Designing cities that work for women
What urban life says about gender inequality
Published by UNDP on 3 October 2022
A woman on crutches in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The way that cities are designed, built, run, and maintained affect women's learning, work, leisure, political and cultural participation; they can foster community networks and shape how they feel in their daily lives. Photo by UNDP Bangladesh/Fahad Kaizer
In theory, cities offer egalitarian opportunities. They are open to anyone who wants to take their best shot at a fulfilling, diverse, economically rewarding, and cultural life.
In reality, most cities are built by men, for men, with little or no thought for women’s and girls’ needs, aspirations or safety.
The ‘penalties’ women pay for living in cities include violence, poverty, unequal amounts of unpaid care work, limited job opportunities, and lack of power in public and private decision making.
This disregard for 50 percent of the population has real consequences for hundreds of millions of people and, left unchecked, will continue do so at rising rates.
Today, just over half the world’s people live in cities. That number is predicted to rise to 68 percent by 2050. By 2030, the world is expected to have 43 megacities of more than 10 million people, most of them in the global South.
These cities will not function well if women don’t have an equal say in how they are planned and administered.
Gender equality is imbedded in each of the Sustainable Development Goals, yet women and girls face immense structural and social barriers to living lives that are just, inclusive and sustainable.
When women look at cities, what do they see?
Cities = danger
In developed and developing countries alike, women, girls and LGBTQIA+ citizens face danger when they go out.
In Ireland, 55 percent of women feel unsafe in public transport after dark. In the UK, 71 percent of women have experienced some form of public sexual harassment. Amongst women aged 18-24, that rises to 97 percent.
In Jordan, 47 percent of women surveyed had turned down a job opportunity because of the affordability and availability of public transport, and public sexual harassment. In New York City, women spend an average US$26 to $50 extra on transport per month for safety reasons.
Data from a survey in Hawassa, Ethiopia, shows that 50.8 percent of women and girls have experienced violence while using public transport.
Cities = an unfair environment
Women benefit less from city life than men.
Unless you have the privilege of living in a city such as Barcelona, with its women friendly ‘super blocks’ or Vienna, with its generous public seating and streets named after women leaders, gender bias is literally built into urban spaces.
The way cities are designed, built, run and maintained affect women’s learning, work, leisure, political and cultural participation; they can foster community networks and shape how safe they feel in their daily lives. Or not.
Can’t find a public toilet or a baby changing station or a place to breastfeed? Or a safe, accessible park to meet friends? Are the wide streets clogged with cars, while the footpaths are too narrow? Is bicycle infrastructure unsafe or non-existent? Then it’s likely women had no significant say in the way your city was built or is administered.
All over the world, one in three women do not have safe, inclusive toilets. A lack of safe public spaces and parks, coupled with unaffordable accommodation, promote gender-based violence and exclusion, especially for older and disabled women.
Whether it’s statues, monuments or street names, cities consistently reinforce the achievements of men, which is proven to reduce girls’ interest in politics, science, tech, engineering and mathematics. Constant visual validation of male leaders can generate a poor sense of belonging for women.
What needs to change?
Cities = a new way of living
Designing Cities That Work For Women,” an upcoming study developed by Arup, UNDP and the University of Liverpool, looks at contemporary city life as it has rarely been seen before – from the perspective of women of different ages, ethnicities, sexual orientation and socio-economic backgrounds.
It finds ways to make urban planning work for more than just men—by considering health and wellbeing, human potential, safety and equity.
It finds that women and girls need equitable resources and opportunities which can be crafted through gender-inclusive urban planning and socioeconomic policies.
Quality basic education is a must if women and girls are to benefit from the opportunities that cities provide and to support a sense of belonging and autonomy. Building infrastructure with women in mind has proven benefits for everybody. Whether it’s safe cycling routes or promoting gender inclusion in modern urban design, Athens, Bogota, Nairobi, Dakar and San Francisco have proven that cities that embrace female leadership see greater socioeconomic and sustainable development.
Policymakers must give women a say in city designs and urban planning. Women’s rights to property, denied in many countries, are fundamental to their futures and freedoms.
Adolescent girls read a book during a break from a session on sexual and reproductive health in Cunene, Angola. Quality basic education is a must if women and girls are to benefit from the opportunities that cities provide and to support a sense of belonging and autonomy. Photo by UNDP Angola/Cynthia R Matonhodze
Cities = cradles of female opportunity
A high-level event on October 3, 2022, for World Habitat Day – “Mind the Gap. Leave No One and No Place Behind” – will flip the way we have been conditioned to think about cities. Through the report, it will showcase women and girl-led models of planning which will transform cities. And it will emphasize that female leadership is crucial to this transformation.
The recommendations include appointing a ‘Designing for Women and Girls Ambassador’ and creating a ‘Designing Action Plan’, setting out how the needs and challenges faced by women and girls can be addressed.
Cities can consider a ‘Gender Equality in the Built Environment Task Force’, which would guide local authorities, community groups and the police.
A ‘Designing for Women and Girls’ charter could display cities’ political will to improve their environments. Raising awareness of gender-based issues could persuade politicians that voters want women and girls to be included, not ignored.
And both private and public sector design projects should recruit, retain and promote women from diverse backgrounds.
Malak Safa, a youth leader from Lebanon, attends a forum in New York. A high level event at this year's World Habitat Day - "Mind the Gap: Leave No One and No Place Behind" - will flip the way we have been conditioned to think about cities. Female leadership is crucial to this transformation. Photo by UNDP/Freya Morales
Cities = the past and the future
Whether Varanasi in India, or Babylon in Mesopotamia, since humans first invented cities, they have been crucibles of social, scientific, educational, and cultural excellence. Again and again, they have shown us the best of what we are capable of. Their influences echo down the centuries and shape our identities and ideas to this day.
In the 21st century, and in addition to their traditional roles, cities must also tackle the world’s biggest challenges of climate change, rising poverty and inequality. This World Habitat Day, let’s recognize that gender equality is a sure step to provable economic, environmental, political and social benefits that bring us closer to the Sustainable Development Goals.