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“De-gendering” cities: a new criterion of attractiveness?

5 minutes of reading
Cities are made by men and for men: they have historically been planned and designed to reflect the traditional role of the male gender. This is a considerable problem since all genders should have equity in sharing the public space.
Women represent almost 50% of the population and travel through the city just as much as men do. Nevertheless, inclusive urban spaces are still rare. It remains a challenge for women to find their place in the public space, both in terms of facility use and safety. As awareness of this problem grows, more and more cities are starting to strive towards greater diversity. The aim is to enable women and men to enjoy public spaces equitably. This is not a matter of feminising street names or name of the city itself. Rather, what cities must do to become welcoming and safe places for women is adapt to the needs, physical conditions, and expectations of all. That, in other words, means “de-gendering” all that makes up the city in order to create totally inclusive urban spaces that can be readily used by everybody: men and women as well as children, seniors, and people with disabilities.  

Taking gender into account in development

For each to be able to find their place in the city, gender must be taken into account at each step of development, as far upstream as possible – at best, right from the planning stage. Following the example of Le Havre, some municipalities are opting to include the main stakeholders from the very birth of each project, via diagnoses shared with the inhabitants. After all, who better to express their expectations for a space than those actually concerned? Through such initiatives, cities aim to concretely pinpoint the best routes for pedestrians-, regardless of gender or difference, while also selecting facilities aligned with the physical constraints of each individual. The idea is to bring an end to public sports facilities too heavy to be used by women or seniors, benches difficult to access for people with reduced mobility, pedestrian crossings that don’t take into account the visually impaired, and so on. As an example, a survey carried out in the city of Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland revealed that half the women did not use certain sidewalks, chiefly due to safety concerns.  

Bringing a female outlook to the city

One step further, “exploratory walks” are one of the tools used by communities to determine how to improve and restructure the public space in a way that stretches beyond the previous standards shaped by the habits and convictions of the male gender. The city of Lyon, for instance, uses this method prior to carrying out its development operations. Such an approach is successful because, by uniting a variety of outlooks, it provides reliable diagnoses on which to base concrete usage and safety recommendations for project managers. “Men, women, gender minorities tend to use the public space in different ways and generally experience the city differently. It is our duty to consider urban planning from the perspective of all its users,” says Sameh Wahba, World Bank Global Director for Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land.  

Accepting differences to move towards truly inclusive cities

To avoid treating the issue of gender and inclusion as a “trend” – which would only lead to a partial vision of the diversity needs of cities – women must have their place in decision-making bodies. In this sense, gender equality, and diversity in general, plays a vital role in all working groups, be they project teams, companies, institutions, or technical commissions. Many men -are the first to agree- that, to regain gender equality on the streets, urban development approaches must be shared equally between women and men. “We must do ‘one with one’ and put an end to ‘one plus one’,” explained Pascale Lapalud, urban planner and co-founder of Gender and City, a research and action platform whose purpose is to make territories egalitarian and inclusive, in an article in La Gazette des Communes. To achieve a profound change in cities and turn them into places that can be enjoyed by all, our challenge is now to acknowledge that public spaces are not neutral, and that their meaning differs according to social and gender identities. There is a long way to go before such awareness is shared by all. To address this, the World Bank published a “Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design” in 2020. The Handbook identifies  in the built environment that combine with gender inequity to constrain, inconvenience, and even endanger women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities of all ages and abilities.It outlines six complementary paths guiding cities to become fully inclusive:
  1. Access to services and spaces in the public realm, that must be free from constraints and barriers.
  2. Mobility, allowing people to move around the city safely, easily, and affordably.
  3. Safety and freedom from violence – being free from real and perceived danger in public and private spheres.
  4. Health and hygiene, enabling people to lead an active lifestyle that is free from health risks in the built environment.
  5. Climate resilience, to prepare for, respond to, and cope with the immediate and long-term effects of disaster.
  6. Security of tenure, through which each individual may access and own land and housing to live, work, and build wealth and agency

Breaking down the “normal” user framework

The city of Rennes is one of the many cities that have embarked on systematic consideration of gender to build, develop, and maintain public space without excluding anyone. Because, let’s face it, gendered cities abound with places of exclusion: lack of lighting in streets and parks, unsanitary toilets, public transport modeled on the schedules of so-called “normal” workers, and so on. However, by pinpointing what constitutes a barrier for even the smallest number of users, and sustainably integrating other perspectives than that of able-bodied men, it should become possible, over the next few years, to advance from theory to practice, from intention to action in gender and inclusion.- As a result, we will reinvent the attractiveness of cities.