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Gender-Sensitive Urban Planning: The Future of Safe Cities
Gender-Sensitive Urban Planning: The Future of Safe Cities

By Amy Perry

There is an important issue relating to structural gender inequality that is being neglected. Worldwide, women feel less safe than men in public spaces. Issues of safety and perceived safety for women are critical United Nations values, and also Unitarian Universalist values. Safe public spaces for people of all genders are supported by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Five (gender equality), Eleven (make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, and resilient), and Sixteen (peace, justice, and strong institutions) in addition to the Unitarian Universalist Principles One (the inherent worth and dignity of all people) and Six (peace, liberty, and justice for all). A Gallup survey of 143 countries found that 72% of men and 62% of women felt safe walking alone at night around their communities. That gap is even more pronounced in the United States with 89% of men and 62% of women report feeling safe in those conditions. Unfortunately, this fear is substantiated as 25% of all sexual violence in the United States occurs in a public space, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. These numbers reveal a much broader issue: cities are not planned with needs of women in mind.

Although we don’t know the exact percentage of local government officials who are women, having female representation in local governments is very important since most urban planning happens at the local level. We do know, however, that the percent of women in positions of political power overall is much lower than that of men. For example, women make up only 22.8% of all representatives in national parliaments. Although the rate of women in powerful government positions is growing, when these cities were initially planned, men basically had a monopoly over influence in government. A long global history of undervaluing women and ignoring their needs has led us to the situations we stand in today, where women’s commutes to work involve the fear of harassment ranging from unwanted sexual comments to femicide, the murder of a woman because she is a woman. 41% of women in the United States have experienced aggressive physical harassment including sexual touching, following, and rape.

An illustration by Julia Minamata showing women utilizing city transit, including walking, waiting for the bus, and entering an entrance to ride the subway.

Illustration by Julia Minamata, from the Toronto Women's City Alliance's advocacy on gender-sensitive planning.

But there is hope. Some organizations and local governments have become concerned with this issue and made themselves vehicles for change using gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming is a concept used in public policy where the different implications of an action are examined for men and women separately so that issues for each group can be addressed.

The city of Vienna, Austria has long been committed to incorporating gender mainstreaming into its urban planning projects. The city launched the Women’s Office of the City of Vienna in 1992 in response to a photography exhibit on women’s needs in planning. Since the office’s conception, the city has conducted over 50 projects with the aim of incorporating the needs of women and gender mainstreaming into the city plans. City planners in Vienna have been pioneers in exploring the opportunities for increased equality in cities. For example, research conducted in the city shows that men tend to travel by car whereas women are more likely to travel either on foot or using public transportation. To better accommodate women’s needs the city increased the number of street lamps on foot paths as well as increasing visibility on paths in public parks and measures to increase pedestrian safety in traffic such as fewer bottlenecks in the road.

Logo for UN Women and the Sustainable Development Goals, and written underneath "Planet 50-50 by 2030 Step It Up for Gender Equality"

UN Women's flagship programs work to dismantle structural barriers to female empowerment.

Agencies at the United Nations have programs aimed at making women feel safer in public areas and subsequently empowering them to be more independent. UN Women has taken the lead on this endeavor. UN Women, the agency at the United Nations focusing on gender equality and female empowerment, has made this issue a priority. Their flagship program dealing with this issue, “Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces,” has made some great strides in this area using evidence-based approaches to reduce both violence and the fear of violence. In February 2007, Mexico City hosted UN Women’s annual forum “Safe, Empowering and Sustainable City Approaches in Action for Women and Girls” and is one of twenty cities who have partnered with UN Women to abolish this type of inequality. This, in and of itself, is progress as Mexico City is taking action on behalf of its female residents, 90% of whom have been the victims of sexual violence or sexual harassment on their daily commutes. In addition, UN Women has teamed up with UN Habitat, the UN agency dealing with sustainable human settlements, to further promote gender equality in urban development.

The first step to becoming a more women-friendly city is finding out what the women in the city need. This can be done both in reference to a specific proposed project and in reference to the city in general. Vienna began their process of gender mainstreaming with a survey about public transit. You can help kick start the process in your area by advocating for safety audits and gender mainstreaming in urban planning to your local government. It should also be noted that women aren’t the only people who benefit from gender mainstreaming. All citizens profit from these changes to the city, most notably increased safety and security. It is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that all people feel safe in their communities.


Amy Perry is a Women's Rights Program Intern at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. She is also a student at Binghamton University studying Political Science.

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