Life for women in the city is often exhausting and filled with anxiety. Simple acts of being in public spaces require forethought and planning. Whether it’s a supermarket in London, a crowded market in Cairo, or riding the subway in New York, women must also remain aware of harassment and the threat of violence. The more densely populated and poorer the city is, the greater these risks become. For most, these problems are chalked up to life in the big city.
But what if it doesn’t have to be?
In the early 1990s, the city of Vienna, Austria made a commitment to create equal access to city resources for women and men. From everything ranging from education to healthcare, they created policies that ensured everyone was treated equally. This even included how the city itself was designed.
They started surveying how men and women went about their daily lives. The data showed that women often had much more complicated routines than men, often because they were tasked with tending to the needs of the entire family. This was time consuming due to having to go to several destinations to complete tasks such as getting children to school, work, or food shopping – often with the goal of doing so before it got dark.
For women, consideration of their safety was common in every activity they undertook.
This realization led to a pilot program for a new kind of living space. They created the Women-Work-City, which was an apartment community focused on making women’s lives easier. The apartment buildings were situated around opens spaces of grassy courtyards with plenty of room for children to play and their parents to keep an eye on them. Public transportation was nearby, making getting to work and school much quicker. It even had an onsite kindergarten and pharmacy.
Over the next two decades, Vienna would continue to specifically consider the needs of women and children when designing the city. Sidewalks were made bigger, better lighting was installed and public transportation was redesigned. They even discovered that boys and girls used the parks differently. This led to a redesign of city parks, leading to increased use by everyone.
Yes, these changes were good for men, too.
San Antonio, Texas also spent a great deal of time in the 1990s doing surveys and studies as they expanded their city. Their research showed that the ability to live, work and play in proximity was of great importance. Furthermore, perceived safety was paramount.
This past September, the quarterly Urban Renaissance luncheon was held in San Antonio. The topic “Designing Downtown for Women” discussed how the downtown areas of cities could be improved by considering the needs, preferences and priorities of women. Keynote speaker Dave Feehan presented research that showed women make the overwhelming majority of retail and residential decisions, control (though not necessarily own) the majority of private wealth and are the majority of college graduates.
It only makes sense that the spaces which they occupy regularly work for them.
As he puts it, when designing downtown areas, “The experience economy outweighs the commodities economy.” This includes attention to details, like the cleanliness of public restrooms, the amount of shade in open spaces and the safety of parking areas.
Safety matters to women all over the world.
In 2010, the UN Women Global Safe Cities Initiative was launched with the purpose of advancing the global movement to make cities safer for women and girls. The focus in the five pilot cities — New Dehli, India; Cairo, Egypt; Kigali, Rwanda; Quito, Ecuador; and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea – was to work with cities and organizations to develop concrete solutions to reduce sexual harassment and violence against women in public spaces. The program has expanded to additional cities ranging from Beirut to London, with help from organizations like UNICEF and UN-Habitat, which work with municipalities to create public spaces that are environmentally sustainable and safe for women and girls.
It is their belief that if you change the space, you can change the behavior.
The initiatives focus on awareness, communication, data collection and action. One of the key elements of their initiative is the direct involvement of women’s groups in creating solutions. Women are still a minority in the key areas of urban development, including architecture, city planning and civil engineering. These professions are overwhelmingly dominated by men, and there are even fewer women in decision making positions.
As officials in Vienna learned, a woman’s perspective matters.
Vienna’s Urban Planning Group gender expert, Eva Kail explains, “There are so many questions to ask” when planning public spaces. “You need to know who is using the space, how many people, and what are their aims. Once you’ve analyzed the patterns of use of public space, you start to define the needs and interests of the people using it. It’s a political approach to planning. It’s about bringing people into spaces where they didn’t exist before or felt they had no right to exist.”
In the words of the late James Brown, “This is a man’s world, but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl.”