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Making cities better for women

By Victoria Pinoncely, former Research Officer at the RTPI

As today is International Women’s Day (IWD), this should be an opportunity to reflect on the places we create and whether they are empowering for everyone, including women and girls. 

I think another important question is what planners (men and women) are doing for women in their work. In order to provide spaces that meet everyone's needs it is necessary to look at cities through the lens of gender. We need to design cities for all, and look at how we can develop places that must take into account the lives and needs of women and girls. 

Our research on tech and planning got covered in Le Monde in a series of columns on city innovations; right below a paragraph read “Cities are dominated by men”. It highlighted gender inequalities and that urbanisation could be an opportunity to create change. Indeed, if gender considerations are not systematically integrated into planning and governance, the cities and the public spaces can become places of discrimination, exclusion and violence, according to UN Women. There are different challenges between different urban contexts but also similarities – much research as looked at the experience of women in public spaces and public transport. The Everyday Sexism website, which allows women to document experience of sexism, harassment and assault, allows to add ‘public space’ and ‘public transport’ tags to stories.

Some cities have investigated this and offered solutions. As reported by City Lab, in 1999, officials in Vienna, Austria, asked residents of a city district how often and why they used public transportation. The majority of men reported using transport twice a day, to go to back and from work, either by car or public transport. By contrast, women, used public transport more often and made more trips by walking than men. They were also more likely to split their time between work and family commitments like taking care of children and elderly parents.

In response, planners drafted a plan to improve pedestrian mobility, for instance widening sidewalks, access to public transport and provided additional lighting to make walking at night safer for women. This was part of a project aimed at taking gender into account in public policy (called ‘gender mainstreaming’): although this was adopted in several city departments, it had the largest impact on urban planning. The UN has included Vienna’s city planning strategy in its registry of best gender mainstreaming practices in improving the living environment.

Vienna, Austria. Photo credit: Flickr/YDb26b73

More recently, the city of Bordeaux, in France, has outlined that equality of access to the city must be integrated among major indicators while evaluating the quality of urban spaces. This followed a detailed study looking at the experience of women in public spaces in the city which showed women felt more insecure, something other French studies have also demonstrated as outlined in this article in Métropolitiques. This has an impact on women’s travel behaviour – for instance, tramway stations late at nights were perceived as unpleasant and insecure, which led to a preference for car-use. The study called for equality of access to the city as one of the labels to assess the quality of urban spaces (as the current environmental quality label)

Car-dominated cities and traffic disadvantage the poor and the majority of women, who are not car-owners. For instance, the majority of the people who use public transit in the US are women, according to a 2007 survey from the American Public Transportation Association. In cities like Philadelphia, a 64 percent of the people using public transport are thought to be women. However Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, along with many other researchers, has found that women are wary of using public transport for reasons of personal safety. In a 2007 survey, 63 percent of New York City subway riders said they'd been harassed on a train, and 10 percent reported having been assaulted (and it would seem safe to assume that most of those riders were women).

New York Subway. Photo credit: Flickr/Simon Laroche

Public transport and public transport are only parts of the issue. As outlined by this publication by the Cities Alliance/UN Habitat, “mixed use neighbourhoods with short travel distances between work, childcare, schools, shops and services, with extensive pedestrian environments and public service provision, are a closer reflections of life as it is lived by most people, ensure vibrant urban development, and are frequently called for in consultations with women in particular”. On another note, the semiology of street names and even public art reflects this inequality).

The Habitat III Conference which will take place in Quito in October 2016 must be a platform to bring these gender issues to the fore, just as the upcoming European Habitat meeting in Prague on March 16-18, where the ECTP-CEU (European Council of Spatial Planners- Conseil Européen des Urbanistes) and RTPI will be represented. UN Habitat has released a Policy and Plan for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women for 2014-19 (GPP) which sets out its commitment and strategy to advance equality between men and women. UN Habitat sets its goal as “well-planned, well-governed and efficient cities and other human settlements with adequate infrastructure and universal access to employment, land, public space and basic services, including housing, water, sanitation, energy and transport, on the basis of equality and non-discrimination among and between all social groups.”

The separation of ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ in education was clearly visible on school buildings, a remnant we sometimes notice passing through cities; the challenge is noticing the 'invisible' aspects of gender in the built environment. Our schools have now adapted but the built environment (and many of our cities were constructed by men, for men) has a slower rate of change. Although the increasing representation of women among planners would be expected to change the outlook on gender in cities, all planners have to consider this. Women may have an experienced-based understanding of these issues; however the capacity to lead the change and to be willing to bring solutions is something both men and women are to lead on and bring on the agenda. 

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