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Gender equal cities: How to improve women’s experiences in public spaces?

Sally Kneeshaw, Gender Equal Cities lead for URBACT, found through her work that whilst  most people are generally aware of societal gender inequality, not many people realise just how differently women and men experience the city and public spaces. These differences can affect accessibility, a sense of safety and general well-being. Cities can and should work towards gender equal solutions in urban planning, placemaking and design to create spaces that are attractive and functional for all, that guarantee an equal right to the city for all.

How do men and women experience cities differently, particularly in relation to public spaces?

Cities have historically been designed and run by men. Despite recent advancements, urban planning and architecture are still professions that are dominated by men, so a woman’s perspective is often lacking. There are a number of gaps that we need to narrow to make cities more gender equal. For instance in terms of representation, only 16 % of EU city leaders are women. The gender pay gap means that cities are experienced differently in terms of affordability, as women earn on average 16% less than men. All of this is compounded by a fundamental data gap in our understanding of these gendered differences, making it harder to use evidence and statistics to correct bias. These differences relate to all aspects of our lives, including lifestyles, employment patterns, income, bodies and norms related to care giving, family and behaviour.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez is a useful book explaining the extent of this data gap and how data  often misses women, treats men as default and fails to take gender into account. Typical examples are design of products such as cars, clothing and mobile phones or research on women’s health. These kinds of biases are prevalent also in the design of public spaces and services in cities.

Examples can be found in mobility. The URBACT report Gender Equal Cities has good information about how women get around the city and further research recently published by Ramboll on urban mobility shows that generally men are more likely to do single car trips while women do multiple trips, use public transport and walk more. These patterns relate to traditional caregiving roles and the way we combine work and family. Sustainable mobility has great potential to be optimised by aligning with women’s needs and behaviours. Research by the city of Umea in Sweden concluded that if men travelled like women, 20% of emissions would be cut overnight.

Gender offence public campaign in London. Photo (c) Sally Kneeshaw

Another issue is the distribution of space among different genders and interests. For example, parks can get quickly dominated by men and boys doing sports. Yet girls like to play sports too and at the same time there are a lot of men who don’t want to play sports. Still, even small towns and cities mostly have a football field that is used exclusively by men and boys. For the same size, for admittedly a greater investment that brings a return in terms of health and cohesion, you could build a swimming pool that would be used by all generations, families and genders. Studies from Sweden show that the gender imbalance in parks starting at the age of eight is already 80%-20% in favour of boys. As a result, teenage girls can feel ten times less safe in parks than boys. This has a big impact on socialisation, sense of belonging and well-being. These cases make us question who has the right to space and who uses space as fundamental in equitable urban planning.

Less talked about but equally important is the need for toilets as public infrastructure. Women generally urinate more frequently than men, we might need to change babies, and use the bathroom more during our period. Research shows that older women may hesitate to go out to shop or walk in the city, activities that are vital for their independence,  if they don’t have the possibility to go to the bathroom. It is so basic and natural.  We are all familiar with the longer queues as women need toilet cubicles which logically should mean building larger more toilets for women, but that rarely seems to be the case.

Finally, safety remains a huge issue for women, as they feel less safe than men in cities. Good urban design will help make women and girls feel safer at all times of the day and night. Most cities have community safety strategies many of which have been developed and enhanced after pressure from women’s groups. More lighting is part of the solution.  But we need more gender- sensitive infrastructure, eg. about intersections and entrances, ‘eyes on the street’, training for public facing staff, campaigns and, above all, ongoing public dialogue about respect for women and girls. There are several initiatives, especially in the aftermath of the Me Too movement, where women and girls can report online their experiences of being harassed, which reveal how normalised it is for them to be pushed, touched, name called. Calling out and combatting this behaviour, as well as equipping women and girls to respond and expect better, is part of challenging the status quo.

What are initiatives implemented by cities that you would want to highlight?

Many cities are taking important steps to create more welcoming and gender sensitive public spaces.

In Swedish cities we have the snow-clearing example. Women walk or take public transportation in larger proportion than men, who tend to drive to work. Data showed that three times as many people are injured while walking in icy conditions in Sweden than while driving and 69% of them are female, yet the major roads would get the first snow removal in the mornings. Now, Swedish cities prioritise sidewalks and bike paths first, especially those near bus stops and primary schools.

Many cities are looking at urban symbols, such as statues, street names, public art to better celebrate women’s lives and contributions. The Women’s Council in Poznan, Poland, counted and found that out of 500 streets only 38 were named after women. They launched a public debate and, working with the city, they renamed 26 streets honouring historical women.

The City of London together with Transport for London (TfL) ran an advertising campaign called Women We See to challenge gender stereotypes after finding in their research that women feel misrepresented in advertising. The winner, health retailer Holland & Barrett, got free space on billboards in the underground to run a positive campaign about active menopausal women, who tend to be invisible and not talked about, with the slogan Me No Pause.

In New York there is fantastic public art, celebrating women such as this ARTE project co-created with incarcerated young women and high schools students portraying Global Women Heroes as a response to injustice based on race and gender.

ARTE project co-created with incarcerated young women and high schools students portraying Global Women Heroes as a response to injustice based on race and gender, New York. Photo (c) Sally Kneeshaw
Gender mainstreaming in cities seems like a top-down process where cities decide on a campaign and implement it. What are the roles of grassroots initiatives in motivating cities to tackle this issue?

Gender mainstreaming and budgeting are crucial processes for all levels of government to be able to deliver more equitable spaces and services. They require good data, expertise, political commitment and women’s organisations to both feed in and to hold them to account.

Participatory processes and multi-stakeholder approaches with integration across different departments of the city are key. The URBACT approach is helping cities think about who is around the table, (and who is missing), how to look at solutions together to harness the energy of these groups to make changes city wide. The URBACT Local Groups can build relationships between these groups and the city administration in a constructive way that creates dynamic change.

There are examples of women’s groups who use guerrilla tactics like just hopping on a ladder and changing street names. In the case of Poznan it was a women’s group that initiated the idea of changing street names which was then adopted by the city.

A lot also depends on the formal representation of women in cities, how open the cities are to local initiatives and women’s opinions. It is helpful to have good connections to academics working on gender and diverse perspectives such migrant women’s (race/ethnicity), LGBTQI and intergenerational groups.

How do EU-wide mechanisms work towards gender equality? How can small municipalities gain knowledge in this field and get support to improve their city?

Gender equality is of course a fundamental right enshrined in the European Treaties. Cities have crucial leverage in driving gender equality policies forward and there are a number of tools to help.

A great tip for any city would be to sign up to the Council for European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)’s European Charter for Equality of Women and Men role in Local Life . The Charter is very comprehensive about what you can do as a local administration and good practices are shared in their Observatory.

They can also take a look at URBACT’s Gender Equal Cities report, based on our findings from cities we work with, to gain an understanding of what they do in relation to gender equality.

Finally, The European Institute for Gender Equality  (EIGE) regularly produces evidence and new tools to support better-informed policy-making.

What can individuals do to advocate gender equality in cities when there is so much disconnect in society?

Approach your city officials. Try to knock on doors and see if they open. Local governments need good partners in the community. Bring your experience to your neighbourhood forums. Tweet your Councillor when you see something that needs changing.

There are good placemaking tools that can be used to guide local processes such as Her City, a UN Habitat Guide for Cities to Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Planning and Design.

Painted mural of Sojourn Truth, American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, in New York. Photo (c) Sally Kneeshaw

To counter the disconnect well designed places and infrastructures can foster social integration between citizens of different backgrounds, including genders. The Greater London Authority report on social integration and connective social infrastructure gives examples of  all the ways people can connect socially, both formally and informally, like book clubs, pocket parks and barbershops which act as social hubs.

My advice would be to become community champions who innovate and make their neighbourhoods better. To become active is great but we also need to make sure that we listen, reflect, and co-create solutions that benefit everyone, especially the most marginalised.

How not to enforce stereotypes? How to address differences in age, gender, social and cultural backgrounds along with gender in the development of urbanistic models?

It is very important to think carefully about what we mean about gender equality in public space. How to make sure everyone’s needs are met and to address all power dynamics at play. How to ensure that gender equality in cities does not create liveability exclusively for white middle class women at the cost of other, more disadvantaged groups. We can fall into a trap of not thinking about the experiences of, for instance, young Black men, or how comfortable a gay couple feels in a public space to express who they are. As Swedish colleagues say ‘it is always about gender, but never just about gender’

We need to think how women with different religious or cultural identities feel in public space. Eva Kail from the City of Vienna gave the example of young girls of Turkish heritage who can have different concerns: they can worry what their parents think if they are seen in the park or in mixed groups and could lead to avoiding such public spaces. The solution was to have play-workers as moderators in the park that the city provided to set rules and moderate the space to make sure everybody feels safe and that it is equally used.

In terms of post-Covid recovery, we have seen that women have been affected more negatively both economically and at home during the Covid crisis. Is there a specific post-Covid recovery plan for women?

Rather than a specific post Covid recovery plan for women, we need gender to be mainstreamed and women’s experiences centred in all national and local plans.

The European Institute of Gender Equality Data showed that women’s job were  hit badly because the sectors where women tend to work in greater numbers were the ones that shut down such as retail, services, hospitality. The sectors that will benefit most from investment in future such as digital, green infrastructure and construction have many traditionally male jobs. We know from past economic crises that the impacts on women are longer lasting.

It’s a big question where the recovery money will go. How do we make sure that women can get back to well paid, secure work and those in poverty have safety nets? It is good to see that European Parliament, at the request of the FEMM Committee, is working on gender budgeting in the Recovery and Resilience fund. We need to ensure that the 750 billion euro benefits everyone equally.

Interview with Sally Kneeshaw, Gender Equal Cities lead for URBACT by Bahanur Nasya and Sophie Bod. 






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