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Design thinking and placemaking approaches to UN Women’s ‘Safe cities and safe public spaces’

Écrit par Zara Tewolde berhan
Paru le 7 novembre 2023

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 ‘Sustainable cities and communities’ which aims to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” has great potential to transform cities and communities globally.

With 10 targets and 16 indicators, SDG 11 encourages innovative and bold ideas that solve problems in cities and communities. A target that immediately drew my attention was target 11.7.

By 2030 target 11.7 aims to “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”

With just over six years to reach this goal, there are various pressing initiatives that seek to do just this. An innovative programme that is working towards achieving this goal is the UN Women’s ‘Safe cities and safe public spaces for all women and girls’ global flagship programme.

Aims and cities

This programme is the first global initiative that aims to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence that women and girls often experience and fear in public spaces. Understanding the vulnerabilities and the risks of women and girls in cities and urban areas was the driving force for this programme which has grown over the years.

Some of the cities participating in this programme include New Delhi, Kigali, Mexico City, Medellin, Addis Ababa, Cairo, Brussels, Montreal and Chicago.

Hawassa, Ethiopia

Hawassa city in Sidama region in Ethiopia, is a popular tourist destination, 273 kilometres south of the capital Addis Ababa. Notably, the city is also home to many young women working in textile factories in Hawassa Industrial Park.

In partnership with the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and local faith groups, UN Women Ethiopia implemented ‘Safe Cities and safe public spaces for all Women and Girls’ global flagship programme. They engaged with the city administration, bureau of women and social affairs, education, transport, justice and health sectors and civil societies.

How might a more intuitive workshop help further advance this crucial programme? What processes can be adopted to create safer public spaces in Hawassa? What products can effectively safeguard women and girls in public spaces?

Mexico City, Mexico

In Mexico City a focus group conducted by the Colegio de México in collaboration with UN Women, local authorities and other partners found that “the majority of women participants had experienced some form of sexual violence in their daily commute.” This led to 125 “women only” Atenea buses, and three new support centres in the transport systems to help survivors report incidents. This includes a mobile phone app, Vive Segura, which facilitates the reporting of incidents.

These transformative projects lead me to wonder what more initiatives or processes can help maximize the programme’s goal of shaping promising and secure communal conditions for women and girls. What processes can help further define, strategise and create innovative public spaces for women and girls?

Winnipeg, Canada

Another city that adopted this programme was Winnipeg, Canada, the capital of Manitoba province.

As stated by a UN Women’s 2017 ‘Safe Cties and Safe Public Spaces’ global results report:

Under the leadership of the Manitoba Status of Women Secretariat and the City of Winnipeg, a variety of partners are collaborating on the initiative — including health and law enforcement, civil society, and institutions committed to women’s rights. A scoping study informed a first set of interventions, such as Canada’s first indigenous-led programme for survivors of sexual violence. New transportation safety initiatives are in place, and law enforcement agencies have established stronger data collection mechanisms to examine offences on the continuum of violence and work with city partners to increase reporting of sexual harassment. Workshops to raise awareness among men and boys have been part of a drive for public education and information sharing.”

This demonstrates that the various organisations and sectors involved in this programme have collaborated to ensure safe cities and safe public spaces for women and girls.

Yet, some questions need attention:

  • But what group or sector could be included to advance this programme further?
  • What apps or products can strengthen the data collection mechanisms to identify safe spaces or report offences?
  • What processes can this programmeadvocating for safe public spaces, adopt in the initial planning and brainstorming workshops?
  • What if the urban planning industry; including placemakers and social enterprises, were included in the planning and implementation of this programme to create safe cities and safe spaces for women and girls?

Design thinking and placemaking processes

New York, New York

The design thinking process is an interactive process that teams often use to understand users' experiences, challenge assumptions, redefine challenges and create intuitive solutions. This process entails the five known phases — emphasise, define, ideate, prototype and test. It is adopted by many sectors and organisations, that create experiences, services, products and organisational changes, that includes UX and service designers, public and private sectors and social enterprises.

But how can this process work with regard to creating safe public spaces for women and girls?

The placemaking process — defined by a renowned public spaces non-profit organisation Project for Public Spaces (PPS)- includes defining a place and identifying stakeholders, evaluating space and identifying issues, place vision, short-term experiments and ongoing re-evaluation and long-term improvements.

By encouraging cities participating in this programme to adopt this process, an approach that centres the community can allow more creative ideas that solve problems for women and girls in public spaces. Placemakers running workshops and working alongside urban designers and all relevant stakeholders to create and build safe public spaces for women and girls is a key ingredient that can advance this programme further.


Dividing the programme’s initiative into three sections could further improve the various projects working towards crafting safer settings for women and girls — products, services and public spaces.

Including the urban design and planning industry with the various organisations and sectors in cities involved in this programme and adopting two effective processes is vital. The placemaking process centres the community to create intuitive and effective safe public spaces and the design thinking process that implements products and services that can advance this programme further. Both processes, I believe are the key ingredients to reimagine and create a public space that will remarkably transform the material conditions for women and girls navigating through cities.

By the same author:

Sustainable cities and communities through design thinking

Under the Radar: Discussions on Belonging

Edgelands Institute’s “Dropping the Pin on Surveillance” photo submissions

Images: Hong Kong, 2017. Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash &

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