Eyes on the street. Women and insecurity in urban spaces.


By Alexandra Ana



More than fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs* wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, marking probably her most popular contribution to the development of urban studies and changing the way we think today about livable cities, through the concept and theory of eyes on the street.

“… there must be eyes on the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.” (1961, p. 35)


According to Jacobs, a healthy and flourishing city would be one in which people feel safe, despite being complete strangers. How would this be possible? By having more people in the streets. “A well-used city-street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe.” (p. 34). The concept of eyes on the street ensures an informal control and surveillance of cities, as streets provide the main visual scenes of the urban environment.

But does this work in 2016? From times to times I listen to my friends’ stories about being intimidated or harassed on the street without anyone intervening. Almost daily, I read Facebook statuses from women and girls revolting online for assaults happening in the public transports, parks, parking lots or public squares [1]. There are also daily news about street harassment (often of a sexual nature), such as Cologne New Year’s gang assaults on women with around 1000 young men involved and more than 80 women reporting sexual assaults and muggings to the police.


A recent EU survey ordered by the European Commission on violence against women shows that one in three women has experienced some form of physical and/or sexual assault since the age of 15 and that women who have experienced violence have subsequently heightened levels of fear of assault. The study also shows that women are most worried about possible assaults by strangers and that more than half of the women in the EU avoids particular situations or places for fear of being physically or sexually assaulted. Four out of 10 women avoid public places when there are no people around and deliberately avoid taking certain streets or going in certain areas. For the same reason, one in seven women avoids leaving home and some of them carry some weapon for self-defense. Overall, women are more fearful than men in public spaces and many of them seem to restrict their mobility to various degrees because of this fear. They avoid walking alone especially at night, prefer not to make eye contact with men when outside, cross the street if they are feeling insecure, change routes or means of transportation and, sometimes, even change or quit their jobs.


Can we thus separate urban security from the feeling of fear and more importantly from the still widespread, ubiquitous violence against women, which is experienced under its various forms (physical, sexual or psychological) in both the public and private sphere? And could spatial planning contribute to prevent violence and insecurity, and how? Interested in the ways in which women experience the city they live in, Guy di Méo - a French geographer and specialist in social and cultural geography- talks about “invisible walls” to describe the spatial boundaries imposed to women and preventing them from accessing the actual or perceived unsafe areas of the city.

The use and perception of urban spaces and the concerns related to the security of its inhabitants, especially the most vulnerable ones – women with a migrant background, precarious workers or older women-, are deeply rooted in patriarchal dominant norms and social dynamics.  This is reflected in the design of our cities, as well as in the unequal power relations in society, in men’s violence against women, and in women’s fear of that violence, both in the public and the private sphere.

Gender and color, sexual orientation and disability affect urban mobility of men and women, such as the spatial choices of their daily activities.


The development of architectural city planning is inherently masculine, consistent with a heteronormative conception of the urban space that distributed spaces according to gender roles.  Only very recently, androcentric and classist biases about the construction of the urban space have been at least partially challenged. Activists’ campaigns and initiatives or government’s public policies, for example, attempted to address the issue of security in the cities through gender lenses. Measures such as safety audits concerned with mapping and the improvement of lighting, openness, visibility, and access to public transports has notably increased safety in public spaces and a better viable mobility in many cities. Nevertheless, these “eyes on the street” measures have also been misused by governments that took advantage of technological development aiming at repression rather than citizen’s safety.

Could spatial planning really help to prevent violence and insecurity in cities, or are these measures merely treating the symptoms and not the causes of unequal power relations in society and the generalized and persistent violence against women? The answer is certainly that cities will become spaces for emancipation only if appropriated by both men and women, building a sustainable urban mobility concomitant with fighting violence against women and girls.




* “I was almost 21, studying Law and Political Sciences at Université de Paris X in Nanterre and going home for spring holidays. As my flight was in the morning, I had to catch the first RER A from the Nanterre Université train stop in order to get on my way to the airport.  It was still dark outside as it was around a quarter to six in the morning, when I went down to the platform. I was alone nd the platform was empty. Upstairs at the ticket office there were lights but no one was there.  There were no escalators, neither to go up nor down.I placed my suitcase next to me and sat on a bench waiting for the train. It was all silence, except for some scarce noises of far-away cars, or the sounds of the crickets from the nearer greenish campus.

I was scared, but the train was supposed to come soon, so I waited, eye-checking the space around me. Unexpectedly, two men coming from nowhere, from the darkness of the rail lines, briskly crossed the railways and sat next to me, on the bench, one on one side, the other on the other side. One of them was a white man, middle aged, grey-haired. The other was a man of color in his late 20s. They seemed drunk or under drugs, but I couldn’t say specifically. They started to talk to me. I told them I didn’t understand French, thinking that they would leave me alone. But the grey haired man started to whisper, touching my ear with his lips. I then moved away, taking my suitcase, repeating “Desolée, mais je ne comprends pas le Francais”. I was too scared to run, since they were two, I had my luggage with me, and there was no one in the train station, nor I could see anyone in the streets when I left the campus. I felt paralyzed and didn’t know what to do. They continued asking me about the nail color on my toes, about my socks. As I was not answering the young guy started laughing, saying that I was scared. Then the grey-haired asked why I was so terrifies, that shouldn’t be the case, and approached me again trying to touch my shoulder. I moved away again, with my big suitcase, hoping that the train would come, that there will be people in the train, or that someone will get down to the platform. I was scared as the grey-haired guy continued talking mechanically. The younger one left the bench and ward off jumping on the railways. That made me happy. One of them had left. After a while, a few people came down to the platform and I asked for help from one man, asking him to stay next to me as the grey-haired men was harassing me and I was scared. The man accepted and said something to the grey-haired guy who continued talking. The train came. There were other people in the carriage. I went in staying right next to the man who had helped me. The grey haired guy took the train as well, but I was not that scared anymore. He sat on a chair, continued asking me why was I scared of him and then fell asleep.“

- me, Paris, 2009 -