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Why “Designing Cities for Women” should be a thing

Cities are meant to be our greatest invention, where people can thrive, prosper and be happier because of close proximity

to other people – the closer to your neighbours you live, the more tolerant, innovative and connected you’re supposed to be. But “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

As a young woman, I don’t yet feel like Auckland provides or is a safe city for me. Not necessarily because of violent crime or proximity to volcanoes, but because of a whole bunch of little things that lots of men don’t ever see or hear about. I acknowledge that Auckland has been trying to lift its “livability” game of late, but at this point there are still so many situations that make me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome as a user of this city.

Auckland City leaves me exposed and too unsafe, too often. Probably because I ride a bike. But actually, I also don’t ride my bike often enough. I have to summon up a lot of courage to tackle Auckland roads. It’s not just because cycling on our roads means mixing with buses or that it’s expected by some that I’ll be safe if I bike along green paint. It’s also because of the endless unseen abuse.

I’m verbally harassed regularly when out on my bike – yelled at, “cat-called”, “eyeballed” or just told to “fuck off”. Maybe this happens because the city is so over-engineered and out of scale that when something as normal and as real as a girl on a bike comes along, men seem to think they are ‘invited’ or ‘encouraged’ to react.

One very typical example: recently I was cycling around the Ponsonby Road / Karangahape Road area. I was feeling pretty uncomfortable using the road. There were too many cars and they were going too fast. I cycled onto the footpath instead, hoping for a bit of relief. Instead a boy actually tried to grab me while I was on my bike, making me feel incredibly uncomfortable and a little scared. I told him not to touch me. He and his friend walked away laughing. I got back on the road to then be harassed by drivers -typically older men shouting or staring intently from their cars. All the while I was just trying to stay alive on this dangerous stretch of road with no cycling priority (yet).

This behaviour is well documented by Kirsten Day, author of ‘Feminist Approaches to Urban Design’ who finds that women are less likely to approach strangers in public, and yet are more likely to be approached. A perfect commute for me would be skipping Mt Eden Road and Symonds Street, so I wouldn’t have to feel the eyes on my back and hear the vulgar and aggressive comments from car commuters. Te Ara I Whiti, the pink lightpath, is a refuge for me. Despite not having street frontage and being a bit out of my way, it works surprisingly well at making me feel safe and welcome in my city. Our protected cycle lanes are not just a barrier to motor vehicles. They’re a barrier to harassment. And it’s a shame we still have too few barriers to harassment and too few environments designed for the safety and comfort of women in Auckland.

Of course it’s not just women that we need to design for – we need our cities to be awesome and function for everyone. But the best way to do this is by getting our priorities in the right order, and flipping the “pyramid” to focus on women, women of colour, new New Zealanders, wāhine, people with disabilities, the elderly and children first. The already perfectly comfortable men can take a back seat.

By designing cities that are more accessible for these groups, we’ll make cities better for everyone- including men. This means cities with good urban design, quality housing near where people want to work and play, and efficient, connected transport choice.

At a higher altitude ‘designing cities for women’ doesn’t seem that different than just “designing cities,” but individually, for each women, this change of focus would make a world of difference.

I’m not the only one who thinks we should be designing our cities with women in mind.

For example, Stockholm housing company Svenska Bostader is addressing the need for “equal public space,” by designing with feminist urban planning at the forefront of every design detail. Their project area is in the Stockholm suburb of Husby, where the female residents have long reported feeling unsafe around their metro station.

Svenska Bostader are actively engaging with the female residents of Husby by making their needs the design priority. Through workshops, they’re figuring out the places women most feel unsafe. Some measures to address the safety issues in Husby include more and better street lighting around the metro, and a “women-friendly” cafe and meeting space in the heart of Husby.

The United Nations also agrees that the area of Women in Cities needs more attention. Many of the world’s poorest people live in cities, and the majority of our poorest people are women and children. They also face the most risks. They are subjected to harassment on the streets, on public transport, and in their neighbourhoods. The abuse ranges from verbal harassment, to rape, and it’s particularly high where the quality of transport is poor and public spaces are unused.

The UN is leading a joint programme with UNICEF and UN-HABITAT called “safe and friendly cities for all.” They’re pursuing strategies in cities like Brazil, Honduras, Rio and Lebanon, like safety audits to identify risk in urban spaces, similar to Husby. Practical measures include more street lighting, more police units, and “ensuring Female Councillor-led committees monitor the responses to sexual violence, abuse and crime.”

Of course there’s plenty more action being taken on the issue of Women, Cities and Climate Change, but this is just to give you a sense of the problem and some things that could be done to address it.

Back in Auckland, we need to focus on the following three things, so we can prepare a sustainable and safe city for everyone.

1. Replace endless sprawl with clever, sustainable compact design.

Our cities suffer when sprawl happens. But women are most affected. Isolated suburbs often leave mothers for example, caring for the household while trying to keep a paid job with limited access to amenities like schools and supermarkets (Day). We need to focus on connected, mixed-use, local neighbourhoods with shops, schools, transport hubs and other amenities located within all residential areas. We need a compact city.

2. Improve transport choice. Improve mobility freedom for women.

We need to improve transport choice. This means frequent trains and buses at all times of the day. Waiting for public transport, alone at night, can feel, and is unsafe.

We also need better cycling infrastructure. One example is the Northwestern cycle way. It’s fine when cycling in the middle of the day with friends. But it’s poorly lit after dark, and the high fences on either side are unnerving. There’s plenty of evidence that shows designing protected, on-road facilities, will have safer outcomes for users. And these areas must be well lit.

And as Josephine Hazelton puts it in her excellent essay “The Shocking Connection Between Street Harassment and Street Lighting:”

“these safety concerns are multiplied for women of color and gender non-binary people who face disproportionately high levels of street violence. We’re desperately in need of an intersectional approach to urban planning and street lighting standards to ensure cities are safe for everyone. Intersectional transportation planning recognizes the diversity of mobility needs, and works to include a wide range of viewpoints in urban planning conversations.”

Auckland should also be aiming to become more walkable. Mt Eden Road (and ditto many other Auckland arterial roads) critically lacks formal crossings, especially around areas where there are bus stops. If I, as an able-bodied person, find our roads and streets anxiety inducing to cross, it’s alarming to imagine the experience of those pushing prams, or in wheelchairs, or moving slowly due to age, or – as children – constitutionally less able to judge traffic speeds and gaps.

3. Crime prevention through urban design to improve public safety for women.

We need eyes on the street. We can do this by creating public spaces where people feel comfortable enough to move through or stay a while. The more active places are, the more they benefit from passive observation (e.g. people in apartments or shops keeping an eye on the street), and the more inviting they are, the more tempted you are to engage with the street life. Shared spaces are a great example of this (if you take traffic dodging out of the equation), where people are freer to pay attention to shops, restaurants, and each other. These strategies can help solve problems like women getting unwanted attention.

In my view these are the basic issues we need to address to improve our cities. But really we should be setting our sights much higher. We should be aiming for wonderfully attractive, creative, inspiring and inclusive spaces and places in our cities. Safety should be the bare minimum, not the bar. It’s also important for me to acknowledge that I don’t and can’t speak to the experiences of all women. I am very privileged to have a short commute to work, a job that has regular daytime hours, and easy access to local amenities. There are plenty of women whose situations in Auckland are very different to my own, and in many cases their mobility struggles and experiences of the urban are much more challenging. I would like to hear more about the experiences of other women, and I hope this blog helps open up that conversation.

I haven’t blogged before because I’ve never felt like Greater Auckland was a particularly safe or inclusive place for me. Especially due to the comments section.

Partly as a response to this I helped to form the group, Women in Urbanism Aotearoa, because I was hearing the same story from other women who are interested in urbanism or are in the industry. Since the launch we’ve seen huge demand at our events and within our private group, where over 500 women, who are into urbanism, regularly share ideas and communicate. We’re changing the way we have conversations about our cities, and we actually do want to be part of the conversation you’re having here, but like our cities, you have to make space for us.

Cities are designed by and for a particular segment of our population – cough cough “middle aged, professional white men”. As Kirsten Day puts it: “active, able-bodied, single, adult commuters” who are largely the focus when it comes to the design of transport systems, contemporary architecture, zoning and even downtown lunch options (men are even admitting it’s the case).

City design, historically, does not account for the needs and lived experiences of the most vulnerable but instead looks after an already privileged few. City design dominated by male engineers, male architects and male executives doesn’t actively focus on the needs of women, but it should.

If cities really are our greatest invention then we should design for the most vulnerable, passive side of humanity, rather than those in the most dominant, comfortable positions.

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