Our cities are not designed with women in mind

Our cities are not designed with women in mind

Our cities are not designed with women in mind

Why we must reimagine urban public spaces to create a more equal and inclusive environment for London’s diverse communities.  

When navigating the streets of London, have you ever considered for whom the city has been designed? Whether you and the person walking over the road can freely move around the city in the same way? How these ‘rights’ to use and live in public spaces are in fact gendered? Due to systems of oppression and unequal power relations, our urban experiences are innately distinct. Indeed, the evolution of our cities has failed to create an equal and inclusive environment for its diverse communities. We still live in cities that have been designed by and for men.

The legacy of society’s assigned gender roles and sexist stereotypes can still be observed in the city today, where men have dominated the public sphere and women have been restricted to the private sphere — the home. For example, Elizabeth Wilson writes in The Sphinx in the City that women were considered an ‘interruption’ in the city, a source of disorder. Lone, wandering women would commonly be mistaken for prostitutes in cities during the early Industrial era.

But, this has not only impacted women’s participation in city life and use of urban spaces. Despite significant progress, women’s voices and everyday experiences are still marginalised within decision and policymaking processes, and this has serious implications for all. Not only does it lead to injustice for women, but it also generates burden and pain for men. Indeed, the psychological impacts of cities being unsafe take a toll on men too, while gender equality is shown to improve the life satisfaction of both men and women in equal societies.

For women, from a deficiency of access to safe female toilets outside the home, to public transport that has been designed to serve the commuter who travels straight from home to work, it is clear that significant design choices have been made without over half of the population in mind. As many women menstruate and biologically need to urinate more frequently, the provision of regular, safe, and well-maintained access to public toilet facilities is fundamental to women’s ability to walk and move freely through the city for greater amounts of time, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Devastatingly, fear of violence is a constant concern for women, minoritised ethnicities, and LGBTQI+ communities when navigating public space. 71% of women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in a public place, as found by a YouGov poll. With the horrific cases like Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman — sisters who were murdered in a London park last year — the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, and the recent murder of primary school teacher Sabina Nessa, one question becomes more critical: when will women feel safe on our streets? Alarmingly, this safety crisis significantly impacts minority women, who are more likely to experience sexual assault.

So, what actions are being taken? In light of the murders, the British government introduced new safety measures, including investing £45 million in the Safer Streets fund for additional streetlights and video surveillance cameras. However, experts claim it is unlikely to be of any success. Indeed, violence against women is not a design issue and will not be solved by being treated like one. Systemic sexism and misogyny remain inherent and deeply rooted in our society. But, it is important to question: what does a city look like when it is designed with women in mind? Urban planners firstly need to understand real needs and experiences in order to obtain a more nuanced perspective and design a more equal environment for its diverse communities.

Women continue to fight for this reimagining of the city.  Following the lack of successful government action on this pressing problem, women have taken to the streets to protest, fighting for freedom from violence, fear, and harassment in urban public spaces by “Reclaiming the Streets”. This has motivated street marches throughout recent decades, such as the Take Back the Night marches, which started in the 1870s but gained traction in the 1970s, and Slutwalk, which challenged social and cultural norms about women’s right to the street at night. These examples have been particularly powerful; women are reappropriating the streets of the city they continue to be alienated from, in their flight for an inclusive and equal city for all.

We, at JAN Trust, believe that everyone has the right to the city. The danger that women experience daily cannot be condoned in any way and we support and empower marginalised women against the inequalities they face. To find out more about the work that JAN Trust has done over the last 30 years to support women and young people across the UK, click here.