Seeing a vast patch of empty space lined with a few cars in downtown Houston, Caitlin McNeely, program manager at the think-tank Houston Tomorrow bent down and drew a big flower on the ground. In large letters, she wrote, “Park?” The question was meant to spark a conversation about the challenges women face when they navigate the city’s streets.
Last Friday, a motley group of thirteen people, mainly women, gathered downtown to participate in the city’s first women’s exploratory walk, an event organized by Houston Tomorrow in partnership with Womenability, a French collective. The walk, coordinated in conjunction with walks held in various cities across the world, was meant to propel a discussion about gender equality, specifically when it comes to claiming agency in public spaces.
Houston Tomorrow invited me to participate in the walk after I wrote an essay for this publication exploring the menace that comes with the simple act of walking as a woman. Together, we designed a three-mile route meant to show not only the issues in Houston, but also to highlight examples of places where urban design has worked. The walk was dedicated to Jane Jacobs, a revered voice in urban planning, and a commemoration of what would have been her hundredth birthday.
Among the walkers was a city planner, an architect, an alcohol therapist, a researcher, and a teacher, and while we came from various walks of life, so to speak, all of us were concerned with how Houstonians occupy with their city. Before we set off on our journey, everyone was given a survey questionnaire to make notations about our experience and chalk to actively engage with the streets by transforming the roads into a canvas where we could address our specific concerns. “Are cars for people, or people for cars?” wrote one. “Humans feel alien here” wrote another. Over the three hours spent together, everyone had stories to share about their love-hate relationship with the place we call home.
The first stop of our three-mile walk was the Greyhound bus station, a portal for many to the city. Benches and roadmaps were conspicuously absent. “Need a bench here,” wrote one of the walkers right outside the station. We also paid attention to our senses, and recorded our thoughts on what we saw, smelled, and heard. In a post-walk analysis, roughly eighty percent of the people didn’t like what they saw, nearly three quarters didn’t like what they heard or the smells, and nearly ninety percent felt they couldn’t touch things around them.
We also encountered a fair number of anticipated challenges during the first part of the route. Sidewalks disappeared. And when we did encounter them, they were shrouded by the overgrowth of wild plants, making it impossible to use the paths. We passed virtually no one else walking on the street.
Participants also talked at length about their experiences as being a lone female walker. Beth Nowling, an architect, recounted that one summer evening she left a concert at Discovery Green at 8:30 p.m. It was still bright and she decided to walk home. After a few minutes, a man sneaked up on her and asked, “Isn’t it too late to be out?” Ignoring him, she hurried her way home. “I live in downtown so I walk a lot and use public transit. But I do that only when there are others around. Most times, I feel exposed in the streets of Houston,” Nowling said.
Her experience aligned with others we heard during the post-walk analysis. Nearly half of the women who participated in the walk reported being followed at least once while walking alone, and all of the women surveyed said they had experienced harassment—verbal or physical—ranging from lewd gesturing to inappropriate touching. None of them received offers of help when they found themselves in these situations.
As we proceeded along West Gray street toward Midtown, the landscape suddenly began to change: we spotted other people on the street. They were gathered around a giant public art installation; they were eating in restaurant patios; they were taking a stroll and doing things that should normally be done in public spaces. All the participants felt that Midtown—a highly-walkable epicenter of mixed-use developments—could be a prototype of an ideal neighborhood. As Ginny Hoops, a 68-year-old alcohol therapist who feels relatively safe walking around the city, noted, “there are some spots in Houston where I certainly cannot walk or ride my bike because of constant traffic. But Midtown is a great case-in-point of how Houston can be.”
Midtown’s bustling core was a stark contrast to another stop we made: under the Gulf Freeway on West Dallas street. It was a vast and empty space with poor street lighting. It felt desolate, isolated. Sixty percent of the walkers noted that certain measures should be taken to create an atmosphere that would encourage walking, things like opening shops, installing street furniture, and adding pedestrian plazas. Without those amenities, the area doesn’t feel like a destination, and as such, doesn’t draw pedestrians.
Without more walkers around, there are no “eyes on the street.” This phrase, popularized by Jane Jacobs, gets to the core of the problem for the many cities that don’t have a pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. When urban environments encourage driving, fewer people walk. And when fewer people walk, there are greater dangers, like pedestrians being hit by cars—or women feeling unsafe in sparsely-populated areas.
It’s not just a generalization to say that women feel unsafe walking urban streets. In fact, it’s an issue of such importance to Houston-area women that when the Houston Galveston Area Council conducted a survey titled “Our Great Region 2040,” they found that women value investing in walking and safety more than men. (On a related note, women were also less likely than men to invest in new highways.)
Yet the issues and values important to women may not be sufficiently addressed. Out of the five current officers of the HGAC Transportation Policy Council, not one is a woman. And, “of the five members of the Texas Transportation Commission—appointed by the Texas Governor with consent of the Senate—there is no woman. Since its establishment in 1917, only three women have served on the commission of the 69 people who have had the privilege of dictating transportation policy, priorities, and funding for the state of Texas,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, executive director of Houston Tomorrow.
But to be fair Houston officials are attempting to address problems with the city’s public transportation system. A few days before the organized walk, mayor Sylvester Turner gave his first “state of mobility” address. In it, Turner, who has been talking about a “paradigm shift” in transportation since taking office early this year, addressed a long list of concerns including better public transit and connectivity, as well as improved pedestrian access.
The day after Turner’s talk, New York City’s former city transportation manager Janette Sadik-Khan, spoke in Houston, in part to promote her new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, and in part to share her ideas with an interested city. Sadik-Khan talked about how during her tenure, she installed pedestrian plazas in New York, including one as part of a government pilot program called “The Green Light for Midtown” to create a pedestrian mall along Broadway. Not only did her 74 percent of New Yorkers surveyed by the Times Square Alliance say that the area had “improved dramatically,” pedestrian injuries were down by 35 percent and there were 80 percent fewer people walking in the roadway. Car speeds in western Midtown increased by 7 percent and injuries to motorists and passengers were reduced by 63 percent.
“Nobody has a patent on pavements. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel all the time. Once you adapt it, you can adopt it,” said Sadik-Khan referring to making cities more pedestrian- and biker-friendly.
Initiatives like ones made in New York City are important for Houston’s leaders to keep in mind as they search for ways to make the city more walkable. And Womenability founder, Audrey Noeltner, believes there is great potential in Houston. “The weather is great, there is an amazing mix of culture and motivation to make this city more enjoyable. The walk reaffirmed our belief that if you have nice outdoors, attractive public space, more people on the streets, the space seems safer to women,” she said.
Or, as Sadik-Khan’s said last week, “Streets are worth fighting for. When you change the streets, you change the world.”