How to build a feminist city

Baking gender equality into building and planning can improve the lives of millions for little cost

In 2013 in Delhi, a city still reeling from the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh on a city bus a year earlier, Dr Kalpana Viswanath and Ashish Bashu co-founded SafetiPin.

The app, which allows users to rate public areas on safety criteria and to pinpoint areas of concern, now has over 51,000 data points in its home city alone. They highlight lighting, visibility, transportation, density and more, and together create a map of exactly where and how the design of the city itself disadvantages women.

SafetiPin and other innovations like it are part of a growing movement around “women-led” or “feminist” cities. These initiatives and campaigns aim to bring a gender perspective to urban planning, transport design and infrastructure in order to create cities that work for everyone.

Shaping the city

Women-led cities aren’t only about safety, said urban anthropologist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman: “the global experience of cities is so vast”.

But, she points out, there exists no blueprint for a city shaped by women from the beginning, and there are only “1-2 generations of women who have impacted urban environments in any way”. Cities are built for the men who tend to design them, she said.

City planning for women therefore encompasses everything from street lighting, transit and surveillance to the gender balance of statues in public spaces and the gender of architects working in design firms.

While infrastructure such as public transport is often thought of as gender neutral, thinking through the specific ways in which it is experienced by women can highlight disparities. Research by Sarah Kaufman, Associate Director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, found that women pay more for public transport because they must make decisions that account for their personal safety and caregiving responsibilities.

Women spend a median of $26-50 more than men on transport every month because of caregiving responsibilities and $100 because of personal safety considerations, the research found.

Why focus on gender?

For Johnston-Zimmerman, improving cities for women provides a strong basis for making them more inclusive in a variety of other ways too: “you get other experiences represented that weren’t before; age, because women care for children and elderly relatives, or different physical abilities because they take more trips on foot”.

In Vienna, where gender mainstreaming in planning was introduced in the 1990s, this has proven to be true. Initiatives introduced since the policy was instated include redesigned seating in parks, which has resulted in more usage by homeless people.

Widening of pavements for buggies also resulted in improved access and mobility for those using wheelchairs or mobility scooters.

Principles for a feminist city

While the vision of a feminist city will vary depending on context, there are some high-level principles which can guide decision-makers.

Clarisse Cunha Linke, Brazil Country Director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), emphasises the need for streets which facilitate walking, cycling and green public transport, as well as the integration of land and transport to deliver a mix of activities and services to neighbourhoods.

Research by the ITDP in Brazil showed that many women would choose cycling as their mode of transport for carrying out daily tasks, because of the relatively low cost and maintenance of a bicycle relative to driving, and its ability to carry more weight and travel faster than walking. But, the study found, the majority of day care services, healthcare facilities and public transport stations were located far from cycling infrastructure.

And, Linke says, public transport timetables must prioritise and account for varied trip patterns and not just commutes. When routes and timetables are optimised for office hours, they can make travel more difficult for caregivers who often need to access facilities during off-peak hours, make multiple stops, or have limited mobility due to prams or disability.

More widely, the ITDP also call for gender-responsive planning which analyses decisions in the context of women’s human rights, and for funding, education and outreach to ensure sustainable inclusive mobility.

And related initiatives such as participatory and gender budgeting can underpin a feminist city: in Sweden, it was gender-balanced budgeting which resulted in snow being cleared from pedestrian paths and cycle lanes as a priority owing to the difference in how men and women travel. Snow caused less disruption to women’s lives and the economy, and injuries decreased.

The feminist city in practice

The journey towards women-friendly cities is still in its early stages but there are pockets of good practice emerging around the world.

In the Swedish city of Kalmar, planners discovered that fewer women were taking the bus at night because of concerns about walking from stops. In response, “night stops” where passengers could request to alight between sanctioned stops, were introduced — and the number of people using the service increased.

While gender analysis of green transport is only beginning to emerge, Johnston-Zimmerman hypothesises that “around the world we’re experiencing women-unfriendly cities because they’re so car-centric”, pointing to movements for pedestrianisation led by mothers in Amsterdam and Queens, New York. Building cities around cars subordinates the non-driving modes of transport women are more likely to use than men, and makes cities more dangerous and difficult to navigate with children or others to care for.

Illustrating the fresh thinking that can come with female leadership, figures such as Paris’ first woman mayor Anne Hidalgo and Janette Sadik-Khan in her tenure as transport commissioner in New York City have spearheaded green advances which benefit women and the wider population.

Mayor Hidalgo has fully pedestrianised previously busy areas and replaced roads with public green space, while Sadik-Khan introduced new bus routes, pedestrianised car parks and brought in 400 miles of cycling routes along with a cycle share scheme.

For Johnston-Zimmerman, this leadership is key. Women work differently, she says, highlighting a trend for co-creation and collaboration amongst women planners relative to traditional firms.

“It’s about diversity of thought – who’s on stage, who’s in the cabinet, who’s represented in statues,” she says. “As women are increasingly accepted and given the opportunity to lead in different ways, I think we’re on the cusp of something very exciting”. — Eve Livingston 

(Picture credit: Deathtothestockphoto/Allie Lehman)

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