In urban cities despite the apparent visibility of women, women across class do not share equal access to public space with men. Is the flaw in the city planning and design of these spaces which do not encourage women to enjoy and benefit form them? Or is our public spaces expression of the patriarchal society that we are?
Public spaces are essential to the quality and experience of urban life which is used freely on a day-to-day basis by the general public, such as streets, plazas, parks and public infrastructure open and accessible to everyone. Regrettably most public spaces in cities are “gendered spaces”, poorly designed to exclude women – due to safety and convenience reasons.
Traditionally, in most societies there has been a clear demarcation of public & private realm with women relegated to the latter. Most of the things in our built environment are designed with male perspective based on a male model. There are differences between men and women in terms of ergonomics but designs that are inept for women still are commonly used. It seems women are constantly being disempowered by the non- progressive planning and designing of built environment and community spaces and the question is to how changes to the physical environment might help women to reclaim the right to use public space as and when they wish. Women consistently express fears for their personal safety in public spaces and institutions. In fact engendering public spaces and reducing their vulnerability can result from simple design solutions:
1. Installing effective signage that makes it easier to know where you are
2 Planning better lighting clear sight lines for visibility especially at night
3. Efficient arrangement of road systems, highways, pedestrian walkways and parking areas.
4. Building subways safer by making them easily approachable and maintainable, with efficient light systems, avoiding hiding places and planned security systems.
5. Designing stations for attendants, wardens or policemen in the public spaces to provide prompt official assistance.
Planners need to create urban spaces that are hospitable, by designing women and child friendly street furniture, suitable height of footpaths, sloping kerbs at intervals for prams, fewer steps for children, handrails, accessible litterbins, well lit and easily accessible car parks and roads and demarcated areas for women with babies for breastfeeding or nappy changing. Another important aspect to the subject is the absence of sufficient public toilets for women in the public spaces including public institutions resulting in long queues. Designers still accord the same number of square meters to male and female toilets, while in reality women are apt to spend more time individually in the toilets unlike men who have urinal stalls. So why not double the allocation?
The urban planning concepts that affect women most are predictable: schools, housing design, parks, pavements, safety and transport. If public spaces were designed with women in mind, they would look entirely different, with much more lighting, better-situated car parks, easily accessible play areas and more areas where residential and office spaces are mixed, making it far easier to juggle work and childcare.
It is disturbing, to note, the way women restrict their lives or get used to being uncomfortable or simply accept the physical and geographical limitations placed on them in everyday life. Gender has a low priority, but what is good for women is good for everyone. It will create better cities for all. Above all, it is about designers being open to this issue and becoming part and parcel of building a caring society which is sensitive to the needs of all including the elderly, children, women and the disabled.