Recently, City Lab (formerly Atlantic Cities) published an article with a very interesting hypothesis: how better land use in India’s large cities can help tackle that country’s rape problem, which is fast taking the proportions of an epidemic. The author, Neil Padukone, argued that Indian cities, particularly Delhi, were designed according to the single-use planning pattern which lends itself to give birth to sprawling cities with large swaths of unpopulated land. These swaths, he feels, make Indian cities so unsafe because they are isolated areas where all kinds of crimes can be committed with some degree of certainty of impunity.
Single-use land design means that a city’s districts are drawn along lines of use, so that a residential area is completely separate from a shopping area. This pattern appeared to dominate land use in large western cities after World War II. However, in the 1990s, the US began to warm up to the idea of mixed-use land planning. Residential areas were no longer just that and began to include options for shopping, eating etc. – basically everything that you needed was walking distance or a relatively short commute away.
Mixed-use design, Padukone argues, would be an effective solution to secure the streets of these sprawling Indian cities. He concludes that with mixed use, and thus constant hustle-bustle, there will always be a set of eyes on the street which would ensure better security.
While that idea holds some merit (mostly for original thought), claiming that better land use in cities can improve safety for women, and residents in general, is a bit of a stretch. Even Padukone’s own argument that more pairs of eyes would mean more security seems like an unlikely conclusion, and certainly not a good solution.
As a South Asian woman myself, I can testify to the fact that there are way too many eyes on me everywhere I go as it is, and it does not secure me. If anything, I would be inclined to believe that that pair of eyes is more an enabler of sexual violence against women than a barrier to it. People stare at a woman who is out on the street as a pastime in countries like ours. More shockingly, violence doesn’t tend to move people into action because when a man is molesting a woman on the street, most people want to ignore it. All of a sudden, for societies as nosy as ours, the sanctity of a person’s right to privacy becomes paramount. On Twitter, when the #YesAllWomen hashtag was trending, an American woman tweeted that when she was in college, a police officer told women to yell “Fire!” in case they found themselves in a violent situation because that tends to mobilize people more than a woman screaming for help.
Secondly, looking at rape as something that happens only, or even mostly, in less crowded and isolated places is an incorrect assumption to make. The Delhi rape case of 2012 didn’t happen in an isolated place, it didn’t happen in a place at all – it happened in a moving bus that the victim sat on willingly because she believed it to be a public transit vehicle. Since then, I have come across at least three more stories, two in India and one in Pakistan, of a woman being raped in a car. That’s a spot that no style of urban planning could have secured. That’s a spot that nobody could have secured, except the people in the vehicle who were the root cause of the problem.
It is important to understand that rape is not a “crime” the way that car-snatching is. Rape is a social problem, one that is bred, supported, and perpetuated by constituents of a society. It is not done because some thuggish men wanted to make some extra cash by selling off a stolen phone, it is committed because in our patriarchal societies can and do justify violence against women.
Making cities more dense will do little, if anything at all, to help tackle rape in India or elsewhere. Only gross misunderstanding of the culture of rape, and that rape is only committed in the streets, would lead one to make such a conclusion. It happens in college campuses, office rooms, bathrooms, and even bedrooms between intimate partners. In fact, two-thirds of rape offenses are committed by someone that the victim knows, not someone who randomly assaults her on the street.
The only way to tackle rape is to fix the mysoginist attitudes towards women which stop people from speaking up and coming to a victim’s defence. If denser cities can bring that about, then by all means let’s go for it. If not, then single-use, mixed-use or no use at all is of little importance to the issue of women’s safety.