Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The gender roles of walking

Read more articles by

One day this winter, concerned women taped fluorescent orange flyers to lampposts on my street. The flyers warned of a rapist lurking in the area. They told of a woman who had been assaulted as she stepped out of a cab, and women being harassed while walking home at night.

The flyers were meant to be a service, but the underlying message was clear: Women, watch your backs, and stay off the streets.

The female pedestrian's experience has always been different from men's. For women living in cities, safety is a major concern, one that underscores almost every aspect of our lives. Research has shown that over half of Canadian women are afraid to walk in their own neighbourhood after dark, yet only 18 percent of men feel this way . Furthermore, women who are subject to discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, ability, age or income are more vulnerable to violence and fear. In 2002, the Toronto Police recorded about 2,700 cases of sexual assault.

Cities work differently for different people, and women have particular needs when it comes to urban planning. For example, the gendered division of labour dictates that women are more often the ones negotiating strollers and heavy groceries up and down city sidewalks. So, the presence (or lack) of a seemingly inconsequential dip from the sidewalk to the street is a fundamental part of the female pedestrian experience.

As well, lighting standards used to be determined by engineers, many of whom deemed a parking lot bright enough if there was just enough light to see your car key slide into the lock. It was a masculine way of defining lighting standards, one that didn't take into account the woman walking alone to her car in a dark, empty lot.

In Redesigning the American Dream, Delores Hayden argues that early American urban design was steeped in patriarchy. Victorian values of public and private life were implicit in planning. Women's place was considered to be in the home, and it was unladylike for women to be in the streets, going places men were going. "Because the working woman was no one urban mans' property (her father or her husband had failed to keep her at home)," writes Hayden, "she was every man's property." Thus, street harassment, much of which prevails on city streets today, was justified.

Some people