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By focusing on women in planning and decision-making, Calgary could build a safer city

The Calgary Star with Elsbeth Mehrer 23 May 2018

More than men, women in Calgary fear taking transit at night.

But without long-time Councillor Druh Farrell’s experience riding transit home one night a few years ago and feeling uncomfortable, she says administrators would never have thought to gather that data or act on it. She said she was on the CTrain headed home when a couple of “rough characters” started to harass passengers. She pushed the help button and the driver stopped the train between stops.

Among the city’s numerous action plans, reports and directives, the veteran councillor and other female leaders believe Calgary is coming up short when it comes to making the city’s streets comfortable and safe for women. Which, in turn, they believe could make the city more pleasant for everyone.

“Calgary is not leading edge on this one,” Farrell said. “We’re starting from square one, we’re really starting from the beginning.”

Elsbeth Mehrer, vice-president of people and engagement at YW Calgary, said Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver all have city-led women’s initiatives underway that help inform public policy.

For her, and the women-centred group she serves, it’s not just about getting more women at the table and elected to boards, it’s about asking intentional questions during budgeting and planning processes, to include a gendered lens in decision making.

“I would suggest the municipal government is where the rubber hits the road,” she said. “And failing to ask these types questions overtly at a municipal level is going to leave women behind.”

In Vienna, for more than 25 years, the city has had a women’s office. It was set up in 1992 after a study found men were using bikes and cars more frequently, where women tended to be transit users and pedestrians. The European city’s response was to launch more than 50 pilots to pinpoint areas of improvement.

A couple projects, which later informed a gendered approach to park designs, focused on Einsiedler Park and St. Johann Park in Vienna’s 5th district. Einsiedler Park was on the way to school for neighbourhood girls, but a city survey of traffic found it was a thoroughfare and not somewhere people stopped to play.

After consulting with women and girls, observing differences in how kids play and doing an inventory of the types of structures the park already had, the city installed hanging hammocks along the main pedestrian routes and put up interactive game installations throughout the green space.

A second survey of the park one year later found girls were staying there longer, and actually playing in the park, making it feel safe again.

This isn’t unlike a safety perception problem in Calgary. Farrell said there was a time Olympic Plaza, the space downtown known as Calgary’s outdoor living room, was a scary place for women to walk through.

In that case, Farrell said inexpensive social programming, such as yoga classes, dancing lessons and other events, made the park comfortable again.

“We don’t measure how we use our public spaces, who uses them and how they feel in them,” Farrell said.

According to the city, they are starting to integrate a gender lens in many of their city design concepts such as complete streets and communities. But Farrell argues that the city takes a front-end approach to planning, and rarely revisits parks and public spaces after they’re built to see if they’re serving communities.

One tool the city can use is a partnership with Calgary police’s Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Unit (CPTED). Shirin Radmehr, who works for the CPTED unit, explains her role includes doing walk-throughs of projects and considering each subset of people in her analysis.

“There’s a huge difference in the way we as women look at an environment, than men do,” Radmehr said. “When I visit a site, I consider everybody: men, women, children, teenagers, seniors and those with physical disabilities — we all have different needs.”

She pointed out that a detail such as where playgrounds in community parks are placed can pose a problem.

“There’s no natural surveillance,” Radmehr said. “It makes them hard for people to use — we should be careful with what we place where, and how we decide which space and activity are next to another one.”

Radmehr is working with the City of Calgary on the Green Line file. The massive transportation infrastructure project will add more than 20 light rail stations to the city’s train network. Mehrer said unless you’re a woman, or a gender diverse person, it’s difficult to understand the inherent difference in walking to a bus stop or train station late at night.

“The proverbial walking with your keys between your fingers,” she said. “That’s something that I don’t think lots of men immediately take into consideration.”

But it’s not about serving one gender over another, Mehrer said. She suggests an approach that includes delving into data like Calgary Transit’s, collecting other city metrics, and shaping conversation and consultation practices to help form equitable approaches that make public space and public services better for everyone — instead of solely focusing on electing more women to committees and boards.

“It’s not about a special approach for those people,” she said, “It’s about an equitable approach that asks about all people.”