In London, cases of femicide in public spaces such as streets, squares and parks, perpetrated by strangers, including in one case by a police officer on duty, have dramatically illustrated that women and girls do not are not free to exercise even the most basic rights of citizenship. These rights must include the ability for half the population to move freely in public and semi-public spaces without fear of sexual harassment or violence, at any time of the day or night.
These limitations on the rights of women and girls are not unique to the UK. As Note from UN Women, sexual violence in public spaces, on a spectrum from comments and gestures to rape and femicide, is an “everyday occurrence” around the world. In the 1980s, women’s groups in the UK campaigned against sexist advertising on public transport. Today, with advances in digital media, many city centers and shopping centers have transformed into what the Australian academic, Nicole Kalms calls hypersexualized environmentswhere hetero-normative images alluding to soft core pornography confront the average buyer.
Experiences of sexual harassment and violence intersect with other social inequalities, particularly those of class, race, disability and sexual orientation. Tracking all of these indicators as part of an urban planning and design program can be confusing, diverting attention from deep-rooted and long-standing “structures” of inequality that are rooted in the built environment and in mentalities of politicians and planners.
Urban planning and design combines technical knowledge, language and standards with a social science understanding of how cities work. It is constrained by legislation and neoliberal economics, but at the same time aspires to achieve the ideals of gender equality goals set by bodies such as the UN and the EU through techniques and tools such as such as gender impact assessments, gender auditing and gender responsive budgeting.
A socialist-feminist approach cuts through this technical complexity by demanding that the work of reproduction, care and domestic responsibilities, generally assumed by women and girls, be recognized and valued on the same basis as that of production. This challenge has the potential to promote radical transformation, while improving existing living conditions.
Work, care and the city
To date, only the city of Vienna can boast of this approach, but there are many cases where social movements, progressive politicians and local government planners, architects and transport planners have been able to make inspiring interventions. . These have taken place at different planning scales, from urban and regional planning to small individual spaces. There are interesting case studies in Latin America, Canada, Spain and other European states. The following examples give an idea of their scope.
Daphne Spain, an architectural scholar, points out that changing gender relations have been a factor contributing to urban sprawl, because the rise of the service sector has transformed unpaid work at home into underpaid work outside – for example, in fast food restaurants and social services – leading to a dispersed and decentred metropolis. To combat this, the City of Vienna sees the reconciliation of paid work, household chores and family responsibilities as a central principle of its planning strategy. Its development plan is based on a “city of short distances” and providing for daily life.
This means planning a polycentric city, with well-designed and well-connected neighborhoods. For example, the new urban extension in Vienna, Aspern Seestadt, connects its 20,000 projected households to Vienna’s city center with a fast metro connection, and includes different employment opportunities in the urban extension, as well as enough schools, nurseries, medical services, Austria initially managed the main street, reception and leisure facilities, refugee facilities and a new urban park around the lake.
Pioneering work in 2009 by Ines Sanchez de Madariaga, professor of urban planning in Madrid, introduced the concept of “mobility of care”. She challenged the way transport statistics in Spain were collated to highlight commuting. Instead, she demonstrated that “care work” generates as much travel as the daily commute and therefore deserves a better offer. Using data to challenge long-held assumptions is an important part of a feminist approach, as gender relations evolve and change and depend on the specifics of place and history.
A city for everyone
Initiatives to increase safety and the perception of safety have been promoted in a number of cities. In Barcelona, action research with night workers, including sex workers, by Sarah Ortiz Escalante and the feminist organization Collectiu Punt 6, identified particularly dangerous places and this information was integrated into the regional plan. In Mexico City, a program called “Safer Streets, Safer Trails” for women introduced better lighting, security cameras and panic buttons on 200 kilometers of streets and paths. Combined with other improvements to public spaces, this reduced street crime against women by 29% and increased feelings of safety by 40% over the period 2018-2021.
The expansion of the nightlife economy has helped create safe spaces for LGBTQ people. It is vulnerable to changes in property values and requires specific planning interventions, some of which have been championed by Amy Lamé, London’s ‘night czar’.
A feminist approach to the city goes beyond simply treating women as victims and tackles all inequalities. For example, the global “men’s sheds” movement helps older men marginalized by economic restructuring. Creating workshops where men who feel left behind by society can meet and carry out work of social utility contributes to restoring dignity and, in urban terms, to valuing marginal spaces.
These examples demonstrate that the struggle to create cities that uphold the rights of all to fair and equal citizenship affects everyone in different ways. Social movements, engaged politicians and educated professionals all have a role to play in transforming the urban landscape, which in turn shapes our lives.
Teaser photo credit: Mass demonstration against violence against women in Buenos Aires in 2015. By Jaluj – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40716427