Urban planning: the need to include women perspectives

Men and women do not perceive and use cities equally. And not only for the different purposes and activities they perform in urban areas. A lot has to do also with how they reach their destinations, the type of routes they take, and if they complete them in single (primarily men) or multiple stops (usually women). If they have exclusive use of a car or need to rely upon the availability of public transport and even how safe spaces are.

During the 20th century, cities were mainly designed to accommodate the travel pattern of a sole (male) breadwinner who commuted from suburban areas and residential neighbourhoods toward, primarily, work districts. Much has changed since then, and many cities have evolved in the last 30 years. Yet, current urban design choices still affect some users more than others, even their feelings while moving around. And most cities have not, so far, been developed taking into account multiple perspectives.

Trends are changing

Imagine the last time you crossed an underpass at dusk. Or when you detoured from your regular route to pick up something at a not-your-regular shop. Consider if you have ever had to plan your trip pondering the state of the pavement (because of a buggy, for example) or the lighting in a metro station more than how heavy the traffic was. Those are not uncommon variables most women must consider while travelling through a city.

Undoubtedly, trends are changing. Just think about the discussions around the “15-minute city” concept, which has become a buzzword in Europe, especially starting from the pandemic. Experts highlight how this “vibrant proximity” idea, implying urban developments that offer all needed amenities within a short walk, could help answer many demands, from more sustainability to nearness to core activities – workplaces, entertainment, sport, or schools. It can also promote and improve citizens’ participation in the planning process. And because it involves a (re)design of infrastructures and public spaces, it could and should provide an intersectional approach not to leave women, in particular, face barriers and vulnerabilities in the very places they live.

The rise of the urban population

By 2050 70% of the world’s population will live in cities (it was 54% in 2020). Today, there are already more than 4.5 billion people in urban areas – around half of which are, needless to say, women. Regardless of the size of a city, urban design is responsible for enhancing inequality, impacting the rate of poverty, un- and underemployment, influencing access to education and even, to some extent, the levels of harassment and gender violence. It cannot, then, be considered gender-irrelevant.

The results of a 2022 study by the Universitat de Lleida in West Catalonia, suggest differences in which kind of city space and conditions are more worrying for one gender or the other. According to the data collected (among which heart rates), women generally showed a 17,34% higher stress, and more often than men identified emotions of sadness and fear during the experiment. Moreover, 20,51% of them rated some areas as “unpleasant”, compared to only 8,6% of men. In particular, they showed higher stress levels in narrow pedestrian streets with other people or parked vehicles that reduced visibility. Men, in contrast, felt more anxious in parks, gardens and shopping streets with a high presence of people.

It is common knowledge: cities must soon become sustainable and climate-change-ready. And in doing so, policymakers must include different perspectives and acknowledge that women’s and girls’ needs are still overlooked in urban planning. They are even rarely part of the decision-making processes, and yet they can actually help innovation.

Equality by design

To look at the bright side: the European Commission already supports some initiatives. Networks of bigger and smaller cities share experiences and offer best practices for urban living to become more appealing, sustainable, and attractive. And experiments of more livable and less polluted neighbourhoods are carried on.

The efforts of big cities such as Milan, Barcelona, and Paris are well-known examples of developments aiming at better sustainability and support for the environment. Moreover, somewhat comprehensive blueprints on how to integrate gender perspectives in developing existing urban structures are becoming more common in somewhat smaller-scale settings.

One example is the municipality of Umeå, in Sweden. This university city shows a focus on a planning-by-design approach. Its gendered landscape became especially prominent with the opening of its Lev! (“Live”) tunnel that connects two parts of the city in a safer and welcoming (especially for women) way. It was then taken further by “Frizon”, described as “one of Sweden’s first public outdoor environments fully focused on young girls’ needs to take their places in public areas.” The project has been promoted as evolving “Through dialogues between young girls and the municipality;” ideas for the design have resulted in an equal and inviting place for meetings and conversations. And, again, the opening in 2014 of Kvinnohistoriskt Museum (museum of women’s history) “that changes perspective,” putting women in the centre of the narrative.

In the Swedish town the celebration of the usually less represented gender (even in the number of street names or public statues installed) has become an element to promote tourism.

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