Gender Voices in Urban Planning and Human Habitat Development Framework

Planning Dated:  Sept. 10, 2015
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The ultimate goal of National Urban Housing and Habitat Policy 2007 was to ensure sustainable development of all urban human settlements, duly serviced by basic civic amenities for ensuring better quality of life for all urban citizens. The Action Plan at the State/UT level must be prepared with involvement of all stakeholders and specific gender mainstreaming strategies throughout the urban planning process. The National Urban Housing and Habitat Policy, 2007 also lays special emphasis on provision of social housing for the economically weaker or low income populaces so that they are fully integrated into the mainstream of ecologically well-balanced urban development. The policy further made a special provision for women by seeking to involve women at all levels of decision making for ensuring their participation in formulation and implementation of housing policies and programs and addressing the special needs of women headed households, single women, working women and women in difficult circumstances in relation to housing serviced by basic amenities. This paper focuses on the importance of gender mainstreaming in urban and regional planning its strategies and challenges. 

While many urban cities and settlements are centers of economic growth, employment and cultural life, urbanization has also resulted in pronounced socio- economic inequalities, exclusions and segregations.  This divide in major cities is evinced by a growing number of exclusive gated communities, upmarket hypermarts well-kept parks, gardens, private security teams, clubs , theme based high-rise apartment complexes, farm houses and recreational facilities designed for the elite. While marginalized groups and a majority of the poor face evictions, lack of housing infrastructure and low quality or limited basic services like sanitation, water, drainage, electricity and solid waste management in addition to educational, health and social services. Even personal safety and security can be a risk. In India marginalized sections of society in urban habitats

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have intersecting or overlapping spheres of oppression and deprivation. For example, a woman may face gender discrimination along with heightened levels of marginalization from low-income levels, disability, ethnic/religious minority status etc.

Only when the stakeholder from diverse proficiencies of women and men are integrated into urban planning and design processes will it be possible to form inclusive urban planning procedures, safer public spaces and equitable land management.

The question is really not would cities be different if women designed them? It’s would they be different if more voices were heard?”

Gender Equality in Urban Planning and Design:

Urban centers in India today reflect diversity of people in terms of age, ethnicity, linguistic multiplicity, and varied caste, religious, economic and cultural backgrounds. Even though women ought to represent roughly 50 % of such urban populations, cities have been planned, designed and governed without the equal engagement of women as decision makers. It is because of this narrow outlook that the male female ratio is still dismal.

India - Sex Ratio                                                  Female to male ratio in India . Source
Census 2011

There is a strong predisposition to view urban development and planning as ‘gender-neutral’, not molded by or towards the relevance of a particular sex i.e both sexes are treated similarly. Whereas, the reality is much different: what is considered to be ‘gender-neutral’ is in fact male-centric. Where neither the daily lifestyles of women, nor the specific challenges that women face is considered in shaping urban form or function. The disparity is far more perceptible at smaller scales of neighborhood and dwelling  units.

The concept of female identity in terms of formal and informal labor is central to this theme. Their work determines how often they navigate their neighborhood or a city, at what times of day or night and by what modes of transportation. 

Urban spaces should recognize and value the contribution women make towards social reproduction without which human society is unsustainable, by creating safe spaces and equal opportunity and access to resources. However, patriarchal norms inhibit women in terms of power to make decisions for themselves, access to employment and equal pay, safety, right to own land and secure tenure and public resources.

A closer look into the effects of gender mainstreaming of cities shows us that designing and managing cities for women, by women will improve cities for all, including marginalized groups and men. More so,  as women tend never to think in singularly but in plurality, making it inclusive by instinct.

Benefits of Gender Mainstreaming:

Gender mainstreaming and intersectional analysis can offer tools to help integrate gender and diversity into an urban habitat. At the heart of gender mainstreaming of our urban spaces we find that the central focus is on the home or family. Bringing the spotlight on to family roles and parental dynamics and studying their impact on the individual lives of women, men and children create short and long term priorities for a sustainable development model.

Let us consider an average family of 6 members: the mother, the father, a daughter, a son and 2 grandparents. In this family there may be certain members that are engaged in ‘productive labor’ so as to be able to provide the necessary conveniences of life and certain members that can be termed as ‘dependents’ who are either too old, too young or too infirm to be engaged in such labor. Quality of life for a citizen is pegged to the income of those who are engaged in ‘productive labor’ versus the cost of living for productive laborers and their dependents.  Understanding labor markets and their impact on the male and female workforce will help in creating mainstream gender-sensitive policies and practices across all sectors. 

Gender mainstreaming methodologies include ensuring that urban habitat initiatives respond to gender differences, reduce inequality and gender discrimination. This can only happen when partnerships are built between men and women that facilitate equal enjoyment and benefit of society’s resources. There is an increasing pressure on men to play a bigger role in the empowerment of women, responding to the root causes of inequality and putting remedial action in motion.

Drawing the Line between Gender Mainstreaming Versus Gender Stereotyping:

Gender stereotypes by definition are uni-dimensional generalizations about gender traits, distinctions, positions and responsibilities of individuals and/or groups. 

Stereotypes can be either negative or positive, however they seldom correspond to accurate information about others. In situations where people automatically apply gender assumptions to others regardless of evidence to the contrary, it is proposed that people feel threatened by the belief that their performance will identify them as examples of their group’s negative stereotype. This is how gender stereotyping is perpetuated in society.

For instance it is true that men as a group possess a superior position in virtually every nation in the world and that superior status groups tend to be viewed as possessing more of whatever skills their society most values thus men are stereotyped as independent, agentic, and goal oriented; women as being interdependent, communal and oriented towards others. Traditionally, gender stereotyping is taken one step further in developing nations like India and affirm the idea that the female’s stereotypic role is to marry and have children. She is also to put her family's welfare before her own; be loving, compassionate, caring, nurturing, and sympathetic; and find time to be attractive and feel beautiful. However, the male stereotypic role is to be the financial provider. He is also to be assertive, competitive, independent, courageous, and career focused; hold his emotions in check; and always initiate sex. These sorts of stereotypes can prove harmful; they can stifle individual expression and creativity, as well as hinder personal and professional growth.

The weight of scientific evidence demonstrates that children learn gender stereotypes from adults. As with gender roles, socializing agents—parents, teachers, peers, religious leaders, and the media—pass along gender stereotypes from one generation to the next.
One approach to reevaluating established gender roles and stereotypes is androgyny, which is the consolidation of feminine and masculine traits in the same individual. The androgyne, or androgynous person, does not neatly fit into a female or male gender role; she or he can comfortably express the qualities of both genders. Parents and other socializing agents can teach their children to be androgynous, just as they can teach them to be gender biased.

However, many feminist lobbyist groups strongly assert their right to the expression of a separate female identity, which is where gender-mainstreaming techniques come into play through a thorough gender analysis of the relevant context of women.

Strategies to Mainstream Gender in Urban Planning and Design:

When deciding on an approach or methodology for gender equality it is important to have clear goals and determine concrete entry points to achieve the same. The achievement of long-term goals is assured by the bringing together of various interest groups and stakeholders from government officials, members of the community, urban planners and gender experts. Thus, creating holistic partnerships that hold a diverse set of actors accountable to debate, implement and monitor the inclusive habitat polices.

Gender Analysis is an important tool with respect to implementing gender mainstreaming. It surfaces the realities and relationships of diverse groups of men and women in terms of their access to resources, division of responsibilities and power differentials in society. There are many ways to conduct a gender analysis across relevant projects, policies, campaigns and organizations. Namely, feasibility studies, community based planning, project assessment, institutional change and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. This tool is to ensure that new policies reflect the priorities of diverse groups and gender analysis must be conducted throughout all phases of the project lifecycle.

Increased Gender Based Data Collection offers a way to access diverse changes in social, political, economical and environmental behaviors and actions of individuals of diverse communities. Gender sensitive data collection highlights the unique challenges that women and children face in their every day lives that are most often overlooked by gender-neutral research. In order to effectively serve the gender mainstreaming process gender based data collection will involve the analysis of sex-disaggregated data providing quantitative and qualitative information enabling informed decision making pointing towards targeted solutions with minimum risk and maximum impact.

National Urban Policies are critical for setting up guidelines on sustainable urban development, poverty reduction and gender equality. Accountability frameworks for local governments that affirm rights of women and children such as freedom from fear and violence, freedom of movement and freedom to enjoy public spaces. These policies include but are not limited to ensuring that women’s unpaid work in the care economy is supported through appropriate mixed land use planning and relevant services, fostering safe and secure environments, securing gender-inclusive land management tools for those living in slums and informal housing and securing economic opportunities for marginalized sections.

Enabling Meaningful Participation Of Women In Urban Planning at all levels of the urban planning and decision-making process from program design to monitoring and evaluation by creating effective policies for the same. This may involve the creation of new structures in addition to the modification of existing structures and processes. Its not enough to merely include women in the process but also the quality of participation, training and actual level of women empowerment must be evaluated in concrete terms. Conducting training sessions on international policy like CEDAW, education on gender equality and creating awareness of gender-based violence can be helpful in this regard. Further, establishing a women’s council bringing together diverse groups of women from architects, urban planners, lawyers, engineers and policy workers to represent diverse interest groups creates a strong holistic opinion on the relevant course of action that must be taken.

The Engagement of Men as Advocates of Gender Equality can help decrease reports of sexual, physical and psychological violence on women. When men are sensitized to the prevalent gender biases and barriers behind developmental polices and practices automatically concepts like safe spaces, safe transport and other gender specific ideas can be embedded into the design and planning of urban habitat spaces without women having to negotiate the same.

Women Monitoring Mechanisms to monitor the global progress n implementing the habitat agenda and to monitor and evaluate global conditions and trends. The model focuses on setting up of local urban observatories, where projects are involved in urban policy, planning and women’s rights. Through a community support system and capacity building schemes local women are taught how to collect, manage, maintain and use information and indicators, which has proven to be a successful participatory tool in the monitoring process.

Planning and designing safe public spaces for women and girls is the process whereby urban planners, designers, architects, women, grass-roots and other community actors collaborate to make the physical features of public spaces safe and welcoming for women and girls. Experience shows that when women and girls occupy a space, more people also occupy it in general. Streets, parks, bus stops, sports fields, squares, parking lots, etc. that have been planned and designed according to the specific safety needs of women and girls exhibit certain characteristics such as: easy access to and from the location, easy movement within the location, good lighting so objects and people are seen and can see, clear and comprehensive signage, sanitary and well kept paths, inclusion of mixed use spaces, provisions for variability of season such as shade in the summers and insulation in cold weather, access to clean toilet facilities that are safe for women, facilities for child care such as breastfeeding spaces and diaper changing areas and provisions for elderly and young people. Gender sensitivity to be universally accepted  need to go beyond mandatory crèches, rest rooms maternity and child care leave.


By 2030, it is expected that 60% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. The population in urban areas in less developed countries will grow from 1.9 billion in 2000 to 3.9 billion in 2030. The urban population of developing countries is expected to reach the 50% mark in 2020. Further, by 2030, Asia and Africa will both have higher numbers of urban dwellers than any other major area of the world. Out of a total estimated Indian population 1,210,854,977 (1.21 billion), the female population is 587,584,719 (587 million) in census of 2011 thereby yielding   943 females per 1,000 males. If 39% of the population resides in urban India, then about 229 billion women must be living in urban India today. These figures further emphasize the need to develop quantitative and qualitative strategies towards the gender mainstreaming of the urban planning sector in India. Policies and frameworks must be set up in this regard at National, State and District levels of urban governance and planning.

 The aim of every species is to preserve their lineage and propagate progenies at both the individual and at the community level. The reproductive capacities of women must be revered and held in awe especially since the fertility of field & flock are so very dependent on the fertility of women. Early societies were balanced where women were considered a symbol of birth and creativity. Femininity was venerated as being deific, since life was perceived to emanate from the divine union of the male and female halves of nature. Today however, the balance is skewed in favor of males because of the socio-cultural stereotypes that make women dependent on men for economic development. Awareness and interceptive strategies that overcome the subjugation of women through collaborative partnerships in the urban planning space across varied marginalized communities are the need of the hour. The debate must be democratic, as it is preferred to debate and not decide than take decision without inclusive discussions. This idea is reflected in the Dutch pioneered Polder Model used for consensus based economic and social policymaking.

Nature is exploited and plundered in the name of economic development distorting the balance and  the sustainability of our ecosystem which further affects our population holding capacity. This is less likely to happen when voices of women are heard and given due consideration in the decision making process. Gender inclusive policy as regards urban habitat planning will prove to effect the following spheres of life in a positive manner:

  • Barrier Free Access to All
  • Agronomics
  • Differently Abled Friendly Design Parameters
  • Green Building Design Standards
  • Conservation Of Resources
  • Recycle & Reuse
  • Safety & Security
  • Disaster Management
  • Zero Building Discharge
  • Smart, Sustainable & Inclusive Regional Development
  • Integration of Peri- Urban and Rural Urban Fringes
  • Urban Farming
  • Nature’s Way to Agriculture
  • GMO Free Organic Farming
  • Socio-Cultural Health & Infrastructure

Urbanization is an engine of social growth for which Regional & Master Planning is critical. In collaborative planning and consensus building there is no question of over-gender mainstreaming, men must contribute to subjects that play to their strengths and come naturally to them as much as women and other marginalized groups. What is of prime concern especially while dealing with marginalized groups is to ensure that equals are treated equally and further more that unequals are treated specially. This approach embodies the true constructs of gender equality envisioned in Part III of the Constitution of India. Further, a sensitized and consultative approach is critical to defuse gender bias in India. Thus integrated development models evolved through consensus can be a natural outcome to discover a model suitable to the collective. “Framework for Inclusive Human Habitat” is key to developing urban spaces; undeniably an uphill task worldwide today.


The paper tries to highlight the research gap for establishing judicious gender balance in urban policy making and while trying to address these questions we encounter a tight-rope and cliffhanger situation. These situations offer ample opportunity to future researchers to evolve frameworks which may fit most actors that populate the urban platform.

Corresponding Author
Ar. Namrita Kalsi
Dy. Chief Architect
Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Ltd. New Delhi, India
PhD, School of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Thapar University, Patiala, Punjab, India

Prianca Ravichander
Kamakshi Legal Consultancy and Policy LLP. Bangalore, India

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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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