Great progress has been made across the built environment industry to increase female participation in the workforce at all levels, and to create more inclusive environments based on fairness, respect and merit.
Despite these efforts, the sector is typically well below national workforce averages. And despite inspirational female urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, gender mainstreaming – the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes – has been less observed in city making.
We are used to discussions about whether companies have responded to a more diverse workforce and have provided a flexible, enabling environment for employees to balance work and other obligations.
Yet we don’t often explore whether the way our cities are planned and developed is actually responding appropriately to similar challenges and needs.
Being more conscious about who we are designing and planning for to create a more equitable or shared city – to accommodate everyone – needs greater exploration. We need to understand the changes in shaping our cities as a result of women in city leadership positions, and whether a city that provides for women and men equally looks any different to business as usual city development.
The Habitat III New Urban Agenda strategically supports mainstreaming gender equality and women’s empowerment across all social development goals. And right now is a good time to be working in the built environment sector as the New Urban Agenda could, and should, be a real game-changer for women in cities.
What can we do to make cities more female friendly?
This needs to be addressed through process and design interventions.
The process of city building needs to ask whether decision makers are applying a gender lens and placing greater emphasis on inclusive planning. Plymouth City Council in the UK has implemented gender auditing to measure ‘gender gaps’ in a planning policy or proposal. It’s not a new concept, but it is something that is often overlooked, despite being a vital part of equitable and sustainable planning.
The first step to user-focused city planning is for planners, designers and engineers is to understand how everyone perceives the built environment - and there is no substitute for meaningful engagement with our community and recognising that the community does not have a singular view.
Digital technology also plays a role in increasing participation of women in shaping cities through open and accessible platforms such as Free to Be’s crowd mapping tool that enables young women to identify and share public spaces that make them feel uneasy, scared or happy and safe.
Concepts such as inclusive masterplanning, human centred design and co-design reflect the need for these places to be designed with the input of all users involved. It is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re planning for and with, and recognising that what constitutes quality of life differs from place to place, community to community and over an individual’s life course.
Public transport agencies typically do this well with a very customer centric approach to planning and design, but it’s not typically extended across cities with gendered urban design responding to female patterns of time organisation and simultaneously of tasks.
Fundamentally, planning and design need to consider accessibility, to be welcoming and useful to the entire community. This is important if we want communities to own, look after and celebrate their shared spaces. More mixed land uses, better and more accessible public transport (accommodating varied patterns and multi-journey trips), safety and security and the co-location of social infrastructure – the city of short distances - are important considerations in making cities more female friendly and importantly more inclusive cities for all.
Are we on the right path?
The qualities of a female city - a city that better addresses the needs of women - will start to address broader inequality issues, and with the New Urban Agenda, there’s a great opportunity to establish a paradigm shift much more broadly in liveability and equity related urban policy and implementation.