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Reclaiming Safe Spaces in the City

A Gender-sensitive approach to Urban Planning

While more and more people enjoy being outside as summer approaches, park design has one obvious flaw. Where football fields and playgrounds shape the area, you’re lucky if you have a green area to sit or a free bench to rest. More often than not, this is not the case, and parks need a serious redesign to make the space attractive and inclusive for everyone.

Many parks all over the world are designed by investing in sports facilities such as football fields, skateparks or basketball hoops, and playgrounds for little children to play. This excludes young adults who do not have the resources to go to retail or restaurant spaces and who are not interested in sports. While this affects everyone, it predominantly excludes girls and raises the question of whether girls are planned out of public spaces. While this article predominantly focuses on park design, this example highlights how public spaces and, therefore, planning principles should include women and girls.

So what can be done?

A solution that has been introduced is gender-sensitive planning. Gender-sensitive planning ensures that gender-specific issues are taken into account during the planning, design, and implementation phases. It aims to give equal opportunities to both men and women and does so through gender mainstreaming and citizen participation.

A great example and forerunner for this kind of planning is Vienna. In 1999, the city announced a competition for the gender-sensitive planning of the Einsiedler Park. The park is located in Margareten, Vienna, and plays a big role as the surrounding residential area has a cramped living environment. The park, therefore, also functions as a meeting point and an extended space for kids to play. The city noticed that after age 10, girls were using parks less than boys and wanted to change the design to influence the possible uses and opportunities so that both girls and boys feel welcome and able to use the space.

Wien Einsiedlerpark by: Gugerell on wikipedia
Wien Einsiedlerpark by: Gugerell on wikipedia

The planning office tilia won the competition and, through interviews and observations, came up with a gender-sensitive design for the park. They found that boys and girls have different interests when it comes to sports, playing, and passing time. The park design needs to include spaces for different activities, such as roller skating, volleyball, and secluded sitting spots, to accommodate these varied interests while keeping the existing activity areas intact.

In the Einsiedler Park, this was done by adding different lines and markings to the football field, so that it can be used for multiple sports and by adding a paved area that can be used for rollerblading, skating, or other activities. Furthermore throughout the park benches and picnic tables were placed to create spaces to rest and hang out.

Neutral areas, or sub-zones were created throughout the park that can be used for creative play and work as an intermediate space between activities. This allows children, especially girls to come closer to activities and encourages them to step in and try out. Furthermore, a sense of security was added through the park watch, by installing better lighting, wider paths, and ensuring that all areas can be overviewed.

Map of the Einsiedler Park in Vienna showing the existing swimming pool, playground, multi-purpose sports fields with markings for soccer, basketball, and volleyball, an open cement field, and various seating areas. by Stadt Wien on wien.gv.at
Map of the Einsiedler Park in Vienna showing the existing swimming pool, playground, multi-purpose sports fields with markings for soccer, basketball, and volleyball, an open cement field, and various seating areas. by Stadt Wien on wien.gv.at

While this example highlights how gender-sensitive planning can be adapted to give young girls equal opportunity, the results and planning principles can be used across most planning problems. Women make up about half of the population, and on average, they use public
transport and pedestrian spaces more than men. However, with a lack of safe public spaces, their city rights are stripped away. Walking alone at night, using public transportation, or accessing public facilities can become potential sources of anxiety and fear. The threat of
violence robs women and girls of their freedom and chance to feel like an equal citizen. By designing the urban environment for women through an intersectional lens, public spaces can become safer and more inclusive for everyone.

Intersectionality is an important concept to mention here, as not every woman faces the same problems. Women that are marginalized in more than one way, e.g. women of color, disabled women, or queer women, face more issues in their daily life than their white, able-bodied,
straight counterparts. This also extends to non-women, such as men or non-binary people, as they can also face issues based on their skin tone, (dis)ability, sexuality, and gender. When someone is part of more than one marginalized group, we talk about intersectionality, as the two or more identities of a person face different struggles and, when combined, can impact the way the city is used and perceived. Planning through an intersectional lens is therefore highly important to understand the multifaceted issues that impact the daily use of the urban environment.

So, how does this look in practice?

Adding lights and wider pavements provides a safer, barrier-free environment that not only benefits women and girls at night but also adds wheelchair accessibility. Reinforcing security by adding cameras, having someone watch specific areas, or even just the eyes on the street concept can help make everyone feel safer in the city and might help reduce crime.

Designing spaces for people to sit and chat, not only allows more girls to go to parks but also offers the space for people to meet, stay, and exchange ideas in a safe environment, as well as a place of rest in the busy city. Including women and different perspectives in the planning process can give insight into problems that have so far been made invisible.

When planning urban spaces with a gender-sensitive planning approach it is important to consider all physical, cultural, and social barriers to give equal opportunity to everyone.

So why hasn’t this been done before?

Urban planners, until recently, have predominantly been men planning from their own experiences. Even now, when women have entered the profession, they are the minority, with only about one-fifth of planners being female. And this becomes even less in higher-ranking
positions. This discrepancy often impacts planning processes, as men experience the city differently. Statistically, men are more likely to use the car, have a full-time job, and do less care work in comparison to women. The experiences of women, interlinked with the experiences of
other minority groups, are different and are, more often than not, not being taken into account. This might be due to a lack of awareness, but it also is related to cost and financing, as well as the perceived need. Urban planning needs to bridge these gaps to build reliant cities for the future.

By including women from different socio-economic backgrounds in the planning process and implementing their needs into public spaces, urban planning can set the tone for gender-related issues in the city. This will not fix gender inequality, but urban planning can ensure that
everyone has equal rights to the city by creating safe and pleasant spaces for women.

This article was previously published in the 2024 – End of Year Issue.

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