Safer Cities for Women and Girls Pt 2: Women’s Input in Urban Planning

Women are often the subject of harassment during their commute. Photo: Raymond Francisco/Unsplash

Women and girls encounter threats in public spaces all over the world. This affects their mobility, prosperity and well-being. We explore the repercussions of the exclusion of women’s input in city planning and how some cities have incorporated them in the decision-making process.


Women and girls encounter sexual violence in public spaces, from unsolicited sexual comments to touching, rape and femicide. Occurring in our very own streets, in and around schools, on public transportation, workplaces, public toilets, and parks in both urban and rural areas, this issue reduces women’s freedom of movement and their ability to study, work, access essential services and amenities, participate in public life and enjoy recreational activities.


In the first part of our series on Safer Cities for Women and Girls, we highlighted the rights of women to a city and what aspects of cities make women feel unsafe. In this second part we look at what happens when women’s decisions are omitted, and what come cities have done to improve women’s safety and wellbeing.



Women use cities in different ways. Many work or study during the day, and yet are the primary caregivers and homemakers in their households.

In 1999, a survey conducted in Vienna documented how often and why residents of a particular district used public transportation. Administrators discovered that most of the men reported using either a car or public transit twice a day to commute to and from work while women used the city’s network of sidewalks, bus routes, subway lines and streetcars more frequently and for a variety of reasons.

Ursula Bauer, one of the city administrators involved with the survey, told that while most of the men filled out the survey questionnaire in less than five minutes, the women would not stop writing.

“The women had a much more varied pattern of movement. They were writing things like, ‘I take my kids to the doctor some mornings, then bring them to school before I go to work. Later, I help my mother buy groceries and bring my kids home on the metro.”

Women also used public transit more frequently and made more trips on foot than men, while splitting their time between work and family commitments, such as taking care of children and elderly parents.

As a result the women found themselves having to commute a lot more than men, taking up more time in their day, as the facilities they required were not centralised.


Ana Falú, architect and chair of the UN-Habitat’s Advisory Group on Gender Issues, said in an online lecture that the omission of women in the decision-making process in urban planning has created barriers such as the way corridors and roads are formed. Many streets have also been built with physical obstacles that deter the use of prams, trolleys or wheelchairs. Signs, lighting and visibility may not be designed in accordance to women’s needs, while protection against inclement weather and transparency, security-wise – ‘to see and to be seen’ – could be improved.

She added that women were also greater users of meeting points, parks and public places where cultural events take place, due to their interests and responsibilities, which made it even more essential that women were considered in the planning of urban spaces.

The city of Vienna responded to data from women by implementing amongst other things, a barrier-free staircase with a ramp for prams, carts and wheelchairs.


Barrier-free staircases to ease women with prams, shopping trolleys or wheelchairs, constructed in the city of Vienna as a result of the Gender Mainstreaming initiative. Photo: Josef Lex/Citylab


Falú added that a large aspect of all this was related to a lack of data and consideration for the sexual division of labour, and the nature of gender relations in different parts of the city.

“Gender relations are part of overall social relations that manifest into urban form,” she said, explaining that the interaction between genders eventually determine the nature of spaces within the city.

The impact of that in terms of safety is that ‘male’ and ‘female’ spaces may be created, with women tending to avoid male-dominated spaces and areas where they feel insecure. Again, this could be improved upon if women were able to work with urban planners to inform them of the circumstances which cause them to feel insecure, and if cities focused on creating gender-neutral spaces.

Falú quoted from architects Olga Segovia and Guillermo Dascal’s 2009 paper titled ‘Espacio Público, Participación y Ciudadanía’ (‘Space, Public Participation and Citizenship’) by saying, “The abandonment of public spaces, and the retreat into ‘protected’ spaces ultimately generates more insecurity.”




At a recent TEDx Singapore Women event, Tara Hirebet, (Senior Vice President of Research & Insights at Go-Jek, and former head at the Asian headquarters of in Singapore), spoke about how cities were causing women to feel overwhelmed and overextended.

Again, due to the nature of cities which have not taken women’s needs into consideration, their daily target destinations such as healthcare services, retail, education work and recreation, were usually located in different places. With the increasing culture of fast-paced lifestyles in cities, women were also under pressure to be able to ‘do it all’ and were pushing and overextending themselves to feel up to par.

She also argued that women made up close to 50% of the world’s population, and therefore were great contributors to the success and prosperity of cities. In that context, cities should be looking to ensure that women were looked after.

“We should be asking city planners – ‘How are you helping me get through my day? How are you helping me be less overwhelmed and navigate my city better?’” she said.

She further stated that women were often the ‘spiritual, mental, emotional heart of cities’ and as childbearers and caregivers were responsible for the success of cities for decades to come.

“So why shouldn’t cities be responsible to us, why shouldn’t cities be taking care of us?”


The Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City) complex in Vienna is self-contained so that everything is within reach including healthcare services and education. The complex also includes balconies where mothers can keep an eye on children playing in the courtyards. Photo courtesy: Urbanizehub


In her talk, Hirebet advocates the creation of multi-functional spaces, and spaces with shared services such as the Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City) apartment complex designed for women’s needs in Vienna. Part of Vienna’s ‘gender mainstreaming’ movement, the complex includes an on-site kindergarten, a doctor’s office and a pharmacy, among other amenities.

She also stressed that the key to redesigning cities was engagement with women and girls to discover what factors affect their well-being, citing examples such as the city of Delhi, where over five rape cases are reported every day, which embarked on a project to improve aspects of the city for women by sending a group of them out onto the streets, equipped with cameras to take pictures of situations and places in the city where they felt safe and where they did not.

In a similar vein, an SMS hotline in Egypt helped authorities create a live digital map that identified the areas in which harassment occurred the most. The police were then able to assign personnel to the ‘hot’ areas to provide support to women. Beyond that the authorities also spoke to community members such as doormen and vendors to inform them that their area was rife with incidents of harassment so that more people were able to keep a lookout.




In 2013, UN Women launched a global initiative entitled “Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces”, an extension of their “Safe Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls” Global Programme, 2010, calling upon cities to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women and girls (SVAWG) in public spaces.

The ensuing report published in October 2017 outlined achievements obtained by participating cities in Africa, Latin America, the Arab States, Asia Pacific, North America, and Europe.

Their summary of the actions that cities can take include:

1. Identifying relevant actions to take in a gender-responsive and local context

This involves conducting baseline studies and surveys to glean a deep understanding of how SVAWG occurs locally in public spaces. Local government, grassroots organisations and other stakeholders can then study the findings and develop programmes with a specific set of goals based on the local context and joint accountability

2. Developing and effectively implementing laws and policies to prevent and respond to sexual violence in public spaces

The report advocates education, training and building awareness amongst other strategies to mobilise the community. Meanwhile authorities, women’s grassroots and community partners can then promote, develop, and monitor the effective implementation of law and policies, and to make sure that resources are in place to support this action

3. Investing in safe and economically viable public spaces

A conscious gender approach to urban planning with financial resources allocated for the needs of both men and women across all municipal planning. This includes public infrastructure (investments in safe pottable water, improved sanitation, lighting, creation of market stalls, provision of training on financial literacy) and economic development and focusing on creating opportunities that will empower women

4. Changing attitudes and behaviours to promote women’s and girls’ rights to enjoy public spaces free from violence

UN Women advocates engaging youths, boys and girls, as well as other influential champions, in transformative activities in schools and other settings to promote respectful gender relationships, gender equality, and safety in public spaces. In terms of resource, they have created guidelines and other tools which can be adapted to country context.



The city of Tokyo sets an example of this with an event in March 2018 titled, “Transforming Gender Social Norms through Comedy: Fighting Terrorism One Laugh at a Time”. Organised by UN Women and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the event was held in the prestigious Sophia University and featured Pikotaro, the artiste whose hit song ‘PPAP (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen)’ has close to 170 million views on YouTube, who sang a custom version of his song entitled, ‘Gender Equal Peaceful World’. The event showcased the promising results of UN Women’s regional programme on preventing violent extremism, “Empowered Women, Peaceful Communities”, supported by the Government of Japan.

While many of these concepts have been repeated in multiple reports around the world and are not new, the safety and wellbeing of women in many cities are far from ideal.

Here’s a further look at some of the different initiatives for women’s safety being taken around the world:

Paris: ‘Entre Deux Arrêts’

The city of Paris launched a pilot initiative where women passengers on buses could request to be let off between official stops after hours. Begun as a pilot project, the initiative is being tested in different areas and on different bus lines to reduce the distance women need to walk to get to their destinations at night. After 10pm, passengers can request a stop between two usual stops, by letting the driver know in advance.

Valérie Pécresse, President of the Regional Council of Île-de-France (Parisian Region) told press that the project was based on requests by women in the region and if the experiment is successful, it would then be extended to the rest of the Île- de-France bus network.


Many women in Paris felt unsafe walking alone in the streets at night and requested for buses to stop them in between official stops to minimise their walking distance. Photo: Mourad Saadi/Unsplash


Cairo: ‘My Tuk-Tuk is Safe’

In November 2010, UN Women began the ‘Cairo Safe City Free of Violence Against Women and Girls Programme’ to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence in public spaces. Tuk tuks, motorised tri-cycles, were identified as public spaces where women and girls experience sexual harassment on a daily basis. In 2017, the programme engaged young tuk tuk drivers through sport, interactive games and art therapy workshops to raise awareness on the issue. Once sensitised about sexual harassment and trained to prevent and respond appropriately, these young men began to reach out to their peers and community members to raise awareness about the issue.

After attending various training sessions on self-expression, including acting, singing, painting and sculpting, many of the tuk tuk drivers stated that their views on women changed, adding that the training sessions taught them how to express their feelings and manage frustrations and violent tendencies in positive ways.

Today many of the engaged drivers volunteer in anti-harassment campaigns that reaches out to tuk-tuk drivers and other community members about how women have the right to walk on the street without being harassed. Messages include women’s right to choose how to dress, without having anyone invading their personal space. The drivers also distribute stickers saying, ‘My Tuk Tuk is Safe’ from sexual harassment.


Tuk-tuk drivers putting up stickers that say, “My Tuk-Tuk is Safe’ as part of a campaign for women’s safety. Photo courtesy UN Women


Delhi: Safetipin

Safetipin is a crowdsourced app, started by Kamala Viswanath in 2013, which allows users to check the safety ‘score’ of a location. The safety is assigned a score based on a “safety audit” which lists a certain set of parameters on which the safety of a neighborhood or location is determined. The parameters include lighting, how deserted a location is, whether women are often present in the location, the conditions of walking paths, and how close public transport can be found. The safety audits are carried out by the Safetipin team and the public; anyone who has downloaded the app can carry out a safety audit following the guidelines listed. Safetipin also recommends that audits are done post-sunset so that the scores are a true reflection of how safe a place is.

The app has other salient features which allow for a friend or family member to track women’s locations or movement, with the flexibility of choosing who gets to track a user, and at which times. Safetipin also shares the data received with local governments, town planners and other stakeholders and are now available in five countries including Indonesia and the Philippines.


Safetipin is a crowdsourced app where users determine the safe score of a particular location. Photo courtesy via Safetipin



This story was first published under the now-defunct Think City Channel.

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