‘Free to Be’: a flawed attempt to make cities safer for women

Do you know a mapping website that aims to make cities safer for women?

Free to Be seeks to make cities safe for women. Credit: Jiahui Ding

Two months ago, Free to Be was officially launched in Sydney, and now this crowd-sourcing project has just been over. In total, more than 3000 spots have already been shared by young women in Sydney alone. Designed to make cities safer for women, Free to Be allows women to identify and share dangerous spots with others, hoping to provide a platform where young women feel connected to each other. But does it really work regarding shaping a safer city?

In this commentary, I’d like to argue that Free to Be is a new attempt with good intention, but some problems also arise with its appearance.

What is Free to Be?

Free to Be / Design Thinking Workshop

In this video see the workshop participants – including stakeholders, architects, designers and young female Plan Activists – discuss their experiences of the Free to Be / Design Thinking. For more information, visit http://www.artdes.monash.edu.au/research/free-to-be-design-thinking.html

Design thinking of Free to Be. Source: Monash University’s XYX Lab

It is an initiative of Plan International Australia (PIA) in collaboration with CrowdSpot, Monash University’s XYX Lab. On the Free to Be map, women are free to drop a bad pin on a location that makes them feel uneasy, uncomfortable and even scared. At the same time, a good pin can be dropped to mark a good location.

Free to Be crowd-sourcing map. Source: screenshot from Free to Be website

As a matter of fact, before the roll-out in Sydney, PIA had already done a similar interactive-mapping website in Melbourne and it gained much success. Over 10,000 people visited the Free to Be website and thousands of them dropped pins.

The intentions of Free to Be

Holly Crocket, Campaigns Manager of  Plan International Australia, claimed that young women fail to use public space in the same way men are able to at present.

“The primary barriers to using public space for young women is the way they feel about the space. Whether they avoid a place at night because it is poorly lit or whether they experience harassment in a particular place, when girls feel that a space is unsafe for them they will remove themselves from it.”

Street views at night in Ultimo. Credit: Jiahui Ding

One goal that Free to Be seeks to reach is removing the barriers for women to use public space. “This could be as simple as improved lighting and infrastructure or as complex as changing the way particular men feel entitled to speak to young women on the street”, said Holly who believes solutions to that are varied.

Apart from removing barriers for young women, this campaign also intends to send the data back to key decision-makers once the map closed. Plan International Australia hopes that those with a stake in city safety to make some changes after they receive the feedback.

There are a variety of methods that people in power can take to safeguard women’s safety. “They can be councils, city planners, police or transit authorities that step up and take this issue seriously,” said Holly, “for example, they can start with smart city design that discourages harassers and empowers women. Or they can take steps to ensure women and girls feel safe and supported to report it when it happens. Or they can ensure the message is being received that harassment is never allowed”.


Women are vulnerable?

Lisa Li, a Chinese student at The University of Technology Sydney, is a frequent visitor of Free to Be website. “I have lived in Sydney for only a couple of months. I work late until eleven p.m. and it often takes me about 1 hour to get to my home in Hurstville. The walk from Hurstville station to my house is quite scaring because there are few pedestrians on streets as night falls”, said Lisa.

She got to know this crowd-sourcing website after she occasionally read a Chinese report on it. “I would go to the website to check whether there are a lot of bad pins in the areas I live whenever I remember. I feel a little bit nervous if there are lots of bad pins near my home”, said Lisa who drops pins on Free to Be map as well.  However, she admitted that her personal feelings about the surroundings decide she drops a good pin or a bad pin. “Fortunately, I have not yet suffered any sexual assault or harassment in Sydney. So I make judgments depending on my own feelings.”

It’s obvious to see young women who are new to Sydney like Lisa have already been aware that walking alone after dark is risky. A report by Plan International Australia is a good proof of it. This report, released on April, looked at looked at 452 young women aged 18 to 25 in Sydney. It found that over 90% of women feel unsafe when walking on Sydney streets after dark.  However, these young women have no other choice but to walk alone as they have to work or study late. In this sense, quantifying the danger not only does not play a role, but also exacerbates tension.

Even worse, over-emphasizing the fact that women are unsafe conveys an idea that women are so vulnerable that they are unable to protect themselves. Gail Mason, Professor of Criminology at the University of Sydney Law School, argued that Free to Be implies that women are vulnerable and are not safe when they are in public on their own. Apart from that, “It perpetuates the idea that women are constantly targeted and they need protection”, said Gail.

Data with subjective color

It’s surely good to see that a myriad of women like Lisa has already dropped pins and made comments on Free to Be platform. And as I mentioned above, one of the ultimate goals of this campaign is to send data back to decision-makers to advocate a change. But how could we ensure the data gathered are accurate? Generally, these comments fall into two groups: actual experiences and personal feelings. The former tells women’s experiences of being harassed while the latter is judgments based entirely on personal feelings about their surroundings. For instance, dark street lamps, narrow roads or a couple of homeless people push women to make a negative judgment.

A comment based on personal feelings of the surroundings. Source: screenshot from Free to Be website
A comment based on actual experiences. Source: screenshot from Free to Be website

Obviously, the data based on feelings, more or less, has subjective color. In this sense, I argue that gathering data may not make much sense.

More worryingly, there exist a number of comments that reflect individual value judgments, which sometimes are biased. Gail Mason claimed that some of comments people put on there are based on the discriminatory assumptions about who’s the problem. She noticed that not a few women said they didn’t feel safe here due to the existence of homeless people, which she considers as a kind of discrimination. “There was no indication that those homeless people had harassed. So I think people’s value judgments come in to play,” said Gail.

Views of Gail Mason

In conclusion, the design of Free to Be is flawed and there are some troublesome problems behind it. However, we could not deny its role as a new attempt to let women make a voice. Therefore, Free to Be should not be seen as a failed campaign, but as an opportunity to explore the most effective way to make cities safer for women at night.

When you have to walk alone on Sydney streets after dark, how do you feel, scared or not?
About Jiahui Ding 4 Articles
Jasmine is currently studying Master of Digital Communication and Culture at the University of Sydney. She is interested in cultural studies and cross-culture communication. Facebook: Jiahui Ding Twitter: jasmineding93 Email: jiahui-ding@163.com If you have any questions or suggestions, please let her know.

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