Soho’s shadowy corners and its seedier side have been glamorised for decades. They have become part of the folklore that continues to attract visitors to the area. But the area’s dark alleyways and its role as a centre for late night entertainment has an impact on how people who live, work and visit the area feel about their safety. West End resident & Labour candidate Jessica Toale highlights women’s safety and the paradoxes of city living…
Women’s safety is an issue which has come to the fore with the tragic deaths of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and many others. The recent drink-spiking epidemic has also created cause for pause and added weight to the campaign to make misogyny a hate crime.
Soho’s popularity reveals a paradox at the heart of city living. Greater numbers of people and movement in the streets can foster both a sense of safety and of insecurity. As urban theorist Jane Jacobs puts it, these ‘eyes on the street’ create informal surveillance that contributes to an atmosphere of security. But the same phenomenon can provide the anonymity and protection under which crime and anti-social behaviour thrive. These competing forces can both empower citizens and leave them feeling vulnerable.
“Women have grown up learning tricks to enhance their safety, but the onus must not be put back on women for their own safety.”
In November of last year, I ran a survey which aimed to delve into women’s feelings about their safety on the streets in Soho and the wider West End. The overwhelming majority of respondents echoed the sentiment I come across regularly amongst Londoners, that they feel for the most part very safe or fairly safe. Yet many also reported having faced sexual harassment and assault in public places.
Soho’s dark alleyways and quiet streets, particularly after dark or early in the morning, were singled out as locations respondents said they felt the least safe. Others reported aggressive behaviour and unwanted attention from men. Vacant shop fronts and empty pedestrianised streets were also cited as adding to the feeling of desertion in Soho.
Women have grown up learning tricks to enhance their safety, but the onus must not be put back on women for their own safety. Women should not have to modify their behaviour to avoid being harassed or assaulted in the streets. They should not have to feel like ‘nowhere is really safe’, as one respondent put it.
There are two very simple solutions to addressing the sense of safety in Soho – the first is to improve street lighting, particularly where it currently does not exist. The second is to ensure the police have a greater presence on the streets and are fully resourced to respond to reports in a timely manner. This could also tackle a range of other anti-social behaviours that people in the area are forced to endure.
Safety on the streets is something which affects us all. It is an issue at the heart of building an inclusive environment for anyone who lives, works and visits Soho. As the weather warms and the streets become busier, we should all aspire to a city where the ‘eyes on the street’ strengthens space and inspires social cohesion, as Jane Jacobs once aspired.
Safety Tips for Everyone
It’s easy to get complacent in a familiar environment, so here are a few tips for staying safe on the street or on a night out…
- Be aware of your surroundings. Be alert to anything that might make you more vulnerable and follow your gut feelings about where you feel safe or not. This may mean sticking to busy well-lit highways rather than taking shortcuts late at night.
- Watch out for friends. Make sure you know how (and with whom) they are going home. Ask them to text you when they get home and offer to do the same.
- Report any street harassment or assaults. The more information the police have about the number and nature of incidents in the area, the better they will be able to resource themselves to respond in the future.
- Don’t leave your drink unattended. Make sure to keep your drink with you or in the safe keeping of close friends on a night out.
- Don’t use unlicensed minicabs or pedi-cabs. Stick to licenced operators who can be traced.
If you have been affected by any of the issues contained in this article, the following organisations can provide advice and support.
- To report a crime to the police dial 101 or 999 if it is an emergency
- Victim Support – 0845 3030 900 – www.victimsupport.org.uk – free and confidential information to help you deal with and report crime
- Rape Crisis – 0808 802 9999 – rapecrisis.org.uk
– NHS Direct for information and help after rape or sexual assault – 0808 802 9999
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