Here's How Urban Planners Can Make Cities Safer For Women


In a little over two decades, Vienna has transformed itself into a gender-sensitive metropolis. Last week, The Atlantic explored the ways the city has implemented reform since the '90s, using urban planning to make the city infrastructure more inclusive of women's needs.

One particularly notable initiative involved improving public transportation. Women use public transportation at a variety of times during the day to go to work, take kids to school and hospitals, and run errands. In response to this finding, planners improved conditions for pedestrians by widening sidewalks and increasing access to public transport. At a busy intersection, a large staircase with a ramp in the middle was built to accommodate the needs of people using strollers and wheelchairs. In response to women's safety concerns, the city introduced safer underground car parking and installed extra lighting so that women could walk feeling safe at night. 

Vienna also worked to make public parks more gender-inclusive. After conducting a year-long study, researchers found that the number of girls playing in parks dropped significantly after age nine, while the number of boys remained constant. In order to counter this tendency, the city planners redesigned the parks to include more sport-specific courts, and used landscaping to divide the parks into smaller sections where groups would not clash over control of space. The initiative was met with positive results, and both girls and boys began to utilize the parks in equal numbers. 

City officials also created an entire apartment complex called "Women-Work-City" designed specifically to accommodate the needs of working women, such as proximity to public transit, on-site kindergarten and clinic, and several green spaces.

As millennials enter public service and begin to run initiatives like the UN Habitat, it is important that as a generation we are governed by a different set of morals and motivations than the generation before us when it comes to urban planning — because let's face it, cities are the future of this planet. Young people need to ensure that largely unheard voices are now given their due, and their experiences included in the crafting of what urban living entails. In particular, this includes women, children, and the differently abled.   

While we should applaud the steps taken by Vienna officials in making gender an important consideration in urban development, we should still ask ourselves whether this approach emphasizes the gender stereotypes that we are continuously trying to let go of — in other words, whether making kindergartens, clinics, and parks for working women sends the message that irrespective of a woman's job description, it is her duty to ensure that the kids are all right.

I think criticizing gender-mainstreaming policy along these lines is grossly unfair, for several reasons. It is an initiative by a city administration to respond to the needs of all its citizens, after conducting thorough surveys. Ensuring that the needs of half the population are acknowledged is not stereotyping, it is good governance, and this perspective should apply not only to urban planning, but also labor rights and health care. 

In India, where I live, massive investments are being made by local and central governments to improve urban infrastructure. This has involved sanitizing and beautifying cities, and in turn this involves relocating residents to far-flung areas. Today urban planning largely involves sprucing up the existing urban setups to look aesthetically pleasing, without paying attention to what constitutes good governance, as can be seen in the case of  the Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad. 

In a country that is increasingly and unfortunately gaining infamy for instances of rape and sexual assault against women, we cannot afford to ignore gender concerns in urban planning. Even simple steps like ensuring adequate and functional toilets for women (largely ignored by urban planners), and increased lighting on streets at night, could break significant ground in ensuring women's health and safety. The UN Women's "Safer Cities Initiative" in collaboration with the Delhi government is trying to pioneer the process of gender mainstreaming. 

In an interesting twist, hawkers and roadside sellers are being evicted by local governments in order to beautify and clean up the sidewalks. It is interesting because in a survey conducted by the Delhi police, most women felt safer on streets with vendors, as the numbers act as a deterrent against potential perpetrators. Should we prioritize women's safety by public vigilance in the absence of effective policing over ensuring the streets are uncluttered? I think so. 

Nominal gestures like separate women's compartments in trains and buses cannot be the end of our gender mainstreaming initiatives. We need to make our cities safe and convenient for all stakeholders — and half the population doesn't qualify as a worthy beneficiary, who does? It's time to take Vienna's innovations and make them global.