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Think tank: Sex(ism) and the city

City planners are failing to take the concerns of women into consideration when it comes to urban design.


Cities have an aspirational and almost intoxicating draw to those who see the ‘big city’ as the place to access seemingly endless amenities and lead a better, more equal life. They promise opportunity, security, urban spaces, and progress. But seven out of 10 women list sexual assault as their biggest fear when accessing one.


These shocking and depressing findings underline how everything is gendered – including cities. Our built environment and the spaces we create are gendered. Dreams are gendered. Our experiences are gendered as are our perceptions of safety and security.


To that end, it is important to understand the prevalence and impacts of gender-bias in our urban centres, while also discovering the opportunities we have to take corrective action. Such action first requires awareness and understanding.


That is why Leading Cities sought to understand and demonstrate how women’s access to a city is restricted by their perception of safety. Surprisingly, little research has been done to date and this lack of valuable data leaves these critical questions unanswered. How do different elements of urban design impact women’s perception of fear when accessing the city, especially by walking? How do these elements correlate differently between men and women?


The results show a notable difference in the frequency in which women feel afraid and restrain themselves from accessing the city because of gender violence, as opposed to men. One of the most shocking results is the fact that approximately 90 per cent of the surveyed women thought of sexual assault as something likely to happen to them if they walked around the city, as opposed to men, where less than 10 per cent thought this was a circumstance they would likely experience.

How do different elements of urban design impact women’s perception of fear when accessing the city, especially by walking?

The overwhelming fear of sexual assault is the direst finding, especially given none of the surveyed men identified this as their biggest worry. Since fear dictates the way in which women navigate their surroundings, the understanding, quantification, and analysis of this can enable us to drive city planning and conversations of urban design in a way that they provide better conditions for every citizen. 


It is vital that we ask ourselves how do we experience a city? Is that experience the same for each gender? If not, how do we navigate these concrete jungles differently? Do we fully understand the gender-biased trajectory of urban planning and design and its impact?


The privilege of security


Taking something, anything, for granted is an indication of being in a position of privilege, whether we realise it or not. In cities, much is taken for granted. For instance, the level of comfort one person feels in a car park at night can determine their behaviour. Anything from where they are willing to park and how cautious they are when approaching their vehicle, to whether they would even consider going to a place where they felt less safe at night. These decisions can have profound impacts not only to the individual, but to local economic development, housing prices, and employment to name a few.


Spatial arrangements are gendered and vary between different gender identities. While on the one hand they may empower a dominant group (like men), they can debilitate other group(s) (like women and other minorities). This situation is a direct consequence of years of a predominantly white male presence in disciplines such as urban planning, construction and architecture. Cities were created by men and, as a result, for men. Thus women and other marginalised groups have not been actively considered in a city’s design.

Taking something for granted is an indication of being in a position of privilege

Instead, they have become secondary factors in the urban planning and city design processes. 
This is not to say that women who live in urban areas have not gained a comparative advantage over their rural counterparts, because some research points to the fact that women’s rights in cities can be more progressive than what they might experience in rural communities. However, the question remains, even if cities provide women with some sort of gender equality, can that city be perceived as the same for men and women? As our research has depressingly shown, the answer to this question is no.  


A significant difference in the gendered experience of a city is exemplified by an individual’s perception of safety there. Essentially, we examine safety by looking at crime that has taken place in the past - areas with high rates of crime are deemed unsafe whereas a low crime rate indicates safety and calm. However, the loophole in this approach is the lack of acknowledgement of the psychological aspect of safety.


Safety is a feeling – not a situation –so understanding what makes people feel safe is the key part in ensuring a safe environment. While there is a lot of research on safety, the missing link is the perception of safety, and for that matter, the gendered aspect of this perception-driven emotion. When do men, women and others feel safe? How does it differ between them? And why does that difference matter? 

Women's overwhelming fear that their safety is at risk should be a wake up call to city designers
Women's overwhelming fear that their safety is at risk should be a wake up call to city designers

Gendered safety


Historically, safety in cities has largely been approached from the male perspective. This becomes important because the interconnections between gender and elements of urban design are then constructed and navigated from a male-centric position and fails to take into consideration how women experience urban spaces.


Fortunately, both men and women perceive elements of urban design in the same way, which means that their relationship to the built environment is not gendered. This is encouraging, because it means that improving urban conditions for women will inevitably improve conditions for all genders, including men. With our research, we not only understand how these elements influence the experience of a city for people, but also identify the specific markers which inevitably end up making women feel safer.

The two elements from urban design that increased the perception of safety from the people who answered the survey were ‘active street fronts’ and ‘streetlights’, comprising 65 per cent of the sample. Men and women have similar opinions on the elements that make them feel safe and rank them in equivalent ways. The only thing that stands out in the gendered answer is that no man considered daylight to be important as a driver to feeling safe when walking alone. This speaks volumes about the unrestricted access they have and feel towards cities.

Men and women perceive elements of urban design in the same way,

When men and women are asked “Do you feel safe walking alone [in the city]”, we find that men are more likely to answer in the affirmative whereas women tend to only occasionally or very rarely feel safe - as a community in 2021, this is alarming and prompts immediate action. As a start, lawmakers and city planners must start with including the question of perception and the opinion and voice of women while looking at cities.


About the authors:


Michael Lake is the President and CEO of Leading Cities, a global non-profit organization driving sustainability and resiliency for all by unlocking the potential of the world’s cities. From his previous work at the White House, serving multiple Presidents of the United States, to policy research for the former Prime Minister of Ireland, Michael’s career has been rooted in public service and focused on creating systemic change for greater sustainability, resiliency and equity.

Shagun Sethi is a consultant for Corporate Social Responsibility at Grant Thornton and has a Masters in Global Affairs from Columbia University, where she studied on a merit fellowship. She is a Leading Cities Research Fellow and the Director of Global Leadership at One Shared World and has been recognized on India’s A list for her work in Global Leadership and Development. Shagun has international experience as a researcher and consultant on social impact and development projects.


Juliana Vélez-Duque holds a Masters degree in project management from Eafit university and a Masters degree in Climate and Society from Columbia University. She is currently a consultant for Sustainability, Resilience and Climate Change at conTREEbute, and advises the municipality of Apartadó (Colombia) on urban and environmental planning issues. She is a Research Fellow at Leading Cities and a Fulbright scholar.


About Leading Cities:


Leading Cities, an international nonprofit organization, connects smart cities across the globe with innovations and insight to drive resiliency, equity, and sustainability. We believe that a methodical approach brings about the most transformative change. By cultivating a global network of forward thinkers from the public, private, academic, and non-profit sectors, we work collaboratively to mitigate the frustrations inherent to bringing about ambitious change.

Our drive to bring resilience and prosperity is undaunted, delivering advanced research, emerging trends, and technologies through consulting services from global experts. Leading Cities partners with government leaders, start-up companies, investors, and academics to keep cities evolving and working toward their potential, taking on challenges such as climate change, social justice, automation technology, cyber security, data analytics, accessibility, and global health.

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