Every woman you know has taken a longer route.
Has doubled back on herself.
Has pretended to dawdle by a shop window.
Has held her keys in her hand.
Has made a fake phone call.
Has rounded a corner and run.
Every woman you know has walked home scared.

Every woman you know.

- Harriet Johnson

On March 3, 2021, at 9 p.m., Sarah Everard left the home of a friend in the Clapham neighborhood of London. She never made it home. On March 13, her remains were found in Kent.

The story is the same story all of us learned to fear as young women—the worst could happen if you walk alone at night. Even before Everard’s fate was known, women worldwide took to Twitter in a storm of anger, fear, and frustration. “I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve felt unsafe over the years. I even avoid wearing certain clothes because to be brutally honest, I don’t want to be attacked. And before anyone replies with not all men are like that, I know they’re not. But as women we are still afraid!” reflected one young woman.

The public conversation reminded me of private conversations I’ve had with my male friends, sometimes to their surprise: yes, couch surfing isn’t an option for me. I’ve never hitchhiked, and probably never will. Yes, men talk to you differently on the street if you’re alone—or even if you’re with another woman—than they do if you’re with another man. They look at you differently. Yes, I’ve had a man jump out of a moving vehicle in the dark while shouting obscenities at me. I don’t walk alone at night. I rarely travel alone. Things are different for women, and, honestly, that doesn’t feel fair. Those conversations are encouraging to me when my male friends make a real effort to understand the female experience.

Focusing on being understood over making a real difference

But in the Sarah Everard case, the public conversation quickly moved from awareness to a war of the sexes, and that’s where it lost me. People started using #NotAllMen to explain that not all men were participating in rape and murder (hopefully an unnecessary clarification?). In response, other people started using #NotAllMenButAllWomen to claim that even if all men weren’t participating in harassment and assault, all women experienced it, or at least had to be wary of the possibility (fairer).

Some responded with an idea that’s come in and out of the public conversation in the last few years (usually after a horrific crime against a woman such as this). The time for “protect your daughters” is over; it’s time to “teach your sons.” In other words, the outpouring of frustration around Sarah Everard’s death had caused some people to throw up their hands and say that women were being asked to shoulder too much of the burden. Women shouldn’t have to be afraid all the time; instead, men should start acting differently. Don’t get me wrong. That sounds great. I personally think we should continue to protect our daughters and teach our sons, but when it comes to women’s safety, the burden does often fall heavily on women’s shoulders.

The problem is, the “teach your sons” line doesn’t go far enough. Of course you should teach your sons to not harass, rape, and murder women. And I suspect that most parents are already doing this. The problem, though, is that even if we all do our best to teach, there will always, always, always be bad actors. Teaching our sons—teaching all of the sons of everyone on Twitter or all of the sons everywhere in the world—that bad things are bad to do will not eliminate evil from the earth. The man who is going to trial for Sarah Everard’s death was a serving police officer. The men who carry out evil behavior in the street daily are probably not doing so for a lack of education.

What frustrated me about the conversation, in short, was that it focused too much on the desire to be understood that we women have and not enough on changes that could actually make the streets safer for women around the world. To me, the discussion epitomized the tendency in contemporary debates (particularly those carried out online) to turn a terrible event into reflections about ourselves. Men felt defensive, while women felt misunderstood. Immediately after the death of an innocent woman, it felt like we were focusing on ourselves rather than on making things better.

The problem of women (and men!) being unsafe on the streets is, in fact, about a lot of things—human sin, the lack of good male role models, broken family structures, collapsing societal fabrics. But one thing stuck out to me as sadly missing from the conversation: the role of the city itself.

A third character: the city

In the town where I live now, I can walk home after midnight without even looking over my shoulder. I have never felt unsafe. In Los Angeles, where I was born, I have almost never felt safe on the street outside of a locked car. I walked all the way across the city of Rome alone and was never once approached. I’ve taken countless metro trips in Washington, D.C. and New York City, but I’m still sometimes afraid to get out of my car in Chicago. What gives?

I don’t want to dismiss that there may be structural, archetypal masculine/feminine dynamics at play. But I think infrastructural choices play a bigger role in making our cities safe than many of us realize.

In her 1962 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban theorist Jane Jacobs dedicated Chapter 2 to “The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety.” In it, she reflects (emphasis hers):

Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers. To any one person, strangers are far more common in big cities than acquaintances. More common not just in places of public assembly, but more common at a man’s own doorstep. Even residents who live near each other are strangers, and must be, because of the sheer number of people in small geographical compass.

The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers. He must not feel automatically menaced by them. A city district that fails in this respect also does badly in other ways and lays up for itself, and for its city at large, mountain on mountain of trouble.

This was the experience that the women of Twitter were attempting to communicate: it’s dehumanizing to feel “automatically menaced” by people you meet on the street. When that feeling is reinforced over and over again by experience, it is deeply disturbing, and it contributes to the destruction of the city as such. As Jacobs continues, “It does not take many incidents of violence on a city street, or in a city district, to make people fear the streets. And as they fear them, they use them less, which makes the streets still more unsafe.”

Where I live now, residential and commercial areas are not zoned separately. Students and small families live above grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. The small, narrow streets are filled with walkers at most times of day and night—in the early morning construction workers and shopkeepers walk to work, at noon the local middle school has a recess for lunch, and the streets are flooded with uniform-clad preteens, and in the evening groups of students bustle back and forth on their way to the library or the bar. Quirky, individual apartments and townhouses are built close together and on top of one another. If I screamed in my own home in the evening, about eight people—safely in their own homes—would hear me. (Not ideal for stress relief, but ideal for safety.)

Sounds idyllic, you might say—but irrelevant. What does this have to do with Sarah Everard? Or with cities generally?

Consider the following example from Jacobs:

Not everyone in cities helps to take care of the streets, and many a city resident or city worker is unaware of why his neighborhood is safe. The other day an incident occurred on the street where I live, and it interested me because of this point.

My block of the street, I must explain, is a small one, but it contains a remarkable range of buildings, varying from several vintages of tenements to three‐ and four‐story houses that have been converted into low‐rent flats with stores on the ground floor, or returned to single‐family use like ours. Across the street there used to be mostly four‐story brick tenements with stores below. But twelve years ago several buildings, from the corner to the middle of the block, were converted into one building with elevator apartments of small size and high rents.

The incident that attracted my attention was a suppressed struggle going on between a man and a little girl of eight or nine years old. The man seemed to be trying to get the girl to go with him. By turns he was directing a cajoling attention to her, and then assuming an air of nonchalance. The girl was making herself rigid, as children do when they resist, against the wall of one of the tenements across the street.

As I watched from our second‐floor window, making up my mind how to intervene if it seemed advisable, I saw it was not going to be necessary. From the butcher shop beneath the tenement had emerged the woman who, with her husband, runs the shop; she was standing within earshot of the man, her arms folded and a look of determination on her face. Joe Cornacchia, who with his sons‐in‐law keeps the delicatessen, emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in the doorway behind the man. Two men from the bar next to the butcher shop came to the doorway and waited. On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man, and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops, and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

I am sorry—sorry purely for dramatic purposes—to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.

Jacob’s anecdote illustrates that it is people who keep each other safe. Not police officers—not sidewalks—not calling your boyfriend on the phone or carrying pepper spray—the presence of other people. Of course, bustling streets are not an absolute guarantee of safety for women. But they are a powerful protection.

In the discussion about Sarah Everard’s death, we’ve talked about putting in more security cameras. We’ve talked about street lights. What we perhaps haven’t talked about enough is how in London during Covid lockdown, fewer people were on the streets. (A movement called Reclaim These Streets attempted to organize a candlelight vigil for Sarah Everard that was made virtual because of a “lack of constructive engagement from the Metropolitan police.”) What we perhaps haven’t talked about enough is how our cities are turning into places where few people want to be out on the street, which in turn leads to fewer people wanting to be out on the street. Lights are important, but as Jacobs puts it, “unless eyes are there, and unless in the brains behind those eyes is the almost unconscious reassurance of general street support in upholding civilization, lights can do no good.”

The difference between my current town and Los Angeles, the difference between safe and dangerous neighborhoods in New York and Chicago and indeed anywhere else in the world, is the structure of a neighborhood so that people are incentivized to be around—in public parks, in the commercial sphere, and most importantly, on the streets. This is a problem of zoning, of urban planning, of where you put stores and restaurants and bars. It’s an extremely practical problem, to be tackled in detail by city planners and in broad strokes by theorists like Jane Jacobs and James Howard Kunstler. It doesn’t lend itself to sound bites on Twitter.

Making women safe by making cities safe is a practical question—but first we must see the lack of people in our streets as a problem, perhaps even the root problem of multiple evils. Cities don’t have to be places of terror and danger, but if we never acknowledge that part of the danger comes down to how we’ve built our cities, we won’t be on the road to recovery. All I know is that the safest way to walk home alone is not to walk alone—it’s to be surrounded by a coherent social fabric of safety. Enmity between men and women isn’t the root of the issue; it in fact isn’t the issue at hand. And the more time we waste on that problem, the more unnecessary suffering and death we are allowing to continue.

I’m not saying that re-zoning the streets would have prevented Sarah Everard’s death. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a terrible case of human evil. We can’t change what happened in the past. But as we look forward into the future, we can move beyond finger-pointing between men and women. It’s important for women to be understood, but it’s more important for women to be safe. What will actually make us safer is a change in the way we live our common lives in cities—not a change in what we teach our sons.