Comment: Tackling the gender bias in city design

Sowmya Parthasarathy, Director of Urban Design & Masterplanning at Arup, explores how a new report gives designers and planners the tools to understand and address women’s needs in their cities.

Adobe Stock

There is an urgent need to remove the pervasive gender bias built into our cities, in order to make them more safe, enjoyable, and productive for women and girls.

The impacts of COVID-19 and climate change in cities and communities across the world have disproportionately affected women. These two global crises have amplified existing gender inequalities and threatened women’s livelihoods, health, and safety. They have sharply highlighted the fact that our cities are not designed to support their role in society nor their personal needs. It has exposed the lack of women’s voices at tables where planning and policy decisions are made.

We need to ensure a diverse range of voices and experiences are heard when shaping both policy and projects. One way we can do this is by radically improving the representation of women in planning and design professions and in leadership positions. By engaging with real stories and experiences that women from all walks of life face every day, we can begin to create change.

With our growing reliance on data to drive decision-making in our cities, there is a risk that the real-life experience of women is overlooked within gender-blind statistics. With inadequately reliable data to support decision-making, gender-blind policy has rolled back progress and further widened gender gaps around health, education, and economic opportunity

An encouraging example can be found in Canada. Status of Women Canada, a federal government agency, manages a programme called Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+), which measures how different identity groups experience policies and programmes. As part of its work GBA+ has refined guidance for government departments on how to report on gender and identify related impacts of programmes. Its focus on monitoring has also helped assess whether its goal of fair outcomes for diverse groups are being met.

The above example from Canada also highlights the importance of having a clear publicly stated goal. I am a great believer in the power of making a pledge; ambitious public commitments make implementation more likely. It is vital for our governments, cities, and other actors in the built environment to embrace a clear ambition for inclusion. Once we have a target, we can learn from the many good examples of projects, policies and programmes that are being tested around the world to help achieve it.

Another key factor for success is to ensure that women’s voices are at the table from the earliest stages of planning and decision making. We need more women to hold leadership roles as well as more consistent participation through all stages of the planning and design process.

These and many other specific strategies to make cities more gender inclusive are outlined in our recent report, ‘Cities Alive: Designing Cities that Work for Women’, published in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme and University of Liverpool. The report is a call to action and highlights the positive results we could achieve by being more conscious and sensitive to the needs of all.

A more gender-inclusive approach to design and planning can easily be incorporated into good principles of urban design. For example, the 15-minute neighbourhood concept, where everyday necessities for a daily routine are all reachable within walking or cycling distance is well aligned with women’s needs. Women more commonly have to balance work with errands and care duties such as transporting children, elderly relatives and shopping, in addition to their commute. This succession of journeys – known as ‘trip chaining’ – is typically not well supported by how we design our cities, making it inconvenient and time consuming for women to get through their day. Safer and more convenient cities for women translate into better cities for all.

In recent years, the importance of inclusive design has become more accepted, and many workplaces offer a range of diversity training. But that alone isn’t enough – it has been shown to have minimal effects on male leaders in positions of power. Progress cannot be made if organisations stop at training programmes, without implementing more effective action. Our report offers many practical suggestions and strong male allyship is one of the most important. Together, both men and women can work together to make sure that the positive future vision it outlines goes beyond just words on a page.

Sowmya Parthasarathy is Director of Urban Design & Masterplanning at Arup