Despite advances being made around the world, billions of women still face issues caused by the gender bias built into the design of cities. These range from the well-known, like lack of safety and limited representation in statues, to less obvious problems like the way city squares are designed and exposure to climate hazards.
Whether by accident or design, our urban environments can compound gender inequalities. The way cities are planned, built, and managed can significantly restrict women’s ability to move around, be economically active, or enjoy their local area. This can make life harder for women in ways that are both symbolic and practical.
Our urban environments can compound gender inequalities
Visit almost any city in the world and some of these inequalities are evident. Firstly, it is well-documented that many women have experienced sexual violence and harassment in urban public spaces and transport systems. This leaves certain routes simply unavailable to them after dark, while making journey planning more difficult and stressful.
Toilets and sanitation facilities are also often inadequate for women’s needs, or fail to cater for caring responsibilities. Meanwhile, public spaces such as parks and squares do not necessarily take women’s needs into account. For example, research indicates that, over the age of eight, boys use parks four times as much as girls.
Meanwhile, some inequalities are symbolic, and require an intersectional solution. The lack of representation in statues, road names and other monuments affects a range of identities, but it is also symptomatic of a gender-biased design attitude. Only 2-3 per cent of statues represent women in almost every country in the world.
Gender bias also manifests in less obvious places, especially as the frequency and impact of climate hazards increases in cities. Women are more exposed to the negative consequences of these hazards, principally because they are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty. Equally, data used as the basis for planning is often biased, stemming from decades-old scales of measurement, ingraining inequality in our buildings from conception.
While women make up half the global urban population, cities have not been designed with them in mind. As a result, many cities do not work for women. As rapid urbanisation continues, and reconstruction due to conflicts and climate change intensifies, there is an urgent need to change that – and create cities that are safer, more inclusive, and more equitable.
Reversing the historic gender bias that is built into the fabric of our urban spaces is far from an impossible task. Arup’s recent report, Cities Alive: Designing Cities that Work for Women, produced in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Liverpool, offers practical recommendations to make cities more inclusive for women.
There are cities already leading the way by centring women’s experiences in their design
It combines the voices and experiences of women globally with a thorough review of data and research to identify issues and solutions. They range from immediate actions to long-term processes and cover four key areas: safety and security; justice and equity; health and wellbeing; and enrichment and fulfilment.
To take just one area – improving women’s health and wellbeing in cities – key recommendations include raising standards of sexual and reproductive healthcare; providing high-quality water and sanitation facilities; and creating caring, green, active environments that are accessible through safe and inclusive mobility options.
There are cities already leading the way by centring women’s experiences in their design, with encouraging results to learn from. We can look to the Lev! (Live) tunnel in Umea, Sweden. This 80-metre-long pedestrian and bicycle passage is designed to ease feelings of threat: it has wide, welcoming entrances, gradual gradients, rounded corners and natural lighting to enhance sight-lines and visual awareness.
It has made the city safer by providing a walking route for women at night-time, and has become an attraction in and of itself – creating a positive feedback loop as high footfall provides additional natural surveillance.
There are also simple measures that can be tacked on to existing infrastructure. For example, in Quito, Ecuador, transport operators installed transparent glass corridors in stations around the city, connecting waiting areas where people, especially women, reported feeling unsafe to expand visibility and encourage natural surveillance.
Design concepts like this can go a long way, but we also need systematic change in decision-making processes. We must support the women participating in urban governance at all levels, either through direct representation on urban planning and design boards, or through consultation processes and advisory boards to listen to a range of experiences.
For example, Leipzig in Germany appointed a dedicated Advisory Board for Gender Equality to ensure representation in its urban decision-making. Similarly, the London Legacy Development Corporation and Arup developed guidance for improving the safety of women at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, using findings from their community consultation.
Too often, decisions are made by men who don’t fully understand the diverse needs of women
We must also reach those in positions of influence now, so they understand why gender equity is important and how to embed this into their work. Too often, decisions are made by men who don’t fully understand the diverse needs of women, and the contribution they bring to society. The allyship of men that cover powerful positions is therefore critical.
To achieve inclusive cities, urban professionals, government authorities and community groups must embrace an inclusive approach; moving beyond consultation towards actively involving women at every stage of the design and planning of cities – from inception to delivery.
Doing so can unlock new integrated solutions, like in Richmond, London, where the borough council has introduced a “community toilet scheme”. Local businesses are given compensation to provide access to free, clean, safe and accessible toilets, coordinated through an online interactive map.
We hope our report and the examples outlined here provide inspiration for practical steps to make cities more inclusive. A gender-responsive approach to urban planning goes beyond serving only women, with strong multiplier socio-economic and environmental effects across households, families and local communities. It ensures that our cities will become safer, healthier, fairer and more enriching spaces for all.
Dr Sara Candiracci is an associate director at Arup, leading the company’s work on inclusive cities, particularly on gender-responsive and child-friendly planning. She led the development of Arup’s Designing Cities that Work for Women report, the Proximity of Care Design Guide, and the Playful Cities Toolkit.
The photo is by Norbert Braun via Unsplash.