Built Environment and Women: Setting Agenda, Raising Issues

Architects Dated:  Aug. 5, 2015
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Urban Planning Design, Image Source: iwallhd.com

City planning assumes that it is a gender neutral profession. This assumption is faulty and needs to be questioned as planning is dominated by middle and high income men who pursue a certain agenda, which favors certain gendered sections of the society. In this condition women generally loose out. Planners being integral part of the civil society manifest all those biases in their planning policies and decisions as they express them in society generally. The chief purpose of this paper is to identify those areas where planners can make interventions from women's perspective. Even these areas are not coherently identified because men resist any such attempt furiously. However, these areas need to be identified before any material actions could be taken to strike gendered balance in city planning in India. These areas may include public spaces including streets, recreational spaces, markets, malls, multiplexes, etc. These spaces could also include spaces used specifically for commuting including roads, metros, bus stations, metro stations, etc. These could also include spaces of participation in planning and decision making processes.  The question of raising women's issues in city planning directly asks who participates in the city making processes. Thus place making is at the heart of gendered planning. If women are unable to participate effectively in the processes that lead to the production of built environment, they may not be able to assert their collective right to the city. women thus may become victim of oppressive practices such as spatial domination and segregation, practices which get manifested through the built environment. 

Although statutorily urban planning was introduced in India in 1915, it has remained embedded in scientific rationalism for over a century now. Scientific rationalism is premised on the fact that all knowledge is gained through reason. In this view, planning analysis and policy proposals should be based on scientific knowledge and all knowledge should be validated through scientific reasoning. Planners then designed efficient planning processes of decision making as well as adopted quantitative planning methods to plan cities. City building was based on the most efficient ways of living, working and entertainment. There was no scope for feelings and subjectivities. Too much emphasis on scientization of planning meant planners also placed little emphasis on its politics as physical determinism took all their attention. Planning was erroneously regarded as a scientific profession like engineering or medicine. 

However, in practice planning remained what it truly was - a political activity concerned with the distribution and redistribution of built environment across areas, classes, races and ethnicities, castes and genders. Planning served some interests better than others. Planners however remained blissfully oblivious of these complexities. Men planned cities sometimes with participation of women but largely without their presence. Needs of women were never regarded an important subject matter of concern in the master plans. City after city prepared master plans without ever including women in any planning policies. Universalizing trend was noticeable. Scientific rationalism has triumphed.     
Identification of  Women  Centered Planning Concerns:

There are several occasions when urban planning could contribute to highlighting and resolving women centered issues. A number of planning issues include safety, accessibility, spatial exclusion, poverty, decision making in planning organizations, etc. (Kumar, 2009).

In 1978 International journal of Urban and Regional Research published a special issue focusing on transport, housing and day care. In 1980 another journal titled Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society published on women and the city (Wekerle, 1980: S189). They focused on areas such as the role of the women in the planning profession, causes and impacts of suburbanization on women, the contribution of women to the city, the ways in which cities both empower and suppress women, the relationship between the concept of the family wage and women’s economic status and a vision of a city free from discrimination (after Fainstein and Servon, 2005: 7).

An important paper ‘A Gender Agenda: New Directions for Planning Theory’ was published by Leonie Sandercock and Ann Forsyth (1992: 49) in which they discussed five areas: spatial, economic, and social relationships; language and communication; epistemology and methodology; ethics; and the nature of the public domain. 

Safety in the City:

Women remain unsafe in the Indian city. They are physically assaulted and raped; they are even murdered when they go about doing their normal chores such as going to work, picking up children from school, going with a friend for the movie, etc. Safety becomes an imperative question whenever women move about in the city. Urban planning has been unable to discuss and ameliorate violence against women (Sweet, 2010).  

Safety does not imply ghettoization of women herding them into a safer place away from the gaze of men. Transport planners and managers have often come out with these solutions. About a decade ago I visited Chennai on an official trip. In this otherwise peaceful city, women and men travelled separately in public buses. All public buses were divided into two parts; men went into their own space and women into their own. Anyone violating this norm was severely reprimanded by the driver or the conductor. Delhi Metro presents another example of ghettoization of women. While Delhi aspires to become a global city and policy makers use Delhi Metro as one of the global symbols of modern commuting in a safe, affordable and environment friendly mode of mass rapid transit system, women are made to feel safer only if they travel in a reserved coach. A majority of women we recently interviewed also feel safer in a reserved coach. Mumbai local and perhaps modes of mass rapid transit in other cities are equally exclusionary. 

Decision Making in Planning:

Women are often excluded from top decision making positions. For example, so far no woman is appointed as the Chief Planner of the Town and Country Planning Organization, New Delhi. Similarly, Delhi Development Authority did not appoint a woman Planning Commissioner since the last five and a half decade of its existence. Top educational institutions are no better than professional organizations. School of Planning and Architecture Delhi has not been able to appoint a single female Director since its existence. Professional bodies are equally exclusionary as far as women are concerned. All Presidents, Vice Presidents, Secretary Generals, and member of the top decision making body of the Institute of Town Planners India have been men. Women, if at all included, remain at the margins.

Absence of women from important decision making arenas in planning has sidestepped spatial issues directly linked to women. Women’s needs have been ignored. As Susan Fainstein asserts: “The powerlessness of women contributed to the insensitivity of planning in regard to their needs for day care, transit, and community support. The inadequacy of suburban development in meeting female needs and the isolation of housewives in suburban homes were the target of considerable feminist opprobrium (Fainstein, 2003: 7).  


From city to a neighbourhood level, women do not find themselves included in all kinds of communal spaces. Recently I visited Srinagar on the invitation of the Srinagar Development Authority for the review of the Master Plan of the city. The city has a large number of open spaces and most of these are well maintained. Generally speaking few people visited these open spaces even during the month of May. But I did not find single women in these limited numbers of open spaces that I visited during my short trip. Culture may have played a role in keeping women out of these community spaces. 

Another example from Srinagar concerns our visit to a grand mosque. I saw no women within the premises of the mosque, more specifically in the area where believers prayed. Even we were asked our names and requested to stand apart from the people who followed Islam. Being confronted with a question – what is your name – offended me and my colleagues gravely. I asked people standing outside the mosque, why there are no women inside the mosque. They pointed toward a group of women standing by the outer wall of the mosque gesturing that women could pray only from outside. Astounding as it may seem, religion has been used to keep women out of important communal spaces in the cities. 


Percent of working women is much less than men. One way to create women friendly city is that they become equal partner in the city’s economy and contribute as greatly as men do to the economic health of the city. Mobility is central to women’s participation in the economic affairs of the city. Work and residence are separated through land use zoning. Thus there are hindrances to the mobility of women in the city. “As more women have become wage earners the physical constraints of this type of city have become apparent. Child care is rarely close to employment centers. When unavailable, women are severely constrained by the difficult decision between not having children and paying for child care in lost wages or lost time. Similarly, mass transit is scheduled for rational commutes to work rather than the erratic movements of women responsible for both domestic duties and paid work” (Sandercock and Forsyth, 1992: 50). 

Different Women:

Women as a category represent acute differences, which needs to be valorized rather than suppressed. We cannot underestimate these vast differences between women as normalization or universalization of the category of women is harmful to gender sensitives. For example, a daily wage earner construction worker living in a slum uses her neighbourhood and the city very differently from an executive officer of a large multinational firm. While both are women but both view and use city’s resources very differently. This implies that welfare of these women is served better if planning policies are firmly focused on their differences rather than their sex alone. Access to potable water, minimum shelter, basic education for her children, and the fear of evictions due to lack of tenure security, and of course finding out daily work are paramount issues for the construction worker. These are non-issues for the income rich women, but she also uses the city resources. Child care spaces, reliable public transit system, access to quality physical and social infrastructure, and availability and reliability of servants are crucial issues for the chief executive. Same planning policies and policies which underplay the existence of women are unlikely to serve the interests and needs of women generally and her various categories. 

Public Spaces:
Specific kind of urbanization has led to shrinking of communal and collective spaces. Even before the issue of accessibility of communal spaces to women, the question of their existence assumes prominence. Evidence shows that shrinking collective spaces have also caused increase in private spaces for women in the house and leading to activities such as care for children, looking after the house, etc. all alone when men go about doing work and building their careers. Suburbanization perpetuated this trend in America. 

Feminization of Poverty:

Women spend a lot of their time in care giving activities at home. This is entirely unpaid work and is not monetized. Even this kind of work is devalued by men. Since women are obliged to spend a lot of their time in care giving activities, they remain constrained to do paid work. Master plans build cities with a rational man in mind who makes rational trips from home to work and back devoting his entire duty time at the work place. Work place is exclusively meant for work. Women have other obligations apart from work at workplace. She could work only if planning includes her requirements into planning policies. As Susan Fainstein notes: “Nevertheless, public transit that would enable women to free themselves from chauffeuring children, daycare that would permit them to work, clustering of housing so that they could share chores with their neighbors were all contrary to the dominant ideal” (Fainstein, 2003: 8).  

Men Make the Urban:

Census of India classifies urban areas into statutory towns and census towns. Statutory towns are those settlements which have a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee, etc. Census towns are all other places which satisfy the following criteria:

  • A minimum population of 5,000
  • At least 75 percent of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits
  • A density of population of at least 400 persons per sq km

These criteria clearly revalorize men’s work and therefore ignore women’s work completely. Census of India sees no value in including female in the second criterion assuming significant number of women do not really work in non-agricultural activities in our cities. Second, only main male workers are included and marginal workers are excluded from the relevant criteria. Most women work as marginal workers because of the burden of care giving activities for which largely women have an obligation. Third, apart from population projections, projection of workers determines policy proposals pertaining to future economic activities in any urban settlement. Surely excluding women from the economic sphere in the city would undermine such projections as well as policies.


Urban planning practice has been unable to include women in planning by not specifically addressing gender issues generally and women issues particularly. Exclusion of women from important positions in planning organizations, professional bodies, and higher educational institutions has made planning insensitive to women’s issues. So much so that male planners in India generally feel that there are no planning issues that are solely relevant to women. While gender sensitive research in development studies in India and other developing countries have even shown the way to the western researchers, urban planning has been silent on women’s issues. Totalizing tendencies of scientific rationalism, the foundation stone of all planning in India, has stubbornly ignored gender concerns.  


Fainstein, S. (2003) Gender and Planning: Theoretical Issues, Papers in Planning 03.01, Columbia University, New York.

Fainstein, S. and Servon, L.J. (2005) Gender and Planning: A Reader, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey. 

Kumar, A. (2009) Technical Rationality, Equity and Transport Planning: Future Agenda for Research and Practice, ITPI Journal, Vol.4, No.4, pp.68-72

Sandercock, L. and Forsyth, A. (1992) A Gender Agenda: New Directions for Planning Theory, Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol.58, No.1, pp.49-59.

Sweet, E.L. (2010) Planning responds to Gender Violence: Evidence from Spain, Mexico and the United States, Urban Studies, Vol.47, No.10, pp. 2129-2147.

Wekerle, G.R. (1980) Women in the Urban Environment, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol.5, No.3, Supplement, pp.S188 - S214.


This paper is part of the WIA publication brought out at the Women in Architecture Conference organized jointly by the IIA Northern Chapter, SPA and SPA Alumni on June 06, 2015.

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