Public Realm

Women and City

Women and City design

Stairs are not meant for the Moms with kids in strollers!
Photo by Marian Carrasquero/The New York Times.

‘Women and City’ is a popular phrase, and yet our city designs, at present, are discordant with what women want. Our cities have made some progress in terms of human rights and equality in the political stands. There are many policies, campaigns, and initiatives for bridging the gender gap in education, jobs, and wages. However, our cities are still “gender blind” when it comes to the urban realm’s basic planning and design. There exists a massive gap in comparing men’s and women’s demands. Further, it is imperative to align the same with our city design across the diverse spectrum of gender-and-age-based needs, including but not limited to male, female, and the LGBTQ community.

The urban planning and design of cities have transitioned from ‘planners know the best’ to focusing and integrating the community’s desires and ideas. While the attempt is to serve everyone in the neighbourhood, there lies a grey area for how and where the women are placed in these communities. Their voice at the table and their lifestyles’ varying needs often goes unnoticed. Although urban designers hear the points pitched at public consultations, what matters is the number of females attending these discussions compared to their male counterparts and the participatory nature of such gatherings—if women’s experiences and activities were considered or counter-argued by members of the same community, specifically the males. We still design our cities prominently for the ‘neutral-male-user’ with a few rare considerations for other genders.

How are our cities “gender-blind”?

Two of the most discussed topics when talking about gender-inclusivity in city design are public spaces and mobility. We have put efforts into making public areas and transportation safer for women. However, we need to understand that safety is just one element of a more significant problem. Areas being ‘gender-blind’ relate to the design and the assumed use of the space itself. Initiatives like women’s compartments and travel cards are merely a way to increase public transportation use. They do not guarantee the required gender-specific flexibility.

Further, it only serves one portion of women who have direct single-journey commutes. Several categories of women, including domestic workers or working moms or others, need to make multiple trips and stop in between home and work for different things, say, dropping children to school, buying groceries or medicines, etc., must compromise in so many ways. Besides, accessing public transit stops is an added chore. It is essential to consider these journeys as commonplace as work trips while designing the city transportation plans. Despite women being reported to use personal vehicles lesser than men, plan multiple trips, and pay more, such multi-stop trips do not catch enough attention in our city design masterplans since the same journeys by men rely on cars.

The absence of proper, usable public toilets for women; inadequate street lighting on most roads; accessibility to healthcare, child-care, women-centre, etc., are only a few issues in the long list of gender-specific needs which our city plans fail to consider. Primary public consultations or community-involvement-based projects rely on gathered data; however, these datasets are often disaggregated. First, women’s access to these consultations or survey matters is likely to be lesser than men’s. Second, the number of women present is not directly proportional to the broad spectrum of activity and age-based demands in the same gender. Educated, working women are more likely to attend public meetings than uneducated; belonging to low-income households or engaged in daily-wage jobs, the needs of whom, again, vary enormously.

Women and City design

Gender Inclusivity matters at every step of decision making in cities.
Image source: World Bank Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design

Gender-Inclusive city planning

Access; Mobility; Safety from violence; Health and hygiene; Climate Resilience; and Security of Tenure are six major issues in the built environment, as listed by the World Bank under the ‘Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, that combine with gender inequality of all ages and abilities. Gender-inclusivity in city planning goes beyond making public spaces or transportation safer for women. Such interventions should not be something special. It is needful and basic.

Needless to say, safety for women in public transportation, public spaces, and any space for that matter is deeply rooted in the issue of sexual violence and the narrow-minded mentality of the patriarchal society. While city planners cannot explicitly handle domestic matters, they can reduce inequality and gender discrimination in the public realm. Climate resilience and Tenure security are factors associated with housing and policy-based planning practices. ‘Gender-mainstreaming’ is a concept that often interlinks with political and social issues when speaking about gender-inclusivity. In this article, the focus is entirely on the design elements. It is imperative to understand such inter-connected individual elements that come together in different ways to give varying meanings to the environment we live in.

Mobility plays a significant role in defining how women move around the city, which calls for community initiatives more than female compartments or travel cards. Often, safety is not about the experience while on the public transit alone and about accessing the service. Last-mile connectivity, through other modes of travel, also requires scrutiny. So does the waiting time, location and shelter at the public transit stops. Similarly, inadequate lighting almost everywhere adds to women’s safety element, whether at public transit stops, in parks and gardens, or moving on dark alleys narrow or otherwise.

Making spaces for women

The first step towards gender-inclusive city design is acknowledging the difference between the way men and women experience the city. Thus, the knowledge demands planners and practitioners to be aware of the need to gather robust data promising gender equity. The public and private realm separation mainly affect women’s behaviour in transitioning spaces. Infrastructure thus plays a pivotal role. A few suggestions necessary to focus on the needs of women while they move around the city may include:

  • prioritising the placement of women-specific building use in masterplans;
  • creating smooth transitioning semi-public spaces;
  • designing pedestrian routes with extra consideration for benches, streetlights, ramps for strollers and wheelchairs, wide pathways, and continuous connections.

The vibrancy and multi-purpose use of buildings to keep the space busy throughout the day and avoid dead areas is another important theme that can serve as a solution. However, only multi-purpose facilities on the plans are not enough. For obvious reasons, the activities that happen and the type of crowd attracted to certain places affect women more than men.

Women and City design

EU’s efforts towards Gender Inclusivity in cities.
Image source:: Gender-equal-cities_URBACT_EU

Additionally, the provision of hygienic sanitation facilities makes it easier for women – mothers or otherwise – to spend more time outdoors without worrying about finding the nearest shopping mall or visiting a coffee shop only to access the toilet. This matters especially for women from low-income households who cannot afford to visit such commercial spots and have no available sanitation facility in the public realm.

Gender equality should not be confused with treating women the same as men. We need to understand how women’s encounters in the city and places differ on different levels from men. Like sexual violence, child-care and day-care jobs are more inclined towards women’s involvement in most cities. The same way the dominant car user is male, and walking and public transport use are prominent amongst women. Yet, they are safer for men rather than women.

Rather than spaces that work amazingly well for men and leave women hanging for their needs, designing for women requires specific elements. Our built environment shapes our lives and struggles in varying ways. Urban planning and city design have the unique opportunity to make small changes that bring considerable change at all levels in our cities.

Ronika Postaria

About Ronika Postaria

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Associate Consultant at Cities Forum specialized in urban planning and design.

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