project, which won a local government award for collaborative communities, saw the council develop an app enabling users to pin places they feel unsafe to help council revitalise these spaces to discourage violence.

“This particular piece of work was getting women and girls involved with the development of solutions, with that decision-making process and being more inclusive in our public spaces and the way we manage them,” Clr McIntosh said.

The project received an overwhelming response, with women marking 70 safe spaces and pinning 235 unsafe spaces, which will help council revitalise these areas with lighting and furniture to promote more people and discourage anti-social behaviour.

The project will be analysed at a council meeting this week and inform council’s town planning.

International efforts  

The Ballarat project comes after Plan International launched a Safer Cities for Girls Program to tackle sexual assault in cities.

That project has seen women across five international cities, including Sydney, launch a campaign where campaigners pin spaces online where they feel unsafe in the hopes of sparking revitalising in these areas.

The data is set to be analysed by Monash University’s XYX Lab and shared with city leaders with the hope of creating safer spaces.

Vibrant spaces feel ‘safe’

More broadly, Clr McIntosh says that “energetic and vibrant” spaces were often highlighted as places where people felt safe and creating more like these will in itself promote a reduction in crime.

“There’s a lot more that helps prevent violence against women and against everyone. We want to know our community spaces are safe and CCTV alone doesn’t seem to be the solution.”

Other councils should follow suite and look to collaborate with their community to steer projects targeted at reducing violence in the community, Clr McIntosh says.

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