An overview of feminist approaches to urban design across the world, in celebration of International Women’s Day 2023
We have been hugely encouraged by the push to break down gender barriers in urban design circles in recent years, including efforts being taken to address a legacy of ‘cities built by men, for men’. Increasingly urban designers and planners are recognising that a city grounded in feminist principles, where equal consideration is given to the needs of different genders, ultimately creates city spaces that are safer and more enjoyable for all genders.
In honour of International Women’s Day, we have rounded up some of our favourite examples of cities that have embraced a feminist approach to urban design and planning. We hope they inspire you too!
Barcelona has become the poster child for Feminist Cities of late, and with good reason. Under the visionary leadership of Mayor Ada Colau, the city has adopted a feminist agenda with gender inclusivity at the top of the list. The city has embraced measures to make Barcelona more female friendly, starting as small as simply installing more benches and female toilets, to the ambitious creation of ‘superblocks’ that remove traffic from huge sections of the city and replace them with pedestrian friendly plazas. The feminist cooperative Col·lectiu Punt 6 have been particularly involved in the Barcelona movement, bringing together architects, sociologists and urban planners to rethink the city from a feminist perspective.
When looking at gendered issues of city access, teenage girls are a group that often feel particularly excluded in public spaces. The city of Umeå has addressed this with a sculptural installation in a local park, with built in seating that is ergonomically designed for teenage girls and the option to play music from your phone. This beautifully designed space offers shelter and a welcoming place in the city intended just for them. We have been lucky enough to work with planners from Umeå on the ongoing Go Green Routes project, who are embracing a similar gender inclusive ethos in designing nature based solutions for the city.
In response to high levels of gender-based violence in Delhi, the local government embraced digital technology to crowdsource information on safety black spots in the city. Using the locally developed app SafetiPin, citizens could report on safety criteria including broken or low lighting, poorly maintained footpaths and the presence of other pedestrians in the area. Over 50,000 submissions were made in the first 5 years of the initiative, with Delhi city planners using this information to install additional street lighting and introduce other safety measures at transport stops, public toilets and local parks. The app has now been adopted by cities all over the world.
A different form of gender safety was addressed in the Swedish city of Karlskoga, when they redesigned their snow clearing policies in a bid to reduce pedestrian injuries during the winter months. They found that 69% of injuries were being reported by women, who were more likely to be travelling by foot or bicycle on secondary routes, often with young children and prams in tow. By clearing side roads and footpaths ahead of main roads (where higher volumes of commuting cars led to quicker snow melt anyway), the number of injuries being reported across the board was reduced.
(side note – this example originally featured in Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women, which has some interesting examples for anyone interested in feminist design principles in general)
Vienna’s approach to feminist city planning goes further than just a design question. For over two decades, the city has adopted a ‘gender mainstreaming’ strategy which includes policies relating to language use, data collection, service provision and more. This holistic approach has allowed the city to identify and improve city spaces where women were absent or at a disadvantage. Vienna continues to pioneer gender-inclusive city planning, creating a pedestrian crossing in the colours of the transgender flag in 2021 next to the country’s only transgender healthcare centre. While a small gesture, it’s an important step towards recognising gender diversity in city issues.
Participatory approaches to designing inclusive cities
These success stories didn’t happen by accident. Each required a dedicated effort to engage directly with citizens, to fully understand the challenges they face when navigating their city and often to give them a direct role in co-creating the solutions to these problems.
This kind of truly inclusive citizen engagement is what we at Connect the Dots strive for in all our projects. Most recently, we have joined the Gender, Inclusivity and Diversity (GID) panel of the Go Green Routes initiative, which aims to include diverse citizen perspectives in each of the nature based solutions being designed by partnering cities . Drawing on our experiences working with underrepresented groups, our team have so far contributed to the creation of a GID checklist which city partners can use to ensure groups who are usually overlooked in the urban design process are at the heart of each of their projects. We look forward to continuing to work on this panel within the Go Green Routes project in the months to come. And perhaps another one of our city partners will feature on a Feminist Cities roundup for IWD 2024!