Designing cities for women

How can we design cities for women?

Design Manager Emma Say writes:

I attended a very interesting webinar earlier this month: ‘How can we design cities for women?

The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) and the London Festival of Architecture hosted the event. Speakers across a wide range of sectors examined how urban design affects women and girls.

They discussed how built environment professionals, including urban planners, architects and developers, can help to make cities inclusive and safe places for everyone. Marina Milosev, Principal Planning Policy Officer, and Tifenn Kergosien , Senior Planning Manager, both of LLDC, introduced the event. They explained that the LLDC is reviewing the approach to gender equality in public spaces.

The key issues are safety and the perception of safety in the public realm.

Sarah Candiracci (ARUP) works on gender sensitive design and planning. Sarah pointed out that women of different ages and identities face a range of barriers and vulnerabilities.

  • In the UK, 97% of young women have experienced sexual harassment in public.
  • 16% of employees in built environment professions are women.

Different genders see ‘safety’ differently. Fear of crime impacts on women’s physical and mental health, access to opportunities of employment, and recreation. City planning doesn’t tend to consider women’s needs; gender-sensitive design should be included in planning decisions. New studies have shown that both men and women feel positive about well-maintained public spaces, and that they give an increased perception of safety. Changing spaces to feel safer had a bigger impact on women than on men, however.

When designing cities for women, there are so many variables (background, geography, gender identities, religion) that there is no one solution for everyone – it needs an open collaborative approach. ARUP, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and University of Liverpool are together looking at how the built environment can impact the following areas:

Health and wellbeing

It’s important that people can access green spaces, housing, and healthcare facilities. There tends to be a gender bias in healthcare and in healthcare data, and also in how accessible play areas and exercises spaces may be. In other countries, lack of access to water (Water4All) impacts mostly on women.

Self-actualisation and enrichment

Public spaces are used far more by men and boys, so women and girls have less access to outdoor public social interaction. Because women do not feel comfortable using spaces at night, they can only access limited culture and nightlife opportunities. Sarah talked about the Urban Activity Park case study which showed the benefits of using public spaces

Safety and security

Urban design often has poor lighting and insecure spaces, which make women more vulnerable to public harassment and violence. Women can feel that public transport places them at risk. The ‘That Guy’ Campaign is changing the conversation from women avoiding places that may be unsafe to asking men to change their behaviours.

Justice and equity

Legislation and gender quality policies fall down when there is not enough female participation in decision-making and planning. Cities are designed around men as default, and budgets are not set aside for ensuring women are considered.

Vienna’s ‘gender mainstreaming’ is working to recognise women in design and planning, including naming streets for and by women.

The Arup, UNDP and University of Liverpool group will generate evidence-based strategies that city leaders and communities can use to create safe, inclusive and equitable built environments. They expect to publish their report at the end of September 2022, which will be accessible online for everyone to reference, and those in Urban Planning to use to implement new safe environments for women.

Pablo Navarrete-Hernandez from The University of Sheffield (Dept of Landscape Architecture) looked at evidence-based strategies.

Pablo pointed out that urban environments, historically shaped by men, can make life difficult for everyone, but disproportionately affect women.

Women adapt their behaviour, steering clear of certain areas and certain times of day. This has an impact on their ability to engage in employment, education and leisure activities. How safe people feel is a layered and complex issue. It needs an integrated and coordinated approach across a range of different sectors.

Suzanna Walker from Make Space for Girls described their campaign for parks and public spaces to be designed for women, with a focus on teenage girls.

Currently, facilities are designed for and mostly used by boys – they are dominated by skate parks, BMX tracks, basketball, etc. Multi-use games areas (MUGA) are generally surrounded by high fences and often territorialised by groups of boys.

The Make Space for Girls campaign wants to make parks and public spaces suitable for everyone. This change is needed for fairness, for health and safety, and for equality law. The campaign looks to implement areas with better lighting, circular paths, smaller and subdivided sports areas, sociable seating, relaxed spaces, performance spaces and good quality toilet blocks.

Suzanna referenced many case studies, including Rosen’s Roda Matta (Rose Red Carpet) Park in Malmo, Sweden. Rosen’s Roda Matta was specifically designed by and for teenage girls. The project changed the usage of girls from 20% to 50% of the users. After this project was completed, they formed a permanent advocacy group, Engaged in Malmo, to help other girls and women influence the shape of their city and become involved in urban planning.

Sarah Hughes of Mace and Anna Wendt of Buro Happold represented the Mayor for London in a presentation ‘Good Growth by Design’.

Sarah and Anna are looking at how design can create safer public spaces for women and minorities in the public realm. Supporters of the programme include Sir David Adjaye OBE and Jayden Ali.

Sarah stated that the project is about more than just lighting, as Leslie Kern says: “No amount of lighting can abolish the patriarchy”.

There are three phases of work in the research programme which are integral to creating change:

  1. Research consultants Publica to engage experimentation and participation
  2. Live development projects
  3. Coming up with a checklist to be used by urban designers and planners to create inclusive urban development.

The research examined the different understandings of gender, and shifting the perspective from safety to looking at reshaping the city to be more inclusive generally, which will help to liberate women. Safety is a spectrum of feelings and experiences, and instead of focusing on crime and policing, the idea is to create a city which is more inclusive overall. Women should be included in the design process, because a better city for women is a better city for everyone.

All the speakers agreed that research is ongoing. But support for urban planning can help to ensure that cities are designed with not only women in mind, but people of all ages, race and genders.


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