Gender and Urban Planning: Are cities designed for men?

Gender inequality. We often hear it talked about in the workplace, at home, or in television and film – but have you ever thought about how it exists in urban planning?

I certainly hadn’t, until I stumbled upon this Guardian article from 2016 titled Can cities be feminist? Inside the rise of female mayors.  

If you’re a woman, you’re probably all too familiar with the frightening endeavor of walking down poorly-lit streets at night, have at some point braced yourself for comments as you walked past a group of men, or, in the case that you’re a mother or female child-carer, have struggled to fit a stroller on crowded public transportation. Whether you realize it or not, women navigate cities in a profoundly different way than men in order to feel respected and safe.

Walking alone

Considering this, it is only natural that male and female planners make decisions based on very different life experiences than one another. But, even so, global statistics of all national parliamentarians shows that there still remains only 22.8 per cent women as of June 2016 (and numbers for local politicians, although scarcely gathered, is expected to be much lower).

But all over the world, the built-environment professions – and particular their uppermost echelons – remain heavily male-dominated, more so than other spheres such as education or health. – Susanna Rustin, The Guardian

So, with a clearly male dominated urban planning and construction industry, we must ask ourselves how their decision making excludes and disadvantages women, even if it may not be intentional.

I think a good place to start is to take a look at how exactly women tend to roam and go about their daily tasks in cities. Lauren Elkin is an author and academic whose book, Flâneuse, addresses the political history of women walking in urban public spaces.

“A flâneuse is quite basically the female conjugation of a “flâneur,” or a kind of idly curious stroller in the city, a man-about-town. However, […] only men have historically (and this is arguably still true today) had that kind of access to the city, where they could walk around observing and “merge with the crowd”; women have been, or are, generally too conspicuous in the city […] I realized the act of flâneuserie wasn’t simply a female version of a male act, but its own kind of subversive appropriation of urban space.”

There have been studies done that show how women avoid walking through male dominated or poorly-lit areas, opting to take longer routes in order to maintain a feeling of safety.  Other studies have shown that women use public transportation more frequently and for a wider range of purposes (think about childcare and work alone).


While the ways that women come to use, and navigate the city are indeed rooted in social and cultural gender norms, to think of them equally as an issue of planning could set the backdrop for developing groundbreaking solutions to the problems faced by women in cities, no matter their race or social standing.

Take Vienna, Austria, for example, a city which began to experiment in “gender mainstreaming” back in the 90s. For those of you like myself who were unfamiliar with this term, gender mainstreaming is when city administrators create laws and regulations that equally benefit both men and women with the goal of providing equal access to the city’s resources.

Since the 90s, Vienna’s city officials have implemented more than sixty pilot projects for which they have conducted a wide-variety of research on topics such as transportation, education, health care policy, public parks and housing.

Barrier-free staircase.png
This barrier-free staircase, placed at a busy intersection in Vienna, Austria, was made with mothers, elderly and disabled people in mind. (Photo by Josef Lex, Flikr)

A specific (and interesting) example is a study conducted from 1996 – 1997 which analyzed how men and women use park space. The results showed that, after the mere age of 9, the number of girls coming to parks dropped significantly, while for boys it remained the same. So, in 1999, the city started to redesign parks by adding more footpaths to increase accessibility, sub-dividing large, open areas into semi-enclosed ones, and so on. Almost instantly there was a noticeable change in park use, where both girls and boys of all ages began to use parks without one dominating the other.

Today, the overall results of Vienna’s initiatives have not only been fascinating, but also groundbreaking in creating an urban space which both genders feel more comfortable navigating and accessing.

(For those who are interested in learning more about Vienna, I highly recommend checking out this article to read more specifically about studies and outcomes.)

Another example is in Stockholm’s north-western quarter, Husby, where housing company Svenska Bostäder (SB) has redesigned the center with a feminist, equality-based perspective in mind, adding well-lit footpaths, and re-creating the space so that it can also serve women as a place of gathering.

With that we mean that we need to get more women into the public spaces. It’s above all about having an equal public space where everyone, both men and women, feel welcome.Nurcan Gültekin, Social Sustainability Coordinator at SB

husby centre.jpg
Photo from Hela Stockholm and illustrated by Grotmij

So, with all of this research – both on the negative impact of urban spaces on women as well as the solid proof that there are concrete and simple ways to fix this problem –  why don’t we see more initiatives to take this into consideration when making decisions about city planning or in architectural design?

The answer isn’t simple, but is in part to do with the lack of female urban planners and designers, as well as the stark differences between the urban experiences of men, on the one hand, and women on the other.

Cases like Vienna and Stockholm show us that shifting this dynamic is as easy as researching and adapting to the needs of both genders, taking into consideration the differences in perspective, access and use.

So, some questions to think about (and perhaps give insights to in the comments):

  1. How do we successfully establish similar initiatives in larger cities in Europe or throughout the globe?
  2. At what point does a woman’s experience of and access to the city become equal to that of a man’s?

Article by Danya Kiernan

2 comments on “Gender and Urban Planning: Are cities designed for men?

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