Women in city

Why everyone benefits from more gender-inclusive city design

Image credit: Newstock/Dreamstime

Urban environments planned with the needs of women and girls in mind can improve quality of life for the whole population.

With over 55 per cent of the world’s population now residing in urban areas, and the numbers rising, designing equitable and inclusive cities should be our top priority. As designers and custodians of our built environment, it is our responsibility to ensure that cities and urban neighbourhoods feel safe, welcoming, and home to everyone. Progress has been made in recent years, but there is still a significant amount of work to do, not least in how we address the inequality in how city design affects women and girls.

Historically, urban environments have not been designed to consider the specific challenges faced by women in society. For example, transit systems are overwhelmingly designed for both men and women, but are inadequate in supporting the travel patterns and needs of carers, who are mostly women. Designing cities that work for women gives us the opportunity to improve their safety, health and well-being, productivity, and enable better access to education and employment. The level of positive change we can make by doing so is huge, and we should embrace that chance.

These and many other specific strategies to make cities more gender inclusive are outlined in Arup’s report, ‘Cities Alive: Designing Cities that Work for Women’, published in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme and University of Liverpool.

A primary area of focus should be safety and security. A lack of attention and priority on women’s needs has led to negative consequences for half of our population. Women often feel, and indeed are, vulnerable in poorly lit streets and spaces – taking public transport outside of busy hours feels unsafe, and public spaces do not cater to how groups of women and girls prefer to meet and socialise. Women and girls are forced to take long detours that they perceive to be safer and adapt their lifestyles to navigate the city in a defensive mode rather than take full advantage of what city living offers to others.

While safety and security are key, enrichment and fulfilment are also important factors that must be addressed to create more equitable opportunities for women and girls. Across the world, schools and workplaces are located and designed to suit and enhance experiences for a default male. The typical design of a workplace can often be an inconvenient, even hostile environment for women. The same is true in education, where a variety of factors, from design to culture to policy, can reduce girls’ interest and opportunities, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields.

In the USA, only 28 per cent of employed scientists and engineers are women, with only 5 per cent being women of colour. A recent study of US students that examined the high drop-out rate of women taking engineering courses found the cause largely to be an unwelcoming culture of sexism in the field. Some cities are taking action to combat these issues. For example, one programme run by DIY Girls in San Francisco responded to the exclusion of women and girls in STEM fields by running courses in technology, engineering, coding and 3D design. Initiatives such as these result in the breakdown of stereotypes and encourage and empower women to embrace more opportunities.

Men can play a huge role in enabling a culture change by showing visible support and allyship, and by using their active influence in supporting women into positions to lead this change. It is important to recognise that built-environment professionals and city decision-makers remain mostly male.

An influential study on environmental decision-making by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) concluded that “women are always at the forefront of vulnerability, but not decision-making". In 2020, just 15 per cent of over 700 planning and environmental sector ministries in 187 countries were led by women, showing a serious lack of representation in influential positions. While we can all work tirelessly to implement safer cities for women, we should also put women in positions of power to ensure that they have a leading voice in making change happen.

There have been a number of encouraging changes in recent years in promoting equitable cities, with planners, architects, engineers and urban designers becoming more conscious about factoring gender-sensitive design and social equity into their plans. Today, inclusive design is starting to be seen in a more holistic way, where policy, design and implementation must all work together to achieve the desired outcomes.

This progress is welcome, but we cannot rest on our laurels. We must continue to work to embed this thinking into our work culture. Thriving cities that cater to the needs of women and girls, allowing them to participate fully in their economy, culture and society, will ultimately improve the quality of life for everyone.

Sowmya Parthasarathy is director of urban design & masterplanning at sustainable development consultancy Arup.

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