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What is a gender-inclusive city?

May 19, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#gender equality, #urban design, #smart cities, #colonialism
located:Austria, Mexico, India, Iran, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Egypt
by:Chermaine Lee
Experts are highlighting myriad ways in which urban spaces could be more inclusive of women, sexual minorities and people with disabilities. Some cities are already ahead of the game.

In a peaceful neighbourhood about 45 minutes away from Vienna’s city centre lies Europe’s first gender-inclusive social housing development. Named 'Frauen-Werk-Stadt' (women-work-city), the complex features a variety of features designed to ensure safety and equality, including a wide entrance and apartments that face the street. It has remained a symbol of the Austrian capital’s trailblazing urban design that considers the needs of different genders.

Traditionally, European cities were designed by well-off able-bodied men, and urban planning mirrored racial and ethnic segregation and gender inequity. And as European colonialism spread across the world, so did discriminatory design concepts.

Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s system of proportion, which was developed in the 1940s and exported across the globe, was largely based on the height of average Caucasian men at the time. This meant that door frames and handles, for instance, were designed for 6-feet tall men and were not adjusted when adopted in other continents. India, for instance, has not changed its infrastructure design to fit Asian women, who are 5-feet tall on average. 

But gender-based discrimination in the urban planning sphere persists till this day. Currently, only one in 10 senior positions in the world’s leading architecture firms are occupied by women. 

Making public space safer for women and sexual minorities

But the problem extends far beyond height measurements. Public spaces and transportation are often where women and girls worldwide face sexual harassment and violence. In Latin America, for instance, 6 in 10 women have been physically harassed while using public transportation, according to a 2017 report by ICED.

A World Bank report also indicates that violence against women tends to take place in secluded areas, near toilets and in places with insufficient lighting. Removing walls, for example, was found to improve women’s perceptions of safety, according to a study in the UK.

Furthermore, multiple reports pointed out that sexual minority groups are particularly vulnerable to violence in public spaces. 

Improving visibility and ensuring abundant lighting in public spaces, as well as providing gender-segregated spaces like women-only metro cabins are among the measures adopted by cities running campaigns to promote gender safety and equality.

In Mexico City, the authorities launched the "Pink Transportation" initiative in 2000, which offers women-only bus lines and women-only sections in buses, after a national report found that nine out of 10 women would be a victim of sexual violence in her lifetime.

A study later found that over 66 percent of the women surveyed think that women-only public transportation lines are safer than co-ed ones. Similar campaigns were rolled out seen in Iran, Japan, India, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, among other countries. 

In Vienna, Dr Sabina Riss, a lecturer of gender urban planning at the Vienna Technical University, told FairPlanet that urban planners in the city had safety in mind. "Vienna has always put a lot of effort in lining the streets in a way that you can really see, you know, people's faces and a certain distance to avoid the alleyways or is to design buildings in a way that main rooms are facing the street-

This, she claimed, gives people a sense of safety: "If you walk on the street [...] if something happens, people from the windows, people from the building can see you, [...] can hear you."

It's about more than safety 

Safety is only one aspect to consider when creating a gender-inclusive city. Other factors include improving mobility, hygiene, access, climate resilience and security of tenure. In Austria, for example, city planning was heavily structured around car driving after the second world war, according to Vienna’s city planner and head of its first women’s office Eva Kail.

"Since the Second World War in the Western world, the structural pattern of our cities are really highly influenced by car orientation," Kail told FairPlanet. "And I always say there is always this gender bias. So the city planners and mobility experts were middle-class car driving men."

The result of this, she claimed, is that pedestrians’ safety – which often means any group other able-bodied men – is overlooked in city planning. 

"It’s statistically proven that women tend to use the city and the public space in a different way," Dr Riss added. "This means that they walk more, they cycle more, they use public transport more because they statistically have less cars and [...] take on more responsibility for care, work, caring for children, caring for elderly relatives, caring for the household in the daily life, [in addition to] their paid jobs, to their professions."

Sidewalks in Vienna have been widened for improved mobility. In Argentina’s Mendoza, the authorities worked with women to redesign a local plaza. The suggested additions include protected bus stops for women to wait at and a multi-use, less exposed spaces for activists typically attended by women, like Zumba classes. 

Moving forward, it is important for city administrations to include experts who are aware of gender-inclusive principles in urban planning discussions, Dr Riss said. 

"It's about people. It's about active people in decision making positions who have a power to say [..] we have to plan it in this or that race or gender-sensitive [way]."

She also recommends launching exhibitions, circulating publications and holding events to raise public awareness about the significance of incorporating inclusivity into urban planning.

"It's important to bring a lot of people on board, you know, to hear them out and understand the needs of a future city planning."

Image by Kamil Kalkan.

Article written by:
Chermaine Lee
Asia Desk Editor
Austria Mexico India Iran Japan United Arab Emirates Egypt
Embed from Getty Images
Located outside Vienna's city centre, Frauen-Werk-Stad is Europe’s first gender-inclusive social housing development.
Embed from Getty Images
Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s system of proportion, developed in the 1940s and spread around the world, was largely based on the height of average Caucasian men.
Embed from Getty Images
Sidewalks in Vienna have been widened for improved mobility.