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Reflections for International Women’s Day

Why Gender Perspectives in Urban Planning and Policies Matter

Posted on March 8, 2019
Picture of woman waiting on bus platform

By: SALURBAL Project Gender Working Group

March 8 marks International Women’s Day, but all over the world, most cities are still designed by men and for men. 

Not only do fields of urban planning and design remain heavily male dominated, this gender gap frequently gives rise to cities that cater to the needs and interest of a small segment of the population: men who are middle-class, middle-aged, without challenges in physical or mental capabilities, and, in many areas of the world, most likely white, the mirror image of most urban planners

Questions of how gender intersects with urban life are particularly pertinent to Latin America. Compared to other regions of the world, Latin America has urbanized at much faster rates and 80% of its population now lives in urban areas. Indicators of gender parity and inclusion from the region are also troubling. Rates of violence against women in Latin America are the highest in the world. Women participate in the labor force approximately 30% less than men. In many countries, girls still face greater barriers to school attendance. Unsurprisingly, Latin American women also face poverty at a greater rate compared to men. When urban planning processes unintentionally or intentionally omit gender perspectives, city design and environments reinforce these gender inequities and limit women’s rights.

To understand why consider the simple yet surprising findings of a study that found that women were 47% more likely than men to be severely injured during a car crash. Weighing possible explanations, researchers discovered that this imbalance was not due to differences in vehicle types, crash profile, ages of those involved or other factors. Instead, the study concluded that women are more likely to sustain severe injuries because standard safety features are designed according to the size and preferences of an average man. When scaled-up, the implications of gender-biased design on the city level are even more serious. 

Cities designed from the male normative standpoint fail to provide equal access to everyone and the fundamental right to the city remains unfulfilled. A conspicuous example might be the presence of dimly lit streets in entertainment districts with male-dominated hangouts and lack of public safety attract perpetrators of sexual violence. However, in reality, the ways that city spaces, services and amenities are experienced, and even questions of which are available to whom, are very much influenced by gender. Parks, plazas and green areas might provide recreational and social opportunities for men, but research suggests that women are often averse to public spaces for fear of danger. And even when women do use such spaces, their use is often highly conditioned by gender roles, such as caring for others rather than engaging in group exercise or other recreational use.

Statistically, women have been found to drive less frequently than men. Yet, public transport systems are often circuitous, unreliable, unsafe and inaccessible to those with physical limitations, including small children accompanying their caregivers. When transportation and similar services are inaccessible to and unresponsive to the needs of women, women are less likely to use them and their mobility is restricted. Barriers to travel and accessing city services have real consequences when it comes to full participation in employment, civic, educational, and health opportunities and services, and even for social interaction and social networks. The layout of a city and its transportation design can also impose significant time burdens on women, who are already tasked with greater unpaid labor

So, why aren’t we designing cities that work for women, not just men? Gender-inclusive cities are those that go far beyond ensuring safe environments. Cities that work for women prioritize political participation and empowerment, service accessibility, and economic and financial inclusion. It is also important to undertake gender-sensitive evaluations and review of existing policies and practices. Integrating greater gender perspectives in urban planning and policies is also a matter of improving urban health.  

Organizations like UN Habitat have developed guidelines regarding gender perspectives in urban planning and research groups like Col·lectiu Punt 6 have suggested participatory urban planning models to make sure more voices are included in the planning process, with the objective of designing cities for everyone. Specifically in Latin America,  El Salvador’s Ciudad Mujer program offers comprehensive gender empowerment to improve living conditions and access to services. Bogotá has undertaken a gender-sensitive review of its territorial policy and used urban planning to prioritize safety for women in mobility and public spaces. Quito has implemented comprehensive campaigns against harassment in transportation and public spaces. Some areas in Mexico have adopted gender-responsive budgeting practices, particularly with respect to the health sector.

But few publications have made the connection between these discussions of male-gendered urban planning and urban health specifically. There is a gap in current literature describing outcomes related to urban health by gender, and thus more on this is needed to visualize the differential impact that city ‘structure’ and city interventions may have in the population. With its focus on the built and social environments, the SALURBAL project is uniquely placed to provide data regarding the health-related impacts of gendered urban environments on men and women in Latin American cities. In this way, we are hoping to look into the impacts of transportation, walkability, green space and other measures of the built environment on gender differences in diverse health outcomes like perceived health, cardiovascular disease or depression. 

Further Reading 
Gender Inequalities in Cities: Urban 20 White Paper
Your City Has a Gender and It's Male 
Sexism and the City: How Urban Planning Has Failed Women 

Learn More


This post was written as a contribution to Cities, Sectors, and Health, run by SALURBAL. To contact the blog or learn more about the SALURBAL project email
Posted in Urban Development, Social Inclusion, Transportation Systems, localnews