Designing Urban Public Spaces

Architecture Dated:  April 9, 2015
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Considering Gender Preferences: Mainstreaming as a possible tool for tomorrow’s cities

This paper discusses the relevance of considering preferences of both genders optimally in design, discussion and policy for Contemporary Urban Public Spaces, specifically in Indian context. It looks at gender-space relationship through Indian history briefly and analyses the same in the present-day situation. It also outlines issues in gendered planning with particular reference to the effect on the lives of women and opportunities offered by gender mainstreaming with some appropriate cases.

Urban Public Spaces:

Urban Public spaces play a vital role in our day-to-day life. They are used by a variety of user groups with uniquely different physical and psychological frames thus generating variety of experiences and perceptions.

Three characteristic often used to analyze the meanings of "Public" and "Private" are access, agency of control and interest (Been & Gauss, 1983, Pitkin, 1981). City streets, squares, market places and parks are usually both publicly owned and open to the entire population. Other spaces and buildings, privately owned and controlled, are open to the public but the owners may refuse or discourage entry by certain segments of the population (Brill, 1989, Forrest & Paxson, 1979). Examples are stores, shopping malls, libraries and museums.

So, Urban Public Spaces are a variety of outdoor spaces around our built environment like market-places, bus-stops and metro stations, streets, plazas and parks.

The Concept of Gender:

The concept of 'gender' is composed of a package of cultural differences and factors that shape the lives and expectations of women and men, in relation to their social role and duties. Gender is a socially-learned behaviour and expectations of the society from both the sexes and is constructed socially. The term ‘Gender’ is different from the term ‘Sex’. ‘Gender’ refers to expected social roles within society, for women and men, whilst ‘sex’ refers to biological differences. ‘Gender’ embodies the acceptance of varying gender identities, differential levels of power, and differing roles for women and men, which result in them using space differently (Bowlby et al, 1986) both inside and outside the home within the built environment (Wigley, 1992). 

Gender can be seen in terms of social structure or as a symbolic order which is the way in which notion of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ is described. (Davis and Cowles 1991) Gender imposes privileges and restrictions and defines power dynamics in a society where men always have dominant position. To date, gender research has acknowledged a specific form of gender-relations, namely patriarchy, that disadvantages women and which thus requires emphasis on women's needs (Panelli, 2004). Maleness and femaleness dictate the disposition of opportunities as well as burdens which affect social life and establish spatial needs of a community (Khan 2011). Considering gender as a socially learned behaviour and expectations of two sexes which is constructed by society it is to be taken into consideration by designers while shaping urban outdoors by and large (Khan, 2011). 

Gender and the City:

Early ideas on gender and the city can be found in the time of the Renaissance when the city was considered an “arena where ideals of the mind – coded as masculine- could be expressed literally and symbolically” (Domosh and Seager, 2001), ‘Order-less’, ‘non-rational’ rural areas were, in contrast, assigned to be feminine. The main stream literature on cities and on urban planning is characterised by male-domination of the discourse, both in terms of subject matter and examples. There is a lack of reference to women either as citizens, city-makers or even human beings. For example, Peter Hall fills his book Cities of Tomorrow with reference to famous male city planners and city fathers but there is scarcely a mention of women except as tenants, housewives or 'do-gooders', i.e. charitable ladies (Hall, 2002). It is worth noting, too, that there has been a constant trickle of 'women and planning' books over the centuries. One of the first 'women and planning' books was written in 1405 by Christine de Pizan entitled The Book of the City of Ladies which is far from a mere courtly medieval text but includes quite 'modern' practical ideas about gender and urban space. Such writings have been largely neglected in the Indian Context which can play a role to underline the importance of women who are getting marginalized at a fast pace.

Gender and Urban Public Spaces Relationship:

The assumption that women properly "belong" in or near the dwelling whereas men may have easy and frequent access to places distant from the dwelling where a greater number of people gather is characteristic of most societies through-out the world. Rosaldo (1980) cautions that this division of  and related activities by gender is a product of social processes, not logical ones, and that viewing gender only in contrasting terms limits our knowledge and enforces a concept of women as different and apart from men. Also, although a sexual asymmetry in the domestic and public realms seems to be universal, the ways in which this is organized, the actual activities and relationships women and men pursue, and the meanings they ascribe to them differ among societies. A thoughtful distinction between domestic and public spaces continues to be a useful analytic device in anthropological research (Sharistanian, 1987). A sharp division between the private realm of the household and the public realm of political discourse was characteristic of life in ancient Athens and was extolled by Aristotle (Elshtain, 1974; Pitkin, 1981).

All human activity has a spatial dimension. But “space” is not simply a given physico-material environment. It is continuously generated, confirmed, and changed by cultural, social, and individual action and design. In the construction and appropriation of space, individual corporeality, subjective, situation-related interests, a person’s social life situation, as well as power and dominance relations in society play a significant role. The factors determining spatial appropriation differ in importance for women and men because our society is strongly shaped by the two-gender system, the gender-specific division of labour, and the associated differences in the positions of the two sexes in society. With respect to the use, appropriation, and assessment of space, this means that women and men may or not have different demands, appropriation opportunities, and options for action.
Public open spaces are particular in nature. They are not only largely “free” of building development but also much freer from behavioural rules and regulations. They enable the experience of nature, exercise and movement, encounters with the unknown, and hence offer an “element of residual adventure” (Zinnecker 1997). These opportunities for learning and experience make public open spaces, in particular, an important arena for gender democracy. While societal gender relations manifest themselves in the open space, influencing its use and assessment, as well as certain needs and requirements, the conditions prevailing in open spaces differentiate the scope for action and the possibilities for satisfying needs in terms of gender. The nature and design of open spaces can therefore both restrict and open up opportunities for appropriation.  

Changing Relations Of Gender With Urban Public Spaces In Context:

Indian womanhood has always been at the cross roads of changes and the results have been evident in the space-gender relationship at various times. A historical over-view of events and situations leading to the varied shifts and value scales of the Indian female and related space-gender relationship reveals the fact that through almost the entire Indian history, women have faced oppression and complete exclusion till almost the advent of the Mughal era which is marked by women-only spaces like Zenana pavilions, palaces and gardens. In India, water too, has been seen to have played a vital role for women-only activity. Water wells and ghats emerged as exclusive spaces for women. Around late 19th Century, the Second Wave of Feminism emerged as a powerful movement. Energy was focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing social equality regardless of sex. Many women-only organizations were formed. With the Second Wave emerging, the gender-space relationship witnessed a vital shift in terms of usage. The idea of women-only spaces, which had started to be visible from the time of Mughals in India, got added support and they started to emerge consequently all over the world and the idea seems to be realized into practice even today in fragments somewhere or the other. In present situation, in day-to-day life, women boggies in metros and trains and special ladies buses are noticed.

Present-Day Situation:

Today, there are gender-related acts like National Environmental Policy Act, UN Habitat Gender Mainstreaming Unit and UN Women and many organizations like Jagori, Sangat, Pukar, Because I Am A Girl and Prakasa which are in a constant process of rendering support and empowerment to women across India and the entire globe. There is a visible clue of changing trends in Gender roles due to Education, Emancipation and Gentrification.  Sharing of child-rearing role is also evident these days.  Nowadays, 35% of men with children under 12 are the primary carer of their offspring because their wives are at work and they likely to have problems carrying out those duties that were part of women's traditional role (Adams and Ingham, 1998; statistics are taken from ONS, 2004). 

In the last 10-15 years the gender roles have come to a ‘State of Existentialism’ ie. a state of confusion or transition. The two genders are sharing, to the extent of exchanging, responsibilities and roles as partners. Women’s and girls’ development potential and options for action have substantially increased and their life patterns have diversified. Women and girls have successively advanced into spheres of life formerly dominated by men. In contrast, changes in male life patterns and biographical orientations have been less marked. Today, Women find themselves in a particular “transformation dilemma“ .(cf. Harth 2006, 94 ff). As a result women have started to project a bolder and a much freer way of use and behaviour in public places as evident today. 

It seems as if this might be emerging as the third stage of evolution in Gender-space relationship where present space is evolving as Gender-neutral space; a space which claims to be inclusive of women. However, the consequences of these changes in gender relations for space appropriation and space construction have yet to the investigated in depth.


Much of the impetus for changes in urban planning and policy making has come from international influences and Europe-wide forces such as gender mainstreaming. It includes the recognition of gender as a key component in policy-making in developing countries (Momsen and Townsend, 1987). The European Commission defines gender mainstreaming as the 're-organisation of the improvement, development, and evaluation of policy processes, so that a gender equality perspective is incorporated in all policies at all levels and at all stages by actors normally involved in policymaking' (Council of Europe, 1998). 

One example which needs to be mentioned here is the city of Vienna which has adopted gender-mainstreaming in a number of areas of urban planning and city administration, including education and health-care policy. The project of gender-mainstreaming started in 1990’s. In practice, this means city administrators create laws, rules and regulations that benefit men and women equally. The goal was to provide equal access to city resources to both genders.  Eva Kail, gender expert in city’s urban planning group says “You need to know who is using the space, how many people, and what their aims are. Once you have analyzed the patterns of public use, you start defining the needs and interests of people using it. Then planning can be used to meet these needs.”

A group of city planners organized a photography exhibit titled “Who owns Public Space: Women’s Everyday Life in the City” to understand, in detail, the pattern of use of public spaces by women in the city. On the basis of such studies, series of mainstreaming projects were taken up, out of which, an apartment complex named “Women-Work-City” designed for and by women deserves a mention. The major design consideration in this project was the to make lives of women easier while they perform varied functions of work, travel, child-care and many more.

Way Forward:

This account of scattered findings on current trends in gender-specific behaviour in public open spaces suggests that changes in gender relations, especially changes in the female gender role, have started to reflect in outdoor behaviour. It is my assumption that, in the use and appropriation of open space, similar changes can be observed in gender relations as in society as a whole. Girls and women are increasingly conquering “male” open spaces and forms of behaviour and are thus broadening their scope for action. Hence, it is being tried to establish that as a process of evolution, today, the term ‘gender’ has evolved to a stage where men and women are sharing a relation never-seen earlier in human-history: a stage of equality, assumingly.

Further, taking clues from the examples of gender-mainstreaming globally, it is argued that in order to change the nature of the built environment to cater to the present scenario, it is essential to alter the composition and culture of the professionals whose decision-making powers shape the towns and cities in which we live. The impact should not be limited just to 'ramps and childcare' as 'gender' is not only of relevance to the immediate home environment and local area. There needs to be a gradual incorporation of gender-aware policies into all aspects of urban design, architecture and town planning activity. 

As we saw, that there exists an evolutionary gender-space scheme in the total time-line, it is quite likely that, today again is a point in time with specific set of conditions which deserves inquiry to establish the fact whether the contemporary urban public spaces are inclusive for women or not. There is a need to investigate whether perception for Urban Outdoors also shows similar changes to those evident in gender relations as a whole or not. 

To achieve all this, the very nature of development control would need to be restructured with a whole range of erstwhile social issues being counted as material considerations in the planning process. To do this, spatial planners would have to understand gender issues. Thus there is a need to sensitize those who are already in practice by means of additional training, and to invest more heavily in gender-aware education within the universities that produce the planners, architects and designers for the next generation. Realization of gender-sensitive open-space planning on ground should rely on facts and figures derived from research-based knowledge about what gender specificities exist regarding the use and appropriation of open spaces. 

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