Updated: Mar 25
*This article is published in conjunction with International Women’s Day, which falls on 8 March every year.
Our cities are built by able-bodied men, for other able-bodied men. This is apparent from the land-use patterns which assume that commuting is just part of life, the disconnected and often cluttered pavements, down to the detailing of our public spaces.
Much of how we build our cities today is the result of the post-war period, where construction was taking place rapidly to house the population. Suburbs proliferated under the assumption that men would go to work in the city, while women stayed home and took care of the house and the family. As a result, gender took on a spatial form, with the city centre becoming more and more dominated by men.
While this particular phenomenon is more applicable to the Western context, all over the globe, women face similar problems in navigating the city. Women constitute almost half (39%) of our workforce, while at the same time, traditional gender roles mean that most of the responsibility of childcare and housework still falls on women. And yet, how do our cities support this?
Our fragmented urban environment and unaffordable city living have resulted in often long commutes, as people opt to stay further out from the city centre. However, it is still difficult to find childcare facilities in the Central Business District (CBD) areas. Parents often have to leave their children with either childminders or childcare facilities in residential areas, and this might even be in the next Taman or a detour from their path to the office. Childcare costs can also be prohibitive. This would at times result in a parent, often the mother, to stop working in order to take care of the child. Alternatively, a domestic worker would be employed to ensure that somebody is watching the kids throughout the day.
Zoning also resulted in mono-functional areas, so there is a lack of natural surveillance of public spaces throughout the day. This pose danger to women, who are often the target for harassment and crime. In their study of urban parks in Kuala Lumpur, Maruthaveeran and van den Bosch (2015) found that women often take on a defensive stance in public spaces. While this is done mostly out of safety concerns, society’s tendency to often place the blame on the victim, when the victim is female, is also a motivating factor. This is even more so when the crime is of sexual nature.
The lack of natural surveillance is compounded by poorly lit streets and disconnected, broken, and cluttered pavements, posing even greater danger and more taxing mentally to women as they have to be extra careful while navigating this unfriendly terrain. Our car culture has also resulted in the marginalisation of pedestrians in general, forcing them to use pedestrian overbridges. In Kuala Lumpur, long stretches of these bridges have even been built, reminiscent of the 'streets in the sky’ concept coined by Alison and Peters Smithson in 1951 as a potential solution to the clash between cars and pedestrians. Taking pedestrians off the streets does not only rob potential customers of shops and thus muting the vitality at street level that would have come out of potential encounters, but imagine a woman having to use these isolated structures after dark.
There are many issues with our public toilets in general, but these issues are compounded when it comes to women. Due to biological needs like menstruation and also a more complex clothing design, women tend to need a longer time in bathrooms, and yet, women’s bathrooms often do not get more provision of stalls than the men’s room. This would at times result in long queues. The placement and design of public toilets – more often than not situated in secluded areas – post safety issues to everyone, but even more so to women. The lack of maintenance would also cause severe discomfort to women who have to take a longer time in the bathroom. Baby changing stations are also rarely provided in general, but if they were, they would be situated in the women’s bathroom due to sexist assumptions. This would inconvenience fathers as well.
It is all too easy to take the danger of the city as a given and to warn our daughters and female friends and family to be careful and to avoid certain areas at certain times. This however put the burden of navigating an unfriendly urban environment solely the responsibility of the women themselves, thus opening up the risk of being blamed if things went wrong. This also means that women face a higher level of decision fatigue in weighing their options in the everyday life. But does it have to be this way?
Dr Ellie Cosgrave, Tiffany Lam, and Zoe Henderson provide some clues on how our cities can be more gender-equitable. Firstly, we must ensure that the perspectives of women and girls are given priorities during project and policy planning to ensure more inclusive outcomes. Gender mainstreaming would also help by integrating a gender perspective into the design, implementation and monitoring of policies, and spending programmes. A deeper understanding of the problems faced by women in cities can be achieved by using gender-disaggregated data, where data such as the use of public transport is separated so policymakers can understand differences in behaviour and issues faced by women. A more active measure would be to conduct systematic women’s safety audits of the urban environment. Finally, awareness campaigns would help to educate the public on acceptable and non-acceptable behaviours and inculcate a cultural change in the long term.
Our cities are the sum of our values because what gets built are the things we prioritise. A city that is more friendly for women is a more equitable and inclusive city. Our cities can be better, but only if we demand change.