Design flaws like lighting, closed-in spaces and high fences can facilitate violence, according to Jay Pitter, an expert on safe spaces.
Pitter spoke to the Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Leaders’ forum that opened in Edmonton on Tuesday.
Edmonton is co-hosting the event with the United Nations, which connects more than 250 people from 25 countries in an effort to make public spaces safer around the world.
Pitter is a placemaker; someone who is engaged in processes which shape the public realm, which includes design and public engagement.
Pitter grew up in Scarborough, an east-end, poverty-stricken, Toronto neighbourhood. When she was young, a pimp named Mikey moved into her area and started recruiting young girls to be prostitutes.
Most of the girls were her friend’s older sisters, including Brittany. Brittany was eventually found murdered and a John was charged and convicted in her death.
“I’m a poor kid from the inner city,” Pitter told Global News. “My inner 12-year-old self would never let me move across class and across neighbourhoods and forget those folks.”
As an adult, Pitter eventually went back to her old neighbourhood and audited the space, only to find that the area around where she grew up facilitated violence. High walls and fences, along with dark streets and hallways made areas more welcoming for illegal activity. A lack of walking infrastructure and poor transit options were also a factor.
“We know that if women don’t have access to good transit, they are more likely to experience street-based harassment,” she said. “Not building great transit in cities contributes to violence.”
Recently she consulted on Edmonton’s new heritage plan. She says Edmonton is an “awesome city” but there’s still work to be done, particularly in the downtown core and suburbs.
Among the crowd during her keynote speech was Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson.
“Quite frankly, I grew up in a fairly sheltered existence, thinking violence was the exception not the norm,” Iveson said.
Iveson said that idea changed in his public life, now he’s hoping to gain insight from the conference to look at how to make public spaces, especially transit, safer.
“What can be done from a design point of view, from a patrolling point of view, and perhaps most importantly a cultural point of view?” he said. “(We need to) make clear that this behaviour is unacceptable in this day and age, in our city or anywhere else.”
The Edmonton Community Foundation 2018 Vital Signs report stated that Edmonton’s police-reported sexual assault rate per 100,000 people was 72, which was the second highest in Canada, with Winnipeg having the highest rate. The rate in Canada was 58 per 100,000.
Alberta has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the country.
“We need to do the work together of ensuring that every Albertan can feel free from the threat of violence in public spaces,” said Minister of the Status of Women Danielle Larivee. “There’s more that can be done and more that we need to do.”
Larivee hopes some of the ideas suggested at the conference can be implemented province-wide.
The United Nations asked Edmonton to host the event. Iveson said it was because Edmonton admits that it’s not perfect when it comes the topic, and is working hard to make change to policy and spaces to ensure people feel safe.
He added the city also has partnerships in place with several organizations on the front lines when it comes to violence against women and children.
“A city that’s safe for women and girls is safe for everyone,” Iveson said.