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Hostile Design in the Built Environment

Transcript for Stop #7: 5th & Guadalupe | Republic Square

ASHLEY: Republic Square is stop number seven on our tour. And there’s so much to talk about at this location. 

 

KAITLIN: We were originally going to talk about the bus shelter here. It’s got a lean bar — lean bars show up a lot in conversations about hostile design — and a bench with two middle armrests to help stop people from lying down or lingering too long. 

 

ASHLEY: You know, in pre-COVID times, I used to spend every Saturday morning in Republic Square enjoying the farmers market after my daughter’s ballet class. So, when we were introduced to someone who took an interesting look at this square and how its design impacts women’s ability to feel secure in the space, I was doubly interested. 

 

We're here with Emilie Twilling, the Community Planner at Architect for the Capitol in Washington DC. Emilie wrapped up her master's studies this past spring down the road at UT. We learned about and were intrigued by her thesis titled, Women's Insecurity and Exclusion in Public Spaces: A Call to Action and Initial Response. 

 

ASHLEY: So, Emilie, what inspired you to pursue this topic?

 

EMILIE TWILLING: Ashley and Kaitlin, thank you so much for having me. My interest in this intersection between a sexual harassment and urban design and planning really began my first year at UT Austin as a grad student in 2017. Just a year earlier, in 2016, a female student was sexually assaulted and murdered on campus, which I'm sure many people remember seeing on the news. It was very, very sad.

 

And then, just a year after that, we had the series of sexual assaults on Austin's hike and bike trails. Once again, a very tragic and sad story. And this really heightened my sense of fear in the city's public spaces. And I felt like I was changing my route and routine, the hours I was willing to work, and so forth. And I just remember thinking, enough is enough. As a designer there has to be something that I can do. There has to be attributes of these physical environments that we can change to improve women's circumstances, and to make them more secure.

 

I just wanted to understand more about it. And that's how I got started.

 

KAITLIN: In your thesis, you outline 25 design and planning guidelines for urban practitioners to use so that they don't inadvertently jeopardize women's security or prevent women from operating confidently and autonomously. Can you tell us about some of the key elements to the guidelines that you put together?


 

EMILIE TWILLING: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you said, there were 25 guidelines. They kind of fluctuate between urban design and urban policy. And they fall under four broad categories. So I'll just give a few examples. The first category was connectivity and movement. A guideline would be, we need to make sure we eliminate movement indicators, which occur when a potential attacker can predict a woman's movement or escape route.

So only one way in and out of a space, being blocked in on both sides. This is actually something that's at direct odds with recommendations from CPTED [crime prevention through environmental design].

 

The next category is visibility and surveillance. So, providing ample lighting, not only within the site, but around the site as well. What happens when a woman has to park a couple blocks away and then walk along unlit sidewalks when she's trying to get to the public space? It's a deterrent, it makes her feel insecure, and it poses a threat.

 

The third section is programming for inclusion. I actually think this one's kind of relevant right now for other reasons, but highlighting, when high attendance is expected, we really need to pursue methods of de-crowding, that prevent women from being pushed into close contact with others. A good example would be, if multiple bus routes are picking up at one stop, what if you spread that out along a block, and had a couple of bus stops where you're not crowding everyone at one location.

 

And then, the last is operations and maintenance, which just on a very broad note, making sure that your public spaces have operations and maintenance plans, and that they outline how women can report issues, lighting outages, and so forth.

 

So those are just a few examples. There's 25 of them that we can start to employ in our public spaces.

 

ASHLEY: Yeah, that's a great overview, and definitely something I've experienced out in the public. And so it's fantastic that you're digging into this. So let's talk about how to apply some of those guidelines you created. In your thesis, you took a look at Republic Square, which was awarded the 2018 Best Public Place by Austin's Urban Land Institute Division.

 

So listeners who are in Republic Square can take a look around at its features right now. When we look at the space itself, what updates would you recommend making so that it becomes a model example of a place that makes women feel welcome and secure?

 

EMILIE TWILLING: I actually, when I did the case study, I was looking at Republic Square and then the immediate areas around it. And there were so many things that the space got, right, that we're not necessarily going to talk about today, but as you were saying, the few recommendations that would improve women's security would include, like I talked about before, improving those sidewalks around the square.

 

If you start to look around, you'll see that a lot of those sidewalks leading to and from Republic Square are not lit. They include entrapment sites. And they don't feel very secure. So in terms of a woman coming to and from, it becomes really difficult.

 

There's also that zone between the courthouse and the square on the West side. And whether it be the walls of the courthouse, or those stadium steps, or just the dense vegetation of the square, it can feel really isolating back there, especially when it's not programmed with the farmer's market and so on.

 

You start to see those movement indicators, where one way in and out, feeling blocked in on both sides. And then, lastly, there's very little active surveillance on the ground level. Hotel Zaza doesn't really engage the square all that much. And the other faces of the buildings around it, there's really no windows. I believe the parking lot, they're actually constructing a building right now, but before there was nothing happening on that face either. So it just, you didn't have a lot of engagement. You didn't have a lot of people looking in.

 

KAITLIN: Emilie, thank you so much for joining us. Where can people find out more about your work?


EMILIE TWILLING: Yeah, absolutely. So I have published my thesis on the UT website. You can find it there. You can also shoot me an email at em, so E-M, .twilling, T-W-I-L-L-I-N-G @gmail.com. And I can forward you over a link to it as well. So thank you guys so much for having me.