The idea of urbanity is becoming increasingly synonymous with the idea of gated living. The interface of the city-dwellers with the city is largely reduced to places of commute and places of service. The service areas too, are often gated and strictly governed by invisible boundaries of religion, caste, or class.
The basis of such a pattern of sequestered living originates from the concern of safety. The people in the city have been trained to believe that their safety is undoubtedly endangered in places with universal access. The lower class and the marginalized are predominantly seen as the perpetrators of violence and even a threat to hygiene.
Image Caption : This street in Bengaluru is an ideal example of how the presence of rigid boundaries such as this compound wall further reinforce the lack of safety of the public space such as the footpath in this case.
The boundaries are then seen as conflict resolution techniques to enjoy this ‘ imagined ‘ harmonious coexistence within the city without having to cross paths with the people on the margins. The problem, however, is that these do not solve the underlying issues of safety for everyone.
While some people can enjoy unfettered access to the spaces outside the boundaries (as and when they want to indulge in them), some live in perpetual fear of what are considered to be the essential ‘public’ spaces of the city. The role of ‘gender’ becomes the deciding factor in this case. Gender heavily underscores one’s sense of safety in the city and ultimately dictates the access and the use of the public spaces.
The recurring instances of violence against women in public spaces have reinforced the undisputed belief prevalent in the society that women are not safe outside. The accounts of bullying of transgender people have forced them to mask their identities to be able to use the public spaces securely.
The idea of gender is intricately woven into our socio-cultural identity. The organization of our built environment is underscored by these predetermined roles of gender outlined in society. Our experience of any space, therefore, is intricately linked with our gender, known as ‘embodied experience’.
Women are often associated with private space such as homes as that is where they are expected to be for most of their lives. The outside is considered to be the man’s world. Any time a woman crosses this threshold and engages with the outside, she is constantly under the gaze of others. Her purpose needs to be legitimate and visible through her overall appearance such as clothes, accessories, etc.
These have grown to acquire symbolic meanings primarily associated with culture. These symbols don’t help ensure her safety of course but they certainly help in establishing her legitimacy in society. This legitimacy is her claim to safety.
The reason for this scrutiny is the preconceived notions of the role of women in society. Women are looked at as moral torchbearers in any society. They are made to always operate within strictly mandated lines of control such as accepted manner of dressing, appropriate behavior, and other time-bound restrictions.
If they cross these lines of restrictions they are considered to be unworthy of protection as they are themselves seen as threats to the collective moral values of society. This social segregation makes further exclusions in an already excluded section of the population. The various incidents of rape where people focus on the girl’s clothes or the reasons for her being out and finding purpose in her actions indicates that the status quo is regarded above the personal safety of women.
The makeshift solutions for security that authorities then implement are increasing the surveillance of public spaces usually inhabited by women or to create reservations for their access, further reinforcing the gender politics of space. The more the instances of violence or even the discomfort of women in public spaces, the more limitations get imposed on their basic rights to access.
However, these impositions don’t ensure safety; they just act as preventive measures taken at the risk of women’s basic right to freedom. The public spaces in the cities are not essentially ‘public’ when almost half of the population is not able to enjoy equal measures of access.
The role of sensitively planned infrastructure, inclusive designs, policy-level changes, and welcoming public spaces would help alleviate the issue. The means of physical access to public space by itself does not ensure the means to participate. The right to participate is a crucial measure of the validity of the ‘publicness’ of the public space.
The presence of a mixed-use neighborhood, for example, helps ensure keep eyes on the street at all times of the day. This undoubtedly creates a sense of safety. The same is true for buildings designed to have an active connection with the ground and more interactive boundaries. These are more inviting as compared to the trending high rises often having their service areas on the ground cordoned off by high compound walls.
The wider streets with seating designed for people of all ages and gender, with adequate lighting, and vegetation help make them more habitable, lively, and safe.
Image Caption : The footpath of Harrington Road in Chennai with its porous edge provides a safe walking experience for women.
The case of public parks and play-areas is also relevant here as they too have become gated amenities themselves. There is also a token charge for entering these places, which limits/ restricts access to the lower classes. This increasing tendency for socio-spatial segregation is ironically a detriment to the safety of these public areas.
The rigid boundaries pose a serious threat which restricts the use of these spaces by women. These places also have time-bound usage restrictions, which makes them even more inaccessible. Barrier-free universal access with proper lighting and areas designated for all users would tend to create more foot-fall in these spaces at different times of the day, ensuring a safe environment. The examples of Central Park, New York, or Hyde Park in London become important points of reference in this case.
The lack of sufficient basic facilities such as restrooms/ toilets for women is the most pressing concern of the design of public spaces. The sheer imbalance in the number of toilets available for men as opposed to women in important places such as train-stations, bus-stations, streets, waterfront promenades, public parks, and even in public schools are a huge indicator of the gaping hole in the urban design policies.
The further issues concerning the lack of sensitivity in design lacking basic considerations of provisions such as breastfeeding areas, counters for diaper changing, places for keeping bags, sanitary napkin dispensers, ventilation, and appropriate material selection are crucial for creating user-friendly toilets and for promoting the presence of women in public spaces.
These interventions would help in inculcating a sense of equal rights and create a sense of being accounted for in the design of these spaces. This gives them equal legitimacy of occupying these places not to mention the ease of use. The need to make these changes to create an environment of safety should be a priority for designers.
The role of design can, in effect, bring about a significant change in attitudes and bring more visibility to the marginalized, allowing them to earn their rightful place in society as equals.