Women and urban planning

September 20, 2020

We must work to imagine cities that encompass the concerns of women

Cities are dynamic and vibrant homes to a variety of people belonging to different genders, social classes and ethnicities, all navigating through different life paths. Despite this diversity in residents it is most often men in positions of power that make decisions in urban planning and design.

According to World Bank’s Handbook for Gender Inclusive Planning and Urban Design, urban areas cater to “heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender men and not the lives or the needs of women, girls, sexual and gender minorities, and people with disabilities”. Women experience cities differently and face discrimination in all facets of their daily lives, from their experience of housing and sanitation to that of transport and public spaces.

Katrina Zimmerman draws attention to the international phenomena of underrepresentation of women in the realm of urban planning, and the way they are consigned to ‘supporting roles’ in her article Urban Planning Has a Sexism Problem (Next City, 2017, December 19).

She says this manifests in indicators, such as popular website Planetizen’s 2017 most successful urbanist list, including only 17 percent female representation, or the 2016 edition of the Routledge City Reader in the British publisher’s Urban Reader Series, including only 4 women in a total of 66 contributors.

In Pakistan, as in the world at large, women’s involvement in planning cities is lagging behind that of men. This is demonstrated by a huge underrepresentation in planning positions, and the lack of women’s concerns being adopted and integrated in policy.

In order to understand why this gap exists, it is essential to first acknowledge how detrimental it is to the development of a truly inclusive city to have women on the fringes of planning. There are countless benefits for not just women but to the city at large that arise out of their involvement and participation.

The question of more female involvement in planning of cities is not new. Susana Rustin in her article, If Women Built Cities, What Would Our Urban Landscape Look Like? (The Guardian, December 5, 2014) refers to Dolores Hayden’s seminal piece, What Would a Non-sexist City Be Like? (JSTOR, Vol 5, number 3, Spring 1980) where she called for cities that would “transcend traditional definitions of home, neighborhood, city and workplace”.

Others echo the that women-friendly cities should be more integrated, less unyielding and value things like child care as much as formal office work. Particularly when envisioning cities altered forever by the pandemic the question of inclusivity is crucial and must occupy planners and decision makers.

Christine Murray in, What Would Cities Look Like If Designed By Mothers? (The Guardian, August 27, 2018), suggests that mothers in planning would ensure more ramps and better public toilets which could serve the dual purpose of being child friendly and disability friendly. Such work suggests how a group with its own set of vulnerabilities is better positioned to help other minority groups and incorporate measures that benefit them.

For Pakistan, one can imagine the multiple roles women can play in advocating and pushing through women-friendly reforms, such as safer transport in cities, playgrounds for children and safer and more inclusive public spaces. There is a great deal of literature on gender and transport that highlights how much of women’s choices to study and work are shaped by choices of transport and safety and protection against harassment.

Similarly, in terms of housing and informal settlements women are amongst the particularly disadvantaged groups within the family unit. Urban problems are gendered; women suffer acutely from lack of water and sanitation facilities, and menstruating and pregnant women are particularly worse off.

Women’s dreams can only come true when they are allowed to claim the right to the cities they call home, which is possible when there are infrastructures in place that allow them access to modes of personal advancement. 

One particular way to understand the gendered city and the threats it poses to women’s safety and livelihood is through the experience of informal workers who are a victim of infrastructure violence. They are victims because they are completely left out of the imagination of planners when flyovers and expressways are constructed. For instance, the labour that forms house help for elite housing societies has a huge segment of women employed who access workplaces mostly on foot.

A conversation with one such informal employee revealed how due to the Ring Road she was forced to either make an illegal dangerous journey on foot in high traffic or pay for private transport she could not afford. Conversely, men are more likely to have access to private transport to cross these areas, or alternately opt for pubic transport in the absence of threats of harassment that plague similarly positioned women.

With the onset of Covid-19 these issues were exacerbated with low-income neighborhoods’ access to adjacent areas being further curtailed and heavily policed, affecting the livelihood of said women.

We have examples from other parts of the world to draw upon where gender-sensitive approaches were successful in city design and planning. One such example is Safe City Seoul Project which has created more child care amenities for working mothers, addressed issues like harassment and gender-based violence in policy, made women friendly cultural activities, and a transport system that reflects women’s concerns and needs.

Vienna is another successful example where gender issues are integrated in policy to bring about changes such as better street lighting for security.

To this end, a UN Habitat report urges that gender mainstreaming and intersectional analysis be used to integrate gender and diversity in urban planning. It details how by incorporating women in positions of power and using a social justice oriented approach, thoughtful and participatory projects can be implemented.

In Pakistan’s case, the unique demographic position as per a UNDP report is such that 64 percent of the population is below the age of 30, and 29 percent is below the age of 15 and 29. Given this reality, it is apparent that women in planning are crucial in order to advance the interests of these young people, so many of whom are women. Their dreams can only be achieved when they are allowed to claim the right to the cities they call home, which is possible when there are infrastructures in place that allow them access to modes of personal advancement.

Planning decisions are not just about how the built environment looks, they are also about what the environment allows its inhabitants to achieve. This underscores how we cannot allow women to fade into the background when planning decisions are made. We must work to imagine cities that encompass the concerns of women and create conducive environments that allow all citizens to flourish.

The writer is a lawyer working as a researcher interested in cities, gender and the law

Women and urban planning