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World over, there is immense urbanisation and cities are becoming increasingly complex. In the case of cities becoming even more of a focal point of development and growth, it is important to refocus on issues of urban planning. We have an inadequate number of urban planners world over, especially in India, where we have only 1 urban planner for 4,00,000 persons. We see that there isn’t enough conversation around urban planning and that cities continue to be seen as sites of exploitation rather than as possible sites of inclusive and sustainable development. The challenge is such that the Sustainable Development Goals list ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ as one of its seventeen goals. This column, Cityscapes, intends to examine various aspects of urban planning and sustainable cities and communities.
Planning without accounting for gender issues cannot allow for effective social inclusion and socio-economic transformation. The lack of such planning can and does lead to reduced mobility of women and persons of other genders, reduced independence and autonomy, restriction from the use of certain services and from equal access to education and employment. It also doesn’t allow for women to benefit from public spaces and green spaces as freely, owing to concerns of sexual violence and harassment.
The needs of different genders can be starkly different and the way cities are currently designed and envisioned only account for male interactions and experiences in and of a city. However, gender inclusive planning is increasingly becoming a more important feature of municipal planning and budgeting.
How we currently plan our cities
Cities and how they are planned do not necessarily come to mind when we think of issues of gender justice. In an urban space various facets of gender inequality intersect to create a larger systemic problem: there exist underlying power dynamics between genders; unequal division of labour, overburdening of women when urban utilities aren’t provided for adequately; vastly different patterns of ownership of, and access to, housing, medical facilities, connectivity, transport, and public spaces, and space in general.
How and why women access spaces differently
Women access spaces in urban areas quite differently from men. From the mode of transport they use to the route they take is varied from that of men. Women take more buses and they also take more complex routes of travel everyday – owing to the multiple functions they fulfil. All women have a higher onus of child and family care, resultantly they need to access facilities for such care and other services more frequently. The book, Why Loiter, by Shilpa Phadke and others, also encapsulates how women always seem to access public spaces with a purpose and never to just ‘loiter’. Their access of spaces outside of their home is more purpose-driven.
Pandemic sexual violence and street harassment are key reasons that guide women’s patterns of usage of public spaces. Financial autonomy and ownership of assets (for example, a car or bike) also determines what spaces they can access without the presence of a male family member. The driving factors behind the use of and access to spaces by women is also often compulsion and not choice. Women heading households in urban poor families are majorly found to be doing so because of lack of land and property ownership for women in rural areas. Their use of these living spaces is determined by systemic barriers of unequal property and inheritance rights.
These are some among multiple patterns of how women access spaces differently in cities.
What would a city planned to meet these needs look like?
This is an introductory exploration of what a city designed to meet these needs would look like and what practices it would follow — these needs would vary with different intersecting identities and would evolve with time and locations. Some examples would be:
The city would provide for transport services along routes and locations frequented by non-male persons as well, last mile connectivity would include connecting routes used non-male persons — which would mean going beyond traditional understanding of major commute routes as routes taken for work or male focused leisure purposes. This would also mean changing the way public transport is scheduled and how modes of mobility like walking and cycling would have to account for safety measures for non-male persons to access them freely.
Safety measures would be more hyper localized and designed in keeping with the needs of non-male persons – this could include better lighting and patrolling on routes frequented for family care work and everyday errands in localities to the presence of emergency phones and alarm systems in public spaces;
Housing design would include the safety and design needs of non-male persons, from better security systems, gender neutral washrooms, public safety alarm mechanisms, to the presence of childcare services – this aspect can be integrated into each design feature.
Family care and child care would have evolved to being provided by the state, ensuring women have as much freedom to participate in the economic workforce as they like. This example of Quebec, highlighting the role of affordable childcare provisions by the state in keeping young mothers in the workforce – is indicative of this, albeit with limitations.
Zoning, i.e. how areas of a city are designated for specific purposes, would ensure mixed usage to allow for women to have access to services and leisure activities in affordable and safe locations near where they live — without meaning that the cost of such housing would disallow single women access.
What steps can we take towards this?
Data collection and disaggregation that accounts for gender specific needs and ensures correction of gender biases in data collection. This would also mean impact assessment that focuses on gendered impact for all governmental action;
Encouraging political participation by non male persons, by way of reservations or otherwise;
Encouraging non male citizenship participation: as voters, voting blocs, members of various citizen groups and so on;
More non male urban planners would help bring varied lived experiences, changing how cities are planned.
Unfortunately, a major drawback here is that gender inclusive planning invariably means planning for women even today. It primarily consists of accounting for needs of women in urban planning and barely focuses on the needs of persons that do not identify as male or female or are non cisgender.
It is imperative that, to create cities that are sustainable and inclusive, we understand the role gender plays in the everyday life of an individual — from their learned norms, roles and responsibilities — to the functions they then carry out in their personal lives and the spaces they occupy, as a result of these learnt behaviours. While deconstructing these social norms is important, it is equally important to create spaces that account for the needs of different genders to ensure that all persons are able to derive the same use and enjoyment of, and access to, cities and their benefits — notwithstanding their gender.
Vandita Morarka is the Founder CEO of One Future Collective.