Women and Public Space

November 11, 2009 posted by Cheryl Huber*

Last month, NCRW staffer Kyla Bender-Baird spoke on a panel hosted by NYU Wagner Women's Caucus along with Cheryl Huber of New Yorkers for Parks and The International Women's Health Coalition's Khushbu Srivastava.  The panel discussed "The Impact of Women in Public Service."  Cheryl's comments on the intersections of gender and urban planning brought up an often over-looked perspective. 

In the history of advocating for parks and public space, women have played a significant role, with Jane Jacobs as the most famous example.  Women live longer and are more likely than men to care for an older person or a child, either for work or family.  In these roles, we depend on pathways that are easily navigable for wheelchairs and strollers and secure parks where we can relax and recreate. Public spaces that consider women’s needs result in better places for all citizens. 

As women, we rely on open, clean and safe public restrooms in our parks.  New Yorkers for Parks publishes the award-winning Report Card on Parks, for which we survey the maintenance of New York City’s neighborhood parks.  In 2004, our data showed that 20% of park bathrooms were locked during the day. Women and children, who are more limited in their options than men when “nature calls,” were forced to end their day at the park early because bathrooms were not available.  After highlighting this issue in the press and with the City, that number was down to 6% three years later -- a significant improvement.

Women are more sensitive to public safety, tending to avoid places that don’t feel good.  Savvy park managers track the percentage of female visitors because it’s a good indicator of the overall safety of a place.  The Parks Department doesn’t make a general practice of collecting data on who uses the parks – so we have this information only for select sites, providing limited safety information.

Unfortunately, many high-profile crimes in city parks have involved women.  The 1989 rape and beating of the “Central Park Jogger,” a 28-year-old woman, painted a gruesome picture of a city out of control.  The lesser-known murder of another young woman, Sarah Fox, in Inwood Hill Park in 2002 spurred change in the way crime data is collected for parks. 

Aside from Central Park, which has its own police precinct, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) did not specifically track crimes that occurred on parkland.  Instead, they were reported along with overall precinct numbers, so no publicly available data existed to show how safe our parks were.  Following significant advocacy efforts, the Mayor mandated in 2005 that the NYPD start tracking crime in parks.  Unfortunately, we are still only tracking the 30 largest parks in the city.  More data would further assist women in making educated decisions regarding personal safety and parks.

Clean, safe and green parks are essential to our communities. By focusing on public safety and access issues – which affect all New Yorkers, but particularly women – we can ensure that they are enjoyable for all. 

*Cheryl Huber is Deputy Director at New Yorkers for Parks, the independent organization dedicated to ensuring that all New Yorkers enjoy a world class park system.


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