Who plans cities for women? Feminist urbanism challenges traditional urban planning and design paradigms to account for women’s experiences. Legal researcher and creator of the “Feminist City” podcast, Sneha Visakha, on the real-world impacts of masculinist urban planning in our cities and the power of feminist urbanism.
Who cities are made for, who makes cities, and on what principles, are all questions central to any critical engagement with urban space. The built environment, after all, reflects the hierarchies of power and inequities that exist in our societies. Therefore, understanding the deep and inextricable links between social relationships and urban space is essential. Emerging from the longstanding struggles of women’s liberation and feminist thought between the 1960s – 1980s, feminist engagement with urban space challenges traditional urban planning and design paradigms; and with Glasgow City Council declaring feminist urban planning as an official policy in 2022, there has been renewed interest in the concept and practice of feminist urbanism.
The Feminist Approach to Urban Design and Planning
According to early articulations, a feminist approach to spatial design centres around the relationship between the built environment and the role of women in society, at present and throughout history. Early exponents of feminist urbanism critiqued the capitalist and patriarchal notions underpinning modern urban planning practices in the ‘West’. They explored how ‘non-sexist’ cities could be imagined and built because, as geographer Jane Darke famously put it, “our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” Geographer Gillian Rose in her landmark text, Feminism and Geography argued that geography as a discipline was masculinist, characterised by work which, “while claiming to be exhaustive, forgets about women’s existence”, concerning itself only with men and resulting in an active erasure of women and their concerns in the study of space.
It is within this important context that one must engage with the role of feminist urbanism and its role in redressing this historical, epistemic injustice in the field of geography and urban studies. Therefore, at the heart of it, feminist urbanism is an attempt to account for women’s experiences, rendering them legible to urban planning and design paradigms. In doing so, it challenges deep-seated, systemic sexist beliefs and assumptions about women’s role and place in society, thereby transforming urban space.
Exposing the Male Bias in Urban Planning
One of the critical contributions of feminist urbanism has been to challenge the ‘neutrality’ of urban planning, exposing the latent male bias, and critiquing the ‘public-private’ divide that has dominated urban planning paradigms. Urban planners often only consider the male-dominated public sphere, which encompasses activities of public relevance, whether politics, commerce or law, to the neglect of the private sphere, a place to which women have historically been relegated, to do domestic and care work, family maintenance, or childcare.
This is starkly apparent in the design of urban transport and mobility policies, which skew in favour of men’s use of the city, without considering women’s mobility patterns. These are characterised by trip-chaining, a travel pattern that involves a series of short trips between primary destinations, due to domestic and care responsibilities in addition to paid work. In many countries, including India, women’s mobility is marked by complex trip-chaining, and they predominantly rely on public transport, para-transit, walking and sometimes cycling.
This is also exemplified by the Victorian-era term ‘urinary leash’, which was once used to describe the restrictions on women’s access to public spaces due to the lack of public toilets for women. This is still the case in many countries, including India, where a ‘Right to Pee’ campaign was launched in Mumbai in 2015. The initiative sought to address the fact that not only was there a severe lack of public toilets for women, but they were also forced to pay to use such toilets. This disproportionately impacts women from the working class, the urban poor, and caste-oppressed communities among others.
Safety First: Prioritising Urban Safety for Women
Another essential contribution of feminist urbanism is its emphasis on the everyday life and experiences in the city, especially regarding safety. Jane Darke referred to women’s fears for their own safety as “the most important single issue in planning for women” in 1994, and it still rings true today. Addressing the question of women’s safety, not from paternalistic, protectionist measures (for instance, surveillance and policing), but in an expansive commitment to women’s autonomy, freedom, and independence remains an extremely important priority in feminist urbanism.
Furthermore, economist Naila Kabeer looks at the gendered nature of poverty, pointing out that poverty and deprivation exacerbate women’s vulnerability to extreme violence and exploitation – and that the women most at risk of harassment are often the least able to escape violent situations. The substantive contribution of feminist urbanism lies in its emphasis on participatory planning and the material provision of free and universally accessible public spaces and urban infrastructure. The design and planning take into account the everyday needs and experiences of vulnerable groups in the city, especially women and girls, as well as elderly people, persons with disabilities, the urban poor, (migrant) workers, those living in precarious housing, sexual and gender minorities, and other marginalised groups.
Real-World Examples of Feminist Urbanism in Action
A feminist urbanist approach lays emphasis on processes and values, rather than providing prescriptive, cookie-cutter solutions to complex urban problems. I have previously argued that a feminist urban planning approach is critical for the success of sustainable urban development policies and climate justice, and that women’s mobility patterns need to be considered when designing sustainable urban and mobility policies.
One of the most promising examples of increasing women’s direct participation in urban planning processes can be seen in Barcelona, thanks to the pioneering work of Col.lectiu Punt 6, a feminist cooperative of architects, sociologists, and planners, who have also been involved in teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on gender and urban planning in the School of Architecture of Barcelona. Also encouraging are the ‘pink transportation’ policies increasingly being adopted by governments around the world, including the government of Delhi in India, which has made public bus transport completely free for women and girls in the city. This is an example of a feminist and sustainable urban mobility policy, as it not only encourages the use of public transport but also promotes women’s mobility, which is highly restricted in countries like India. In addition, it improves urban safety by encouraging more women to occupy public spaces at all times.
Feminist Urbanism Strengthens Our Democracies
A feminist approach to urbanism places women’s experiences at the heart of urban planning and design, with an emphasis on women’s direct participation, and takes into account the multiplicity of differences within them, based on age, class, caste, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, sexuality, and marital status, among others. It is sensitive to how vulnerable groups are adversely affected in their access to and autonomy within cities. Feminist urbanism provides not only a broad political vision and theoretical framework derived from feminist articulations but also tools and methodologies for realising such a vision. In its essence, feminist urbanism is crucial, especially in today’s world, as a means of strengthening democracy and expanding the participation of women in all spheres of life, especially in cities.