To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are taking a closer look at what smart cities mean for women. Because one thing is clear: Cities are still not designed for women. Most planners and architects are male with a target group of men in mind. What does that mean for women? What could a more gender-inclusive city look like? And how can we get there?
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The challenges for women
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 5 calls for gender equality, and Goal 11 on Sustainable Cities also calls for more inclusive cities. UN Habitat acknowledges that especially in low-income urban areas, women and girls are disproportionately affected by safety hazards in the city such as gender-based violence, unstable housing, and inadequate sanitation facilities or lighting. And even in wealthy cities like London or Paris, between 25 to 45 percent of women have experienced street harassment.
Even in the most modern and smart cities of the world, women often don’t feel safe or comfortable. The way they experience the city is shaped by their lived experience and their perception of safety. However, women’s Right to the City is not visible in design and countless incidents of harassment or violence, where women get blamed for being out alone, wearing the “wrong” clothes, or taking the “wrong” route, show that there is a systemic problem.
Women’s understandable fear of going out alone after dark means that they often confine themselves indoors. This has a negative impact on their ability to engage in employment, adult education, community activities, and social and leisure opportunities. According to UN Habitat, the number of women that appear in the public realm during the day, and especially at night, is an indicator of the health of a society as well as of the safety and liveability of a city.
What does a gender-inclusive city look like?
The more a built environment is designed with women in mind, the more women will feel safe, welcome, and comfortable using public spaces and infrastructures. This will create a more liveable city for everyone, including children, LGBTIQ+ members, and people with disabilities.
In a smart city, the reliance on data can be very helpful in making the built environment more attractive and inclusive to women. While they have often been invisible in past urban planning efforts, big data and the Internet of Things help to gain a more detailed and real-time picture of who uses the city, where it is safe, and what key challenges certain demographics experience (and why). Gender-disaggregated data in particular is an entry point for the smart city to make the city more gender-inclusive.
On top of the data about women in the city, it is important to also rely on social impact assessments. After all, ICT technologies are only as good as the people controlling them and again, it is often men working in this field. The tension between “smart cities” and “just cities” shows that focusing only on smart elements can be to the detriment of more vulnerable parts of the population, while a focus on equality might fail to consider the potential of how smart technologies could advance social justice.
Projects such as Smart City.Just City by IHC, a coalition for inclusive housing and sustainable communities, underscore that women bring a perspective to urban issues such as safety or accessibility that can bridge the gap between smart technology and social justice. Investing in women-led projects leads to healthier, more inclusive cities where women contribute actively to urban planning and innovative projects. Ideally, the tools of the smart city help to achieve the goals of the just city with greater inclusion, lasting policy change, and new data and technology for sustainable cities.
What to look out for?
When planning the future city, architects and planners should consider some key recommendations that will help create a more inclusive city. These pointers will make cities safer and more attractive for women, but also for many other groups that are often neglected in urban planning.
Here is an overview of recommendations, inspired by Smart Cities Dive and the highly recommended book “Feminist City” by Leslie Kern:
Safety on streets and public spaces
Safety is the first priority for women in the built environment. Good lighting at night, in particular, will make women feel safer on their way home or out at night. Maintaining clear sightlines to public spaces is another important element. Cutting back shrubs can help ensure that there is always a good view of other people.
Public spaces contribute a lot to the feeling of safety in cities at night, especially when they are frequented by a wide range of people. Beautiful and inviting public spaces will be busy throughout the day, creating important places for community and a sense of safety.
Pedestrian rights, as well as clear signage, are other elements of a safe city. This goes for everyone, including women: Dangers in the city are not just dark places, but also traffic accidents or simply getting lost. A clearly signposted city that is well-lit, well-maintained, and populated by many people
Safety in transport
Smart cities often pride themselves on their modern, CO2-efficient public transport and their road network. But regardless of the quality of the “hardware”, there are many other elements to smart transport that contribute to women’s safety. For example, well-lit and well-surveyed parking lots with clear sight lines are very important to women. The same applies to train stations, platforms, bus and cab stations, and underground passes under a street: Women-friendly transport infrastructure must make women feel safe to allow them equal access to the city.
According to the Women’s Cycling Project, adequate bike lanes are another important element of future cities that are safe for women. Typically, bicycling infrastructure is designed for men who are more willing to take a risk. Women tend to prefer separated lanes and off-road cycling paths, as well as wider bike lanes and very good connectivity. In many cases, more direct routes are missing, which would encourage women to take to the bike more.
Design for caregivers
Many women, but increasingly also men are the main caregivers for children. This means that the built environment in a smart city must be adapted to caregiving needs, as well as to children themselves. For example, a look at train platforms, bus stops, cycle paths, or parks can help to understand whether a city is attractive for the whole family.
These considerations should already begin with the pregnancy: Pregnant women often need to rest or use the bathroom while out in the city. Too many cities offer low-quality or simply not enough public bathrooms that are not adequate to pregnant women. Next, nursing amenities – safe, free, and comfortable – should be an element of the public realm. They could also serve many other residents, such as the elderly or the sick, to have a place to rest.
Women in planning and politics
One of the best ways to design future cities that are more inclusive to women is to make way for more women in the fields of policy, planning, design, architecture, and construction. While these professions are male-dominated, the built environment will necessarily be made by men for men. The perspective of women is best represented by women from all walks of life – a credo that for example the initiative “Women Led Cities” advocates for.
Another aspect to consider is the representation of women in street names and statues. For example, only 4% of the statues in London represent women. Acknowledging women’s role in history and their role in urban planning is a first step towards more gender-inclusive, smart future cities.
What can you do after reading this article? We’d recommend reading “Feminist City” by Leslie Kern, talking to female residents of your city about their experience, voting for women, and, if you are a male planner or architect, placing much more importance on the female experience of a city.
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- Innovative Urban Planning for the Citizen-Centric Smart City
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