07 March 2023

How can we plan cities to work better for women?

How can we plan cities to work better for women? image
Image: Aoife Hand is a planner at Carter Jonas (Cambridge).

Public spaces can spark social interaction, provide freedom to express an opinion and bring together people from different backgrounds, ages, and cultures. As such, they are fundamental in strengthening our sense of place and connections within communities. Public spaces can be used and enjoyed both individually and collectively.

Or at least they should be. Research conducted by the UN in 2021 found that over 70% of women in the UK have been sexually harassed in public spaces. Only 3% of women aged 18-24 reported that they had not experienced sexual harassment. Whilst the built environment does not produce gender-based violence, this evidence highlights that public spaces can create situations which make women more vulnerable to crime. Organised street protests such as ‘Reclaim the Night’ have asserted the case for women’s right to safe public spaces and are powerful reminders for planners and designers that there is much more to be done in creating safer streets. While some of these challenges are beyond the power of our industry alone, urban planning and design play a critical role in reducing the vulnerability of women.

In her book Invisible Women (2019), Caroline Criado-Perez argues that the design of urban spaces can disproportionally affect women. For example, creating places that focus primarily on the private car has implications on the ease of access to employment, services and facilities not located within a convenient walking, cycling, or public transport distance from neighbourhoods. She argues that priority is given to vehicle movement and access, with less attention paid to the function of streets and movement through them, resulting in narrow footpaths, inadequate street lighting and fragmented cycle lanes. She suggests that while this is not intentional it is a result of a ‘gender data’ gap in the information available on how women navigate or experience cities and the lack of the female perspective within the process.

Inclusive cities start with understanding what gender-sensitive planning is. Women’s voices need to be considered. Their crucial local knowledge and experience of how they navigate a city can be included in consultation events. A shift of authority is also needed, to support the representation of women from various backgrounds in leadership roles and ensure that plans, policies, and structures are critically evaluated through a gender-perspective lens to promote gender-sensitive outcomes. However, this can only be achieved if these roles have the flexibility to enable an appropriate work-life balance. While these challenges are beyond planning’s capacity to resolve, they highlight the need for the industry to ensure equal access for women in positions of leadership to ensure a drive towards inclusive planning.

There are examples of positive change towards gender inclusivity. Glasgow, for example, is placing the needs of women at the heart of town planning, making it the ‘UK’s first feminist city’. This notion seeks to ensure women are central to ‘all aspects of planning, public realm design, policy development and budgets’ and could promote changes to the city infrastructure including wider pavements to accommodate prams, more lighting in parks and safer travel routes. Additionally, the Mayor of London’s office recently published a report calling for the active inclusion of ‘women, girls and gender diverse people’s experiences, needs and realities in all stages of the design process’.

Aspern in Vienna also demonstrates the successful adoption of gender inclusivity in planning. On completion in 2028, it will be home to 20,000 people, with its design centered around an artificial lake and half the total area devoted to public space. The masterplan creates spaces of mixed uses to ensure equal distribution of housing, parks, schools, and public transport. Multi-functioning parks, wide pavements, short travel distances and flexible spatial structures ensure female-friendly neighbourhoods. The creation of barrier-free, accessible, well-lit public spaces also has significant benefits for children, the elderly and disabled people. Gender-sensitive practices have been incorporated at all levels of planning, design and the decision-making process.

Integrating gender considerations in planning and design benefits everyone. While some positive change is occurring, we, as built environment professionals have an opportunity to push further, to embrace a gender-sensitive lens in the wider delivery of all cities.

Aoife Hand is a planner at Carter Jonas (Cambridge).

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