How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender Equality

In the mid-1990s, public officials in Vienna found something surprising when they studied who was using their public parks: girls were much less likely to use parks after age nine, while boys continued using them into their teens. Boys, researchers found, dominated park areas like basketball courts and playground equipment. Girls might pass through but didn’t stop to play.

To make the park more appealing to girls, park designers created what amounted to gender-segregated spaces, installing volleyball and badminton courts for the girls, and dividing open areas into more private spaces with landscaping. More benches encouraged socializing. Use by girls increased. That boost in numbers meant that in competition for park space, the boys were now less likely to crowd out girls.

The story of this park is just one of the 60-plus urban planning and design pilot projects that the city of Vienna has rolled out as a part of its “gender mainstreaming” public policy. Having pioneered strategies to plan and build cities for women since the early 1990s, Vienna required each of its agencies to introduce strategic plans and initiatives to support the explicit inclusion of needs, concerns, and lived experiences of women to shape more equitable policy outcomes for residents of all genders.

Urban planning and public-space design has long responded to existing uses, rather than creating opportunities for entirely new behaviors.

In the case of the park, they’d solved the problem, right? Perhaps not. Though it was well intentioned, the solution was superficial. It created spaces where interactions between genders were less likely, without addressing the root of the problem: the unequal gender power dynamics between boys and girls.

This kind of design solution for gender equity in public space is not unusual. Urban planning and public-space design has long responded to existing uses, rather than creating opportunities for entirely new behaviors (like encouraging conversations or negotiations between boys and girls in our park above). Because the typical user of urban space has, since the advent of modernism, been the young, professional, white male, this baseline informs every other user groups’ experience of the city. This also means, as urbanist Saskia Sassen has pointedly said, the practice of urban planning and design and its outcomes are not gender neutral. Inequality is spatially reinforced by design, from our systems all the way down to individual public spaces.

As social scientists, policymakers, and designers increasingly talk about pushing for inclusion in the field and designing for gender equality, we need to make sure actions address root causes, rather than just solve for superficial manifestations of a larger problem. At a time when an estimated 81 percent of women can say #MeToo to experiences of street harassment, according to the advocacy organization Stop Street Harassment, it’s appropriate to demand more profound approaches. At the same time, we need to be both ambitious and honest about which challenges design alone may be able to resolve. Gender inclusion in public spaces won’t succeed with just one strategy or new theory, so we’ll explore three ways for designers and behavioral scientists to directly challenge unequal power dynamics: occupying space, enabling authentic representation, and reducing perceived fear.

Taking up (public) space

Gender is a set of societal expectations for behavior, not an essential quality or a fixed role. Women, for instance, might be expected to act their gender by conforming to particular stereotypes—like being agreeable, timid, or compassionate. Studies of nonverbal behavior among genders have found that women in public space use shrinking, timid, or closed body language. When women defy those gender stereotypes by asserting their right to use and control public space, they can reshape what it means to be a woman in public.

Some approaches here can even offer some fun. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transit Authority created cheeky illustrated signs for subway cars, calling out bad subway rider etiquette, including the practice of “manspreading.” By targeting a behavior that allows men to take up more space in public, this campaign could create more equitable use of public space for all.

Inequality is spatially reinforced by design, from our systems all the way down to individual public spaces.

This approach is more powerful when generated from within a community. Take, for instance, founders of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee (TPWC). More than a decade ago, they began transforming the largely abandoned R. V. Burgess Park in Toronto. It sits at the center of a diverse, high-rise neighborhood populated predominantly by new immigrants. Today, their signature program is a weekly market showcasing the products of local women, and a cafe run by women and teen girls from the community. By organizing around public space, TPWC expanded opportunity and put women in community decision-making roles.

Occupying space can be effective as a temporary action, too. An example: Mulheres Rodadas, a Brazilian activist group, which created a recurring feminist block party during Rio’s Carnivalthat denounced street harassment and chauvinism in the city. Instead of being targets of harassment and violence during the notoriously belligerent Carnival, women become powerful advocates demanding respect. Mulheres Rodadas found that attaching a protest—and a space—to an important element of Brazilian culture gave it a larger, public stage and a readymade audience. Mulheres Rodadas’ example builds on the internationally known Take Back the Night Foundation’s approach to organize demonstrations and actions that call attention to women’s right to safe communities.

Seeing others and being seen

Historically, particularly in the western world, public spaces were designed predominantly to serve white, working men, while private spaces were associated with women. Today, in cities around the globe, designers and citizens are actively constructing ideas of what it means to embrace the visibility of women in public space.

Let’s take crosswalk signs as an example. Some cities have altered “male” walking symbols, adding “female” traits, to increase women’s representation. But like the Vienna park, some argue the cosmetic solution—which in some cases features markers like pigtails, skirts, and handbags—plays into a problematic gender stereotype. Can design better represent women among the artifacts of our public, social spaces?

One way that designers can work on representation at a deeper level is by basing their work on research methods that are more inclusive. In Baltimore, a 2017 public-life study surveyed participants in public-arts programming at the Y-Not Lot, a DIY event space run by a local civic organization. The study, led by the Neighborhood Design Center, collected several types of data. Observational data—surveyors guessing at the gender of the visitors they saw—suggested visitors to the space were 60 percent male and 40 percent female. Survey data from questionnaires uncovered a different picture. They showed only 45 percent of visitors identified as men, 53 percent as women, and 2 percent as another gender. Designers can take a cue from the social sciences while also directly engaging people in the research process to reduce observer bias and reveal more nuance in how gender is represented in a space.

Representation isn’t only about making faces and bodies visible but also about making experience visible. The nonprofit Hollaback is a global platform for women and LGBTQ people to tell and map their stories of street harassment. In New Orleans, Hollaback led poster campaigns and “chalk walks” on public streets, exposing passersby to the invisible experiences of harassment that women and some men experience in public. Hollaback also gathered a group of people to paste feminist artwork on walls throughout New Orleans, using public space as a platform for advocacy and collective action.

Whether through sensitive research or creative communications strategies, allowing people to voice their own lived experience can change the way others perceive space. The experience of seeing others and being seen for who we are is connected to feeling like we belong in a space, to a community, and to a larger society. As designers, it’s important for us to think about who we represent and how, and rely more on representation and engagement to ensure good intentions don’t lead to further stereotyping or tokenizing, undermining the success of interventions meant to make vulnerable groups visible.

Reducing gendered impact of perceived fear

Designers who want to create spaces for women are often motivated to keep them safe, sometimes through crime-prevention design strategies, or by making women’s typical patterns of movement and use of the city more convenient. In many parts of the world, women’s participation in public life at all depends on these changes. Women’s fears of personal safety from male violence can hold them back from traveling with confidence through public space. And yet, sometimes designs to keep women safe can paradoxically make them feel less safe.

That finding is supported by research from the 1980s. Sociologist Gill Valentine, working in Reading, England, showed that women felt more at risk in environments with particular physical characteristics—dark, isolated, remote, unpopulated, or spots with obstructed visibility—and consequently tried to avoid spaces with those characteristics.

Sometimes designs to keep women safe can paradoxically make them feel less safe.

Valentine’s conclusion: rather than live each day in fight-or-flight mode, women form predictive mental images (based on prevailing news and narratives) of unsafe spaces. Their perception of safety, then, rests more on images or ideas of potential threats rather than statistical evidence–a theory backed up by more recent research, too. The research shows us that the possible threat of male violence against women is deeply embedded in the predominant narratives that women across cultures carry with them, so much so that those narratives shape women’s everyday experiences and often limit their choices, even in places when real danger is quite rare. In this way, perception of crime or danger may in some cases be more of a persistent problem for gender equality in public spaces than incidences of crime—and one rooted deeply in unequal, gendered power dynamics.

Adding to the challenge, typical design features intended to improve safety and prevent crime can actually backfire when it comes to improving the perception of safety. For example, designs enhancing lighting often introduce bright floodlights that also create pockets of darkness. Symbolic barriers like hedges and walls may deter intruders from a property, but they also limit visibility and offer spaces that can be perceived as places for a potential attacker to hide. These design choices can deter women from using public spaces. In other words, we have to ask whether our existing design vocabulary can speak to the real and perceived systemic and experienced safety concerns of women in the public realm.

The idea of shaping urban space for inclusion and equity has never had as much traction as today. But our approach must also include humility and a recognition of the limits of design. Though design is powerful, space is ultimately created and transformed by social action.