• Opinion
  • November 21, 2018
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

Nearly two thirds of women feel unsafe in cities. Urban planning can help

Opinion: Gender sensitive urban planning is the need of the hour

This piece was written by Sarika Panda Bhatt, Head of Integrated Transport and Road Safety, Sustainable Cities WRI India. For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed


Gender sensitive urban planning is the need of the hour. Ending violence against women has been the central goal of the international women’s movement for more than three decades — but little has changed.

Violence against women is a human rights violation and a major obstacle to achieving gender equality around the world. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

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Women often experience various forms of violence and harassment in public spaces, and aggressions like threatening staring and passing comments have come to be accepted as simply a part of urban life.

Aggressions like threatening staring and passing comments have come to be accepted as simply a part of urban life

Several studies have been conducted in cities across the world to gain insight into the perception of such events by women. Results have shown that almost 60% of women report feeling unsafe in urban spaces.

According to UN Women, a safe city for women is a city where women can enjoy public spaces and public life without fear of being assaulted, and where violence is not exercised against women in either the home or the street.

A safe city is also one where women are not discriminated against and where their economic, social, political and cultural rights are guaranteed, including their participation in making decisions that affect the community in which they live.

Safe cities guarantee the human rights of all people, and state and local government take actions to provide attention, prevention and punishment for violence against women and to guarantee women’s access to justice.

People, space, place

People, space and place all are critical in contributing to individuals’ perception of safety and have a profound effect on comfort, belonging and commitment. Research developed from street surveys, focus group discussions and other meetings shows that, among others, the following factors make women in the city vulnerable.

First, poor urban infrastructure — dark or dimly lit streets, derelict parks and empty lots, badly maintained public spaces, inadequate signage, lack of public toilets.

Second, empty streets at night because of early closing of shops and businesses or lack of a tradition of street life.

Third, lack of adequate public transport and apathy of bus drivers, conductors and passengers.

Fourth, insufficient presence and unresponsive or aggressive attitudes of police and civic authorities.

Fifth, isolation from neighbours and lack of community life.

Sixth, traditional notions of privacy and refusal of neighbours or police to intervene in situations of domestic violence.

And finally, ideas and beliefs about appropriate behaviour, leading to reluctance to protest in cases of public violence.

Principles of safer cities work

Urban activist Jane Jacobs has famously highlighted how cities differ from suburbs because, by definition, they are full of strangers. For city streets to be equipped to handle strangers safely, there must be eyes on the street at all times, and there must be users on it fairly continuously.

A clear divide between public and private property is needed to show the division of responsibility for maintenance: appearance of an area can reduce fear and mischief and adds to effective vigilance. Potential conflicts can be reduced based on understanding the different users of an area and potential paths of use.

Women and girls have a right to the city

The city of Montreal, a pioneer in safer cities work, has now developed six principles of urban planning for safe cities, which serve as a useful reference point in evaluating urban planning. They are:

  1. Signposting — know where you are and where you are going
  2. Visibility — see and be seen
  3. The presence of people — hear and be heard
  4. Formal surveillance and access to help — be able to escape and get help
  5. Spatial design and maintenance — live in a clean and friendly environment
  6. Community participation — act together

Addressing women’s safety is important because women and girls have a right to the city. When this right is not realised, women and girls face not only danger of harm, but significant obstacles to realising educational, economic and political opportunities. To have a prosperous and healthy city, the safety of women must be ensured. — Sarika Panda Bhatt

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Goergia Romiti)

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