Can city design help end street harassment?

Click to view larger. (Source: Stop Street Harassment)

Is it possible to design a city street where no one is ever harassed?

At first, that might seem like a ridiculous question. After all, study after study has shown that street harassment is one of the most pervasive and common crimes that occur in our public spaces--and particularly if you’re a woman in America, you’re likely well aware of this. One study shows that 87 percent of American women have experienced physical or sexual harassment in public by a male stranger--and of those women, “over one half of them experienced 'extreme' harassment including being touched, grabbed, rubbed, brushed or followed.” And when studies look beyond the US, they show that it’s a problem that cuts across cultures and communities, rural and urban spaces, from crowded subway cars to empty, dead-end streets.

And the worst part? Unless we're would-be harassers who are willing to educate ourselves about why street harassment is not okay and commit to cutting it out, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. 

Or is there?

Last week, I attended a hackathon hosted by my favorite local cycling nonprofit, The Monthly Cycle*, aimed at unlocking unconventional approaches to the seemingly insurmountable problem of street harassment. Originally invented by software programmers who wanted to build amazing things in 24 hours or less (usually with the help of LAN portals and a lot of energy drinks,) the "hackathon" format has been adapted to get people thinking about any kind of enormous problem in a way that’s innovative, relentless, and and that ignores all so-called impossibilities.

It starts by simply taking a sensory and intellectual inventory of the problem (in our case: what do you see, hear, feel, think, do when you’re experiencing harassment? What do you think harassers themselves see, hear, feel, think, do?), noticing common themes, and designing rapid-fire solutions around what you’ve organically found. The only rules are to act fast, think big, and don’t question yourself until the very end.

A brainstorming session at the hackathon. Click to view larger (but be warned: there's some NSFW content.)

The result? A ton of solutions that were innovative, discipline-bending, and occasionally funny (farting on harassers may have come up). However unsolvable street harassment might seem, it became clear that there’s something all of us could do. Our group came up with a dozen ideas in a single afternoon. 

But very few had to do with how we design the public spaces where we’re harassed the most.

Today, in the spirit of that hackathon, I’ve challenged myself to brainstorm a few ways that changing our built environment might help us end street harassment, and make our cities and towns stronger along the way.

Also, in the spirit of the hackathon, these are just a start. But that’s the beauty of this brainstorming concept; you can always refine, push your ideas further, and keep the momentum going. Please add your thoughts or build on mine in the comments.


As my hero Jane Jacobs shows us in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, public safety doesn’t stop with policing--and how we build our world might have more to do with our crime rates than we think. Crime is inherently less likely to happen when there are many bystanders around to witness or even intervene, Jacobs theorized, and promoting the kind of development that keeps bystanders out on the streets at all times of day and night is the best way to make sure that the neighborhood remains under watch and harassment stays rare.

Many participants in the hackathon I attended did report that some of their most frightening experiences of harassment had happened in places where there was simply no one around: parking garages, alleyways, and dead-end blocks in front of their own apartments. Of course, women should be able to go safely anywhere they want, regardless of who’s around to help protect them from criminal strangers. But promoting the kind of mixed-use, human-scale, walkable designs that Strong Towns talks a lot about can at least get people out from behind concrete walls and into public spaces where they can act as a set of eyes on a potential harasser--which might make those harassers think twice before they scream out that catcall.

Long term solution: Prioritize street level businesses over residential subdivisions, mixed-use buildings over sterile apartment towers, human-scaled transportation options over seeing the world through car windshields, and any project that keeps people out and about with eyes on the street at all hours.

How to hack it: Pick an under-watched street and throw a 24 hour silent disco-dance-a-thon there to keep an eye out and draw attention to the need for more eyes on the street year-round.


Of course, street harassment doesn’t just happen in the creepy gangways you see in horror movies--and even if they only walk on so-called “safe” streets, women are often harassed anyway.

As a recent Vice article points out, “women in New York reported the highest rates of street harassment in areas like Times Square and Penn Station, not in dark and empty corners of the city.” And women at the hackathon I attended shared first-hand horror stories of harassment in busy crowds, populous parks, and even when they were walking with friends and loved ones. No matter what folk wisdom might teach women about how to "avoid" being harassed, there’s no such thing as a “good” street to walk down if you want to avoid a creepy stranger--and when the supposed eyes on the street just watch and do nothing while that stranger is heckling you, it can make you feel even worse.  

But we can reshape public space to reinforce the idea that we’re only bystanders if we choose to be--we’re also neighbors and potential allies.

In Death and Life, Jacobs talked about the importance of designing our neighborhoods around centers of communal living--laundries, social clubs, corner grocery stores--that help cultivate the dense web of relationships that make cities strong (and that planners often neglect when they build things like high-rise concrete housing projects that keep people inside and in separate rooms.) How else can we use design to turn that bystander on the bus next to you into your neighbor who recognizes you and feels invested in your well being--who considers your safety part of their community well-being, too?

Long term solution: Prioritize mixed-use development and activated public spaces that bring neighbors together outside of their homes and encourage them not to be strangers or bystanders when they witness harassment.

How to hack it: Two words: block party. Get your neighbors out into a common space (and if you don’t have a common gathering place, make your own) and get to know each other and put faces to names. Here's several more tips on how to throw a block party from Strong Towns member Adam Greenfield. Bonus points: Discuss and collect signatures on Hollaback!'s street harassment bystander pledge while you’re at it.

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo


Another common thread that came up in the hackathon was cars. Likely because most of the attendees were members of a cycling group, nearly every woman in the room reported being harassed by someone who shouted at them from a moving vehicle while they were on a bike or on foot.

Many hypothesized that street harassers feel particularly powerful when they’re behind the wheel; if your goal is only to provoke a response from an unsuspecting person that makes you feel in control, there’s no easier way than to shout a quick, lewd comment and speed away so fast your target can never hope to catch up. Cyclists in the group reported that cars sometimes combined sexual harassment with run-of-the-mill road rage that cyclists of all genders encounter from drivers who think bikes just don’t belong on the road.

Would these encounters look different if harassers/drivers were out walking on the street themselves? There are no studies about whether a would-be street harasser is just as likely to wolf-whistle if they're on the sidewalk instead of in a driver’s seat. But at least they wouldn’t have such an easy escape, or thousands of pounds of easily-weaponizable metal at their fingertips when they did it. (Warning: the story described in that link is graphic.)

Long term solution: Prioritize multi-modal transportation options to limit the number of cars on the road and get people interacting at a human scale.

How to hack it: Throw an open streets day in your neighborhood to experience what even a few blocks could look like without cars--and when you’re done, survey attendees to see if street harassment rates drop.

Source: Death to Stock Photo

Source: Death to Stock Photo


Whether they’d spent their lives travelling in transit-connected hubs around the world or lived their whole lives in towns where cars are king, many hackathoners reported that public transportation can feel especially unsafe. And the reasons why often come down to basic design.

Unlike on city streets, women who find themselves aboard a bus or a train with a harasser are literally stuck in an enclosed space with no easy way out. In relatively sparsely connected cities, even transit stops can feel like confined spaces, because leaving the stop to avoid a harasser might mean missing the only bus or train that comes for half an hour or more. Pair this with a transit culture that seems to discourage passenger interaction and magnify the bystander apathy effect, and you have nightmare statistics like 63% of New York City subway riders reporting harassment on trains--and 10% of them reporting assault. Fear of harassment on public transit leads many women to decline to use this mode of transportation altogether.

Of course, lots of cities have tried to use policy and design to make transit safer, from offering women’s-only options (to mixed results) to open gangway train cars that at least allow escape when our fellow riders don’t intervene. But how could we use transit to discourage harassment, provide outlets for escape, encourage bystander intervention and make it feel more like public space and less like scary enclosures?

Long term solutions: Maximize transit connectivity to give women options besides getting on a train--or staying on a specific train car--with someone who’s harassing them. Design transit cars and buses to feel joyful and actively encourage healthy, non-harassing personal interaction between passengers.

How to hack it: Adapt Los Angeles Metro’s anti-harassment public transit campaign with your own guerrilla public art project. Use sidewalk chalk and stencils to leave advice about being an effective bystander from Hollaback! at local transit stops. (Strong Towns member Haile McCollum has some great tips on execution.)

Of course, city design can’t fix everything about human behavior, and creeps, ultimately, are the ones who are responsible for, y’know, not being creeps. Sexual harassment isn’t an elemental force to be controlled like rainwater runoff, and hard conversations with men and boys won’t be replaced by sidewalk chalk and block parties.

But what if those conversations happened in a world that visibly asserted that women belong in public space, and that street harassment isn’t okay? What if just a few more strong female citizens felt comfortable moving through their towns? And what if the solutions we use to build that harassment-free city could also make our cities more productive, wealthy and humane for everyone along the way?

What do we have to lose?

(Top photo source: Death to Stock Photo)

*Yes, that name is referring to what you think it is.

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