“Dancing in public spaces and moving your body freely in a public space is reclaiming what was taken from you when you were violated. The energy of that – you can’t capture it, you can’t own it. Capitalists can’t buy it. It can’t be sold. It can’t be monetized. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful.” – Eve Ensler
Architecture is a reflection of our society and as designers, it is our duty to tend to every individual’s needs and create a safe, functional, and healthy environment for all. In earlier times, cities were designed and planned by fields dominated by men- architects, civil engineers, public health experts, etc.
Taking the able-bodied, working, white male as the dominant user of the city, urban spaces were created that tended to only one part of society and intentionally or unintentionally reflected the perpetuating patriarchal gender norms of society. This fabricated, to this day, a sensation among women and other minorities that they do not belong in the public realm.
These heterosexist presuppositions were deeply rooted in urban planning theory and practice until the 1970s when female professionals and scholars began to analyze and acknowledge the needs of the minority. While a multitude of advancements was made over the next two decades, there is still a long way to go to bridge the gender gaps in the built environment.
Accumulating learnings from detail-oriented studies and practices through recent history, the following are some guidelines that could help bring us one step closer to an inclusive and harmonious society:
“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan cities for people and places, you get people and places.” -Fred Kent
Gender in itself is a complex concept. The sex of an individual is defined by their biological framework, however, gender is a social construct comprising of preconceived notions of masculinity and feminity. While it is important to acknowledge the physical and biological differences of all genders, it is equally important to not be suggestive of what the image or behavior of said gender should be.
The gender-sensitive design acknowledges each complex individual and their needs and aims to counter the inequities through material space. All gender inclusive is not equivalent to gender-neutral, as that can result in generic design decision making and ignorance of the different ways different genders occupy space. (Moore and Kalms, 2021)
An example of this is all-gender washrooms. Studies have shown that single-stall all-gender washrooms create safer environments since they receive a larger footfall and are more open and visible making them less likely to attract harassment or violence. Furthermore, these facilities can also help cater to specific needs, for instance, a sanitary napkin dispenser is extremely helpful to women and can help create a sense of belonging.
However, creating all-gendered spaces does not mean eradication of gender-specific ones. It is the understanding that different people feel comfortable in different environments and what is important is to create accessible options for everyone. The aim is to normalize such spaces by allowing people to adjust by slowly transitioning to the new normal that would minimize discrimination. (Gardner and Begault, 2019)
There are around 500 road signages in circulation around the world, all of which are depictions of men. However, times are changing, Geneva recently feminized 250 of its road signs depicting different women. (Schwartz, 2020) Mumbai also recently had its first women depicted road sign in Dadar. (Mishra, n.d.)
This move, though small and seemingly insignificant, is important in reducing the unconscious bias and dominance of men in the public realm by trying to change the mental perception of society.
3. Access to Health and Hygiene
Equality dictates that all resources should be available to everyone at an equal capacity according to their needs. Many times the infrastructure provided for women is subpar in quality as well as quantity. A perfect example of this is the availability of public toilets for women and the condition they’re in. There is a general dearth of women’s toilets in many public places in India.
The fact that such a basic facility is not available to women gives the impression that they are not welcome in the space. On average women take twice as long to use the washroom as men. Logistically, the act of sitting down versus standing up and the possibility of the woman to be menstruating adds up to the time spent. Unhygienic toilets are one of the leading reasons women contract a Urinary Tract Infection. (Phadke, 2007)
Shilp Phakde, in Gendered Usage of Public Spaces, did a case study done in Andheri railway station in Mumbai which reflects the current situation perfectly. The station has four functioning toilets: two on platform 1, one on platform 2, and one on platform 5. The first toilet on platform 1 is for men and women with the urinals being free but the cubicles are paid for. The second toilet on platform 1 is only for men with the urinals being free. The third toilet on platform 2 is for men and women, however, the designated cubicle for women was locked and the key was to be collected from a shoe polisher nearby. The fourth toilet on platform 5, for both men and women, was functioning from 6 am to 10 pm and the key to the women’s toilet was supposed to be collected from the men’s with the payment of a small fee.
However, neither the attendant at the men’s toilet nor the shoe polisher was found and the whereabouts of the key remains unknown. To summarize, there is only one toilet a woman can use, and four that men can use.
The disparity in facilities is often justified by arguing that the footfall for men is much higher than women and that the facilities are proportional to the usage and adequate. Ironically, one of the major reasons for the low footfall is the evident unavailability of facilities that make women feel unwanted. (Phadke, 2007)
The issues of public spaces being gender-biased are not limited to public places and institutions but also public transportation. To be able to live in a city is to be able to travel for work, errands, or even leisure without the constant threat of being harassed. However, transit women are heavily subjected to verbal as well as non-verbal harassment which results in women being hesitant to leave their house. These issues extend to land zoning policies that separate the residential from the commercial and employment areas, thus making the commute harder and longer.
The reservation of bus seats or train and metro coaches for women has been a contentious topic among feminists and transportation advocates. Looking at the reservation in isolation reiterates the gender disparity and is unequal treatment and distribution of resources. However, taking into consideration all aspects of the current scenario of social marginalization and unsafe environments created, it levels the playing field for women.
Not only do women feel safer in such reservations, but it is a strong step towards reclaiming the public space by instilling a sense of belonging among them. It is noticeable that women feel more relaxed and behave differently in such spaces. They no longer feel the need to be timid and clutch their phones in their hands, or pepper spray in their bags in case of an emergency.
A case in point is the ‘Pink Transportation’ in Mexico City, which not only created reserved coaches in trains but also started a bus line made specifically for women, along with a cab service driven by women drivers and that stopped for women [assangers only. The transportation was painted pink as a part of a visual campaign to illuminate people of the violence against women. They also started a program called “Viajemos Seguras” (Let’s travel safely) to help women report sexual harassment cases in public transportation. (Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, 2020)
Five offices staffed exclusively with women were placed in the most crowded metro stations in the city along with a 24-hour hotline. This not only created a safe space for women to report a crime but also challenged the notion that women are alone and solely responsible for their safety. (Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, 2020)
However, there is a range of prejudices that come along with these reservations. Since these are compartments meant for women, anyone that does not conform to society’s stereotypical version of what a woman should dress and act like- transgender and lesbians, for example- are met with hostility and demands to leave. Ironically these spaces intended to make people feel safe are where some minorities are the most fraught.
Gender-segregated transportation is a surface-level solution against the underlying patriarchy of our society. This paired with strategic social reforms to change laws and policies would truly help us to achieve gender equality someday.
Jane Jacobs famously theorized that for a street to be safe, “There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.” Having buildings facing towards the street on both sides ensures the safety of residents and strangers. The sidewalk should have people passing by regularly- induced by street activity- to add to the number of eyes on the street and to avoid the feeling of isolation. Streets are what make up most of our public spaces and being unable to safely use them, means being unable to access the city itself. (Kanigel, 2016)
6. Street Design
Apart from larger changes in laws, policies, urban planning, and design, there are smaller and more direct strategies that one can use to revamp the city for women and minorities. Basic requirements like proper lighting, surveillance (human or technology). It is very important to be careful of features that only seemingly improve safety but often add to the sense of danger. For instance, using bright floodlights create pockets of darkness, and barriers like high walls to protect the surrounding actually reduces visibility and thereby increases unpredictability. Using dispersed ambient lighting or a fence would go a long way in actually making a difference. (Gardner and Begault, 2019)
An example is the Lev in Umeå, Sweden which is an 80 meter-long pedestrian and bicycle tunnel that connects the city center to a neighborhood. It aimed to create a passage for all without fear or safety concerns. It resulted in design features like wide entrances to allow people to walk in groups or people with strollers. The gradual gradient and rounded corners enhance the line of sight and avoid any blind turns. Furthermore, the ample lighting, transparency, and welcoming artwork created a more welcoming environment. (Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, 2020)
7. Mixed Land Use
Studies have shown that women feel safer and access public spaces more when there are commercial 24/7 establishments around. A mixed-use environment, hence, ensures human activity throughout so that a woman is not isolated and is not at risk in a dense region. Mumbai’s civic body has taken up an initiative to reserve spaces in several blocks to build multipurpose buildings in commercial areas in proximity to educational institutions, childcare facilities, and entrepreneurial training centers. (Ratho, n.d.)
These buildings are located in areas of high visibility and densely public areas like markets and transport stations. Ideally, urban planning should resolve the issue by ensuring that more public spaces are safe and hence, every building is in proximity to a visible, accessible area. However, this is an important aspect to take into consideration for all future planning and development endeavors.
8. Participatory Design
As designers, it is important to involve all genders in the organization and decision-making- from early proposals to post-implementation evaluation- to be able to fully understand the challenges they encounter and to counter them wisely. A case in point, is a proposal in La Favorita, at the edge of the city of Mendoza, Argentina. It is an informal settlement consisting of people that fled from the political oppression in Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. It has a variety of local organizations and unions and has had phases of World Bank-funded interventions of basic infrastructure in some areas including the central plaza, Plaza Aliar. (Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, 2020)
However, the plaza’s potential remains untapped. Its expansiveness leaves women and gender minorities feeling exposed and unsafe. Instead, it is aggravated by men that abuse drugs and alcohol there. During other times of the day, it is used by boys to play soccer. Overall the dominance over the space is male. (Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, 2020)
In 2018, Kounkuey Design Initiative worked with several government corporations, and Harvard scholars to analyze the needs of La Favorita’s residents through a gendered lens to create a safe and socially vibrant space for all. The team worked directly with the women through a series of activities to understand and tackle the challenges the urban plaza posed.
The proposed plan converted the plaza into a multifunctional place comprising a multipurpose structure to serve as an open-air community center that held a small central plaza within it. Furthermore, it had a field hockey pitch, a playground, a library, and a protected bus shelter to make the commute easier and safer.
This plan along with other iterations was circulated among the people and the feedback dictated this to be the popular choice and hence is set for construction soon. Not only does this stand to rejuvenate a dead public space but it was also successful in creating buy-in among government partners and created a revolutionary example for incorporating gender-inclusive participatory design processes for future projects.
9. Site Analysis
Washington University has created a minimum standard list for such studies that include: collection of sex-disaggregated data, mapping gender roles and activities spatially, resources, accessibility, ownership, the degree of gender segregation and the formality of it. It also contains a detailed activity mapping for men and women separately in terms of age groups. (Daniel, 2021)
Before one proposes an intervention, it is necessary to study and understand not only the built aspects of the site but also the history and culture. To fully understand the depths of the issues the community faces and what measures, if any, were taken earlier and the user feedback and response. Men and women of different cultures perceive physical space differently and the aspects that make each gender feel safe and comfortable are unique. Understanding the existing gender norms would allow for smarter ways to tackle them as well.
10. Empowerment Outside the Built Environment
Mumbai is considered to be one of the safest cities in India. It owes this status majorly to a large female workforce in the city. (Phadke, 2007) With women working through the day and night in every field, the notion of women being outside their homes and in the public realm is normalized. Their presence at a train station late in the night isn’t questioned or met with hostile looks. Obviously, this is in comparison to other cities in India, as no woman is guaranteed safety anywhere, but it is a positive change in the way men and women reside in the same city.
Here a woman isn’t alone on the streets fearing for her safety, she’s accompanied by many like-minded women leading a similar working life and claiming their place not just in the built environment but also in their homes, workplaces and as leaders. This empowerment of women is a change at its core of the issue. This along with reforms in policies and the way design is built and perceived can help achieve the harmony we all aspire to achieve.
Moore, T. and Kalms, N., 2021. Exploring gender-sensitive design. [online] ArchitectureAU. Available at: <https://architectureau.com/articles/exploring-gender-sensitive-design/> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
Schwartz, E., 2020. Signs That Increase Gender Equality in Public Spaces. [online] Econlife. Available at: <https://econlife.com/2020/01/gender-equality-in-public-spaces/> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
Gardner, J. and Begault, L., 2019. How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender Equality. [online] Behavioral Scientist. Available at: <https://behavioralscientist.org/how-better-urban-planning-can-improve-gender-equality/> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
Mishra, K., n.d. Sending the right signal: Dadar gets female figures on signage. [online] Mumbai Mirror. Available at: <https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/civic/sending-the-right-signal-dadar-gets-female-figures-on-signage/articleshow/77310087.cms> [Accessed 7 April 2021].
Phadke, S., 2007. Woman and Built Environment. New Delhi: Zubaan.
Kanigel, R., 2016. Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs. United States: Alfred A. Knopf.
Daniel, G., 2021. Designing for Gender Equality in the Developing Context: Developing a Gender-Integrated Design Process to Support Designers’ Seeing, Process, and Space Making. [online] Digital.lib.washington.edu. Available at: <https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/23792#:~:text=Through%20this%20inquiry%2C%20I%20identify,%2C%20process%2C%20and%20space%20making.> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
World Bank. 2020. Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design. [online] Available at: <https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/publication/handbook-for-gender-inclusive-urban-planning-and-design> [Accessed 9 April 2021].
Image 1: World Religion News. n.d. Religious Views on Unisex Bathrooms. [online] Available at: <https://worldreligionnews.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/religious-views-on-unisex-bathrooms/> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
Image 2: Bored Panda. n.d. Geneva Feminizes Its Traffic Signs To Promote Gender Equality But Not Everyone Is On Board. [online] Available at: <https://www.boredpanda.com/feminized-road-signs-geneva-ville-de-geneve/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
Image 3: Mishra, K., n.d. Sending the right signal: Dadar gets female figures on signage. [online] Mumbai Mirror. Available at: <https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/civic/sending-the-right-signal-dadar-gets-female-figures-on-signage/articleshow/77310087.cms> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
Image 4: DNA India. n.d. Now, pay as you please for Western Railway loos. [online] Available at: <https://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report-now-pay-as-you-please-for-western-railway-loos-2600783> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
Image 5: TripSavvy. n.d. How to Get Around Belfast by Bus, Bike and More. [online] Available at: <https://www.tripsavvy.com/belfast-public-transportation-guide-4773953> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
Image 6: NBC News. n.d. Mexico’s pink taxis cater to fed-up females. [online] Available at: <https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna33385984> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
Image 7: Smart City Sweden. n.d. Umeå builds for everyone and attracts gender equality tourism – Smart City Sweden. [online] Available at: <https://smartcitysweden.com/umea-builds-for-everyone-and-attracts-gender-equality-tourism/> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
Image 8: Ciudaddemendoza.gob.ar. n.d. La Ciudad continúa la urbanización del barrio La Favorita – Ciudad de Mendoza. [online] Available at: <https://ciudaddemendoza.gob.ar/2019/09/24/la-ciudad-continua-la-urbanizacion-del-barrio-la-favorita/> [Accessed 11 April 2021].