Most cities are built and governed by men. Experts are taking into account the needs of women as they reshape our urban spaces.

cities,women,urban spaces

Women collect water near Bhopal, India, 2 May 2020. (EPA-EFE/SANJEEV GUPTA)

More than 83% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed on Cairo’s streets, according to the United Nations. A rape is reported every 29 minutes in New Delhi. Barely one in 10 women in Lima feel safe in the city.

So says a partnership that is trying to reshape cities so they better reflect the needs of women.

Women use urban space more than men. But since the beginning of time, men have planned, built and governed cities in ways that cater to their interests.

If women had created those same urban spaces, how different would they look?

Urban planners are asking themselves that question and starting to promote gender equality in the design of cities.

Women use cities differently than men.

Walking through a city is an exercise in navigation and quick decision-making. Deciding to take an empty and poorly-lit street as a more direct route to a destination may give pause to a woman traveling alone, while a man may quickly detour down the alley without giving any thought to safety concerns.

Pushing a stroller to a nearby park can require careful planning to ensure sidewalk ramps are available at each of the intersections. Will there be a public bathroom in the park?

What makes cities difficult to navigate isn’t just a lack of familiarity or knowledge of a given urban area, but also the gender dynamics that make up how the city is built and designed in the first place.

A number of cities around the world have worked hard to implement a form of gender planning coined by the United Nations as “gender mainstreaming.” Urban planners are using this approach to examine how to make cities more inclusive to all people.

For example, in Kalmar, Sweden, women were avoiding nighttime bus service because they feared for their safety walking home from the bus stop. To address the concern, buses began letting passengers off between stops to get them closer to their destination.

In Vienna, one of the first cities to implement gender mainstreaming, researchers found that once children turned nine, girls used playgrounds less frequently. Boys, on the other hand, dominated park areas such as basketball courts and equipment. Once the playgrounds were redesigned with benches, landscaping and more private spaces, girls’ use of the playgrounds increased.

In 2014, the New York City Metro Transit Authority created an ad campaign to discourage “manspreading” — when a man takes up more than one seat on public transport by sitting with his legs spread wide. In packed subway trains, the significant amount of space some men were taking for themselves became unbearable. The ad campaign sparked a city-wide discussion about how men use and often dominate public space.

Experts are looking at ways to reshape urban spaces for women.

Research into gendered urban spaces is being conducted around the world, and inclusive designs are being implemented. This past fall, Cities Alliancea global partnership fighting urban poverty and supporting cities to deliver sustainable  development — created a tool for cities to ask the question: How can urban space be safer, more productive and more representative of a gender-inclusive city?

The report, entitled “Cities for Women: Urban Assessment Framework through a Gender Lens,” is a tool for city stakeholders, women and policy makers to guide the collection and analysis of data on how women and girls interact with their city.

The framework asks such questions as: Do public spaces have enough toilets? Can women move freely without fear of harassment? Do public transportation, sidewalks and parks accommodate mothers with strollers? Are women represented in local politics?

Once the answers have been collected and gaps identified, policy makers, planners, local communities and stakeholders will have the answers they need to begin reshaping the urban environment.

“There is a lot of global data about gender, but there is not a lot of local data, comparative data or qualitative data at the city level,” Giulia Maci, the author of the report, said. “With this framework, we really aim to get indicators from stakeholders and women and better understand their perceptions of the urban environment.”

Women are more exposed to safety concerns in urban spaces.

Experts have identified challenges in implementing a global framework. Different people have different perspectives regarding safety. For some women, safety means having better lit alleyways, while for others, safety means being free from physical attack or bombings.

“Women use more public space and take more public transport than men and are more exposed to safety concerns,” Maci said. “So we have to consider global indicators of safety but also contextual ones to get the most accurate data.”

Maci hopes the general population will begin to consider issues relating to gendered spaces and cities.

“I think people should begin observing how public space and economic opportunity are shaped,” she said. “Who is in power in a given city? Pay attention to the different aspects of the city life. How do women engage in public space? In public transport and parks? Where do they sit and why?”

Five cities are currently gathering data for the Cities for Women Framework —Banjul, Gambia; Monrovia, Liberia; Kathmandu, Nepal; Tunis, Tunisia; and Kampala, Uganda.

Initial results are expected this month, and Maci is looking forward to seeing how the cities implement what they learned to start creating more gender-inclusive urban environments.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What are some common questions that should be asked to determine if a city is gender inclusive?
  2. Which stakeholders should be included in a discussion around making cities and communities more gender inclusive?
  3. Are there aspects of your city that are more difficult for women to navigate than men?
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Tara Heidger is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Baghdad as an intelligence analyst for a logistics battalion in 2007-08. She is a graduate of Columbia University, where she received a master's degree in both International Affairs and Urban Planning. Her reporting focuses on conflict and urbanization in the Global South. Heidger was a 2020 Fellow in Global Journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

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