In the 1990s, a simple survey in Vienna led urban planners to rethink their whole approach to infrastructure development. The questionnaire asked residents why and how they used public transportation, and the results were striking because men and women had very different responses. Men’s typical route was short and simple: often to and from work. Women’s responses, however, were complex and varied, usually including multiple trips a day on the metro as well as on foot: dropping off children at school, going to the doctor, getting groceries, visiting an older family member, back to school for pick up.
This prompted a moment of realisation for Vienna’s city planners: infrastructure has a gendered aspect to it; women and men have different needs and uses for public structures and systems. As a result, the planners adapted transportation projects to women’s needs, adding street lights so women were safer walking at night and widening sidewalks to make it easier to move around with walkers, strollers or wheelchairs.
Similarly, cities in Bangladesh recently sought to serve women more equitably in infrastructure improvements. They recognised that this begins with understanding what women need. The programme made sure women had representation in local governments and a voice in urban planning – down to the very construction of buildings. The project built separate toilet facilities for women at markets and transportation hubs across the country – identified as a key need. In addition, it increased women working in construction projects by 50%.
It’s not just transportation systems; women and men use public spaces, buildings, and even access basic services differently. In areas where resources of all kinds are more limited, these disparities become especially acute, affecting women’s safety, movement and income. This is particularly true in parts of the global south, where urban planning struggles to even keep up with basic use – much less encourage gender equality.
There are a few target areas where infrastructure improvements make a big difference in women’s lives – and livelihoods.
Safety in public places
Basic safety is a top concern for women in public spaces across the world. The statistics are sobering, more than 83% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed on Cairo’s streets; a rape is reported every 29 minutes in New Delhi and only 12% of women in Lima feel safe in the city, according to the UN. Originally launched in 2009, UN Women’s Safe Cities campaign aimed to prevent sexual violence in pilot cities, and recommended two straightforward infrastructure improvements in Delhi: more streetlights and improving roadside toilets.
Public toilets, particularly, are often insecure for women. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one in three women around the world do not have access to separate toilet facilities and must use communal facilities instead, which increases their risk of sexual violence. A study in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township showed that doubling the number of properly functioning public toilets in the area would reduce sexual assaults by 30%.
A city’s layout imposes a significant time burden on women
Where resources like water or schools are located matters as well. WHO estimates that 72% of the burden of collecting water at standpipes, wells, rivers and other storage units falls on women. The multiple trips a day to and from water sources eat up women’s time, drawing them away from other activities like education and employment.
Incorporating women’s needs starts with better data
The good news is cities around the world have made progress incorporating the needs of both genders in infrastructure planning, but this has not yet been institutionalised everywhere.
As a first step, we need a better understanding of how women and men experience and use public spaces. Sometimes the implications are counter-intuitive to typical planning. For example, urban investments that focused on “cleaning up” and beautifying cities in India drove off roadside hawkers and street vendors. But it was these extra eyes and people on the street that helped women feel and stay safe.
Currently, the limited amount of urban datasets that track and trend data on gender make it hard to develop infrastructure programmes that factor in women’s needs. According to the Hunger Report, 92% of gender specific economic data and 76.9% of gender health data is missing from sub-Saharan Africa. Cities and municipal authorities should mandate that existing surveys or other forms of input from residents mirror the demographics of the area – proportional to the gender balance and also by age.
Empowering women as leaders of urban research and local governance via community social audits, like a recent audit by the Social Justice Coalition on access to sanitation in Khayelitsha, South Africa, have shown to be powerful tools. They better inform gender-based strategies through data and experience, while simultaneously acknowledging and promoting women’s voices in policy decisions.
We now have a real opportunity to take action. As the world prepares for the forthcoming Habitat III conference in Ecuador next week, we need to encourage government officials, development organisations, and private sector partners to prioritise gender-inclusive infrastructure planning across the world’s cities.
Additionally, local governments and planning departments need support in educating and recruiting more female planners in ways that mirror the demographic and social make up of local environments. Doing so will go a long way towards making cities work for all.