1st August 2021

Aishath Green for CatalyticAction

Cities have historically been designed for men. Not women, not children, not caregivers, and certainly not those with disabilities. In fact, a recent article in the Guardian highlighted that cities have been envisioned for the 6ft-tall man. When I was growing up my mother always used to say “your father has designed this kitchen for himself – I can’t reach the cupboards, I can’t reach the plates and I can’t reach the pans – they’re all too high up”. The younger me used to balk at this idea – “don’t be silly mum, it’s just the way the kitchen is”. Funnily enough my father is a 6ft tall man and of course now, as a woman who has experienced living in a city designed by men, I’m acutely aware of how right my mother was. It’s not that my father intentionally designed our kitchen that way, but rather that he imagined the space in his own worldview. As Ellie Cosgrave – professor in Urban innovation at UCL – has stated, ‘we naturally design for our own experience’. My childhood kitchen can be seen as a microcosm of the city as a whole, and how in a world still dominated by male urban designers, male architects and male urban planners, cities continue to reect the male experience.

This blog will explore the ways in which cities currently neglect the female experience and the implications this has for women and girls’ ability to take advantage of all the social, political and economic opportunities the city should offer. However, it will also look at how women and girls can easily be included in the future designs of cities, and the spaces they use.

Research indicates that men and women experience urban environments in very different ways. Yet, while cities cater for men to move freely about them, the same cannot be said for women. A study in Her City – a digital toolkit designed to ensure women are included in city making processes – highlights that ‘from the age of eight, 80 percent of public spaces can be dominated by boys’ while ‘girls express that they feel significantly more insecure and excluded’. This can be attributed to their historic, and continuous, exclusion from the design process around cities. An article titled ‘What would cities look like if they were designed by mothers?’ conveys the problem well. The reality of being a mother, the author states, is that you are ‘schlepping a pushchair’ around the city. Yet, despite the clear need for simple infrastructure such as ramps, the chasm between mother’s requirements in a city, and what they are presented with is in stark opposition. As the author jokes you begin to think very ‘differently about stairs’. This is just one of the ways in which cities fail to provide for women’s experiences.

Participation pictures

In fact, Urban Girls Movement – now part of the Her City project – pinpoint numerous aspects of the city that must be improved upon. ‘Good footpaths’, ‘good lighting’ and ‘public toilets’ are all aspects which could help women to feel more comfortable in public spaces. As they highlight, ‘a city where women cannot access the city at all hours of the day is not an equal city’. An example of how this situation could be different was played out in Vienna in a public playground. Planners found that in Austria’s capital city, once girls reached the age of nine, they withdrew from public parks. They attributed this to ‘the dominance of play facilities aimed at boys and male teens in parks’. After a series of participatory design workshops with girls, they subsequently altered the park to meet the needs of the girls who used it. This involved the creation of ‘girls-only retreat spaces, non-male sport and play areas and calm zones for socialisation’. The result of this co-design endeavour was the ‘50/50 use of that public space’ which illustrates, as Ellie Cosgrave states, that ‘small design interventions’ and ‘different ways of thinking about providing physical infrastructure can radically transform who is able to access it’.

Participation pictures

Yet, in addition to women being excluded from the design of cities, Her City also highlights the ‘silent rules that prevent women from using public spaces’. We have recently developed a toolkit called DeCID that looks at how these ‘silent rules’ directly affect women and create ‘spatial limitations’ that restrict their movement in public spaces. It discusses how these silent rules are informed by ‘gender moral codes’ that can lead to ‘increased surveillance’ and the feeling amongst girls that they ‘may risk having their reputation damaged’ if they are seen out in public space. An article by Lina Abirafeh draws attention to this in the context of Arab cities which she argues are ‘by default, male space’. She states that ‘awareness of how public space in Arab cities is gendered is rare’ and that ‘solutions…must consider the full range of social and cultural challenges that prevent women and girls moving freely in urban settings’. But it is important to highlight that examples of this can be found globally. As Cosgrave draws attention to, women across the globe “feel much more uncomfortable than men simply sitting in public spaces and often feel like they need to be actively doing something so as not to make themselves a target”. While the ideas and actions of male planners, architects and designers directly impact the way our cities are experienced by women, as Abirafeh states ‘solutions must consider the full range of social and cultural challenges that prevent women and girls from moving freely in urban settings’.

Participation pictures

In order to tackle these issues, feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and lack of safety in public spaces, we must change the way that we design our cities. Understanding what girls need must be underpinned by a co-design process that informs all planning decisions in cities. Indeed, we’ve experienced first hand what happens when women and girls aren’t taken into consideration. After a participatory workshop with students and teachers at a girl’s school in Bar Elias in Lebanon, it emerged that girls felt unsafe in the playground built for them as it was directly visible to the main road. In a society with strong conservative values, the schoolgirls didn’t feel like they could play freely in this visible space. We suggested an intervention that sought to meet their concerns, by creating multiple play spaces, as well as a visual barrier from the road.

However, in the end we were unable to implement the project. While we faced barriers in getting this project made, it is clear that the school space should have incorporated these views from the outset. As Nicole Kalms – Professor at Monash University – lays out “co-design brings city planners and urban designers into direct contact with women and their stories, forcing them to recognise that design for women is not designing for an abstract homogeneous group”.

Participation pictures

Much of our work in urban environments has taken place in Lebanon, which according to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index comes 132nd in a list of 156 countries. We’ve always strived to ensure girls, women and mothers have a voice in our design projects and we continue to do this through regular participatory workshops, design consultations, recruiting citizen scientists and having great women play leading roles in our team. However, clearly there’s lots more work to be done and as I’ve argued in this article, this will only be achieved when we start to listen to women and girls.

Participation pictures

“Lebanon is filled with private, prohibited spaces – from the government to gardens. A feminist city is built on accessibility, open spaces, public resources, and shared recognition of the value of the city as a home for all. This entails public transportation, public parks and markets, and the ability to be safe anywhere, anytime – regardless of their colour, class, nationality and sexual orientation”

Thank you!

We received your application and we will be in touch soon. In the meantime please consider subscribing to our newsletter: