The conversation about women’s rights to the city cannot lose traction. The government’s knee-jerk plans to ‘protect’ women by deploying plainclothes police officers in nightclubs is tone-deaf, and the sweeping exoneration of officers’ manhandling women at Sarah Everard’s vigil demonstrates just how ready we are to move on.
Last month The Guardian published an opinion piece called ‘The Guardian view on urban insecurity: build a feminist city’. The article describes ways in which Urban Planners fail to address the issue of women’s safety in urban design and calls for more female representation and better educational practices in Urban Planning.
Design decisions in town and city planning overlook the welfare and safety of women. The fact this statement is true for many other under-represented groups doesn’t make it less of a truthful statement. However, the battle for representation and better educational practices in Urban Planning will be in vain so long as inclusive design is considered an optional extra. It is universally accepted that additional expense in construction cannot be justified, but the value systems of individual planners are of little consequence when someone else has hold of the purse strings.
The built environment is a business. When bloated profit margins take precedence, social concerns such as gender inequality, climate resilience, and the wealth gap are reduced to competing for attention and consideration in design. There is no better example of how comfortable we are with this idea than Section 106. In principle, this is a financial contribution made by a developer to help alleviate the pressure on existing infrastructure brought on by a new development, but in practice, it is often a convenient loophole for city developers to pay their way out of their obligation to provide affordable housing- therefore maximising their return on each plot. This side-lines the needs of the community and legally undermines affordable housing targets set by councils! But as a commercial organisation, the developer is only ever going to jump as high as the bar is set.
There are standards in place. Secured By Design is a Police security initiative that presents scenarios where design is a risk factor in a crime taking place; however the guidance is not compulsory, and even then, it has not been designed to address issues surrounding access to the city. It is important to recognise that there are social, economic, and symbolic barriers to the city and its opportunities, as well as the physical threat to safety. For example, one assumption that underpins urban design is that the provision of care takes place at home. The separation of financial and business districts from schools and residential areas means statistically, women have more complex travel routes associated with their gendered responsibilities. Navigating the public transport system built for the 9 – 5 commuter is more physically demanding, more costly, and places women in increasingly vulnerable situations. The systemic neglect of the female right to the city is yet to be acknowledged in statutory advice.
‘The way our cities and towns look and work reflect yesterday’s political priorities. Until the opportunity arises for new development, we’ve got to work with what we have. But at the point of re-development, everyone responsible for the built environment needs to prioritise female use. This is actually less to do with gender, and more to do with designing for the practical reality of the population. If a housing estate is a 40-minute train ride from work, and a 20-minute walk to school in the opposite direction, we should be forecasting how incremental changes can make life easier for the pedestrian. This includes making pavements wide enough for prams to cross and providing a safe and comfortable place to stop and rest on the way. If women physiologically require x3 as long in the toilet- we need to provide them with x3 as many cubicles! Provision of social infrastructure should come at the same rate as housing- and the only way to guarantee that it does is through legislation.
Gender mainstreaming needs to become procedural. Policy needs to become more receptive to research. The built environment needs to be forced to take responsibility for its impact on human life and the bar needs to be set higher. Boris Johnson has promised to do ‘everything we can’ to protect women in response to the murder of Sarah Everard, and the influx of female testimony. Behind this statement should be unwavering support for the promotion of inclusive design standards, and it can no longer be an option.