I’ve lived in several cities across the world in my adult life and could never quite pinpoint why I felt safer in places like Mumbai and New York than Delhi and DC.
Some of this appears in the statistics—Delhi has more reported violence against women than Mumbai, and DC has more violent crime than New York. And some is experience—in DC I was followed down quiet roads, exposed to a guy’s genitalia on a sidewalk when he flashed me in broad daylight. In Delhi, I was contemplating whether or not to take an Uber one night, and the next day a woman accused her driver of rape.
There was a palpable discomfort to navigating these metropolises and trying to figure out where I fit in their infrastructure. And I’ve learned since that my instinct was grounded in a long history of urban planning, and how most cities never accounted for women in their design.
“‘A woman’s place is in the home’ has been one of the most important principles in architectural design and urban planning in the United States for the last century,” Dolores Hayden, an urban planning historian, wrote in her 1980s essay What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?
Now we’re at a crucial point in urban planning because some of our age-old systems have been upended by innovation or economics. We have Uber and other ride shares replacing traditional transportation systems and Elon Musk trying to build the high-speed Hyperloop and underground tunnels. And our lifestyles are in flux: More young people are sharing homes before they get married, and they’re living with their parents longer.
We can’t design away sexism or the creepy dude waiting at the train platform. These are some of our culture’s oldest, most insidious problems and urban planners alone can’t solve them. But urban planners are now looking to new designs and technology that, for the first time, should include the other half of the population.
Transportation is often where the urban planning gender divide becomes most apparent. The World Bank even holds an annual conference about inclusive transportation, since it can be the mark of a city’s economic and social success.
“We need a system that seamlessly connects everything—that allows you to customize your trip,” said Susan Zielinski, a former transportation planner for the City of Toronto and University of Michigan professor.
Zielinski, who has helped design new systems and protocols to make more equitable city infrastructure, told me that much of the discussion is around access.
There are several reasons women might access transportation differently than men. For example, women have different transportation habits since many of them multitask between home and work, taking more short trips per day than men. Women are more likely to run errands than their husbands, and more women freelance than men—a lifestyle that can require erratic trips and workdays. And as long as women are paid less (80 cents to the dollar in the US, on average) they will need a system that fits a different budget.
“Ultimately, transportation is the fulcrum that allows women to participate in the workforce,” said Sonal Shah, a Delhi-based urban planner with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
The issue of access is compounded further by safety factors: Most women I know in New York have been in the horrifying position of sitting in a nearly empty train car with a lecherous guy staring into her eyes while touching himself. And train stations, parking lots and bus stops on dark, isolated street corners make it more difficult for women to go to work before rush hour, or stay late to finish a project—feeding into the vicious cycle of unequal compensation.
Some cities have started to adjust their systems to be more welcome. In Brazil, for example, the city of Rio de Janeiro has attempted to make its trains safer by adding more lighting to each car. And it joined countries like Japan and India in installing women-only train cars, a bandaid solution to what can be otherwise hostile environments. New York is also considering open gangway cars on the subway, which would allow passengers to move from isolated parts of the train to others.
In India, where sexual harassment has become a national issue in recent years, the government has also tried to install CCTVs, or surveillance cameras, in trains and stations, and more lighting. But, as Shah pointed out, those don’t reach every corner. And they’re not always good for society—they can backfire on lower income neighborhoods and cause health hazards and privacy concerns.
Zielenski said countries in Scandinavia—unsurprisingly, given their renowned gender equality—have also made their systems easier by connecting trains, cars and bikes in a more seamless and accessible way.
And the new generation of planners and lawmakers are following suit across the world, instead of just pushing for more cars and better roads. “The millenials understand systems and multimodality instead of putting their identity on a car,” she said.
As transportation inches toward equity, that leaves the actual places we live, work, and hang out. It’s in these spaces that we’re fighting literally centuries of patriarchal urban planning.
As Dolores Hayden wrote in What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?, most cities were built in such a way that men could go out and work while women stayed home to look after the kids. Coming home was a respite for men, so it was preferred that homes were separate from work altogether, especially since many of the jobs were in dirty or polluted industries.
These single-zone city plans, where livelihoods are separated from homes, didn’t change as women started to work in increasing numbers, or when jobs shifted from factory work to offices after the industrial revolution. Now, that pattern weighs heavily on women, and not only because they do 40 percent more housework and childrearing, on average.
Hayden said one of the best ways to support women, especially those who work, is to create more communal living situations. Houses built around courtyards where parents can watch each other’s kids, or where neighbors are able to share cars, for example, could be a boon for working mothers. Right now, we rely instead on daycares, nannies, or just an overburdened schedule that can strip both time and money from women.
In Vienna, Austria, city planners took this to task in 1993. In a project called Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City), they built apartment buildings surrounded by circular, grassy areas and courtyards. The complexes included kindergarten schools, pharmacies, and doctors offices. And they were closely connected to public transit. The project is now hailed as a success story by the United Nations.
The Vienna project also extended outside of living spaces, too. In Vienna, the city planners widened sidewalks, lit paths and alleyways, and redesigned public parks.
Though public spaces like plazas and parks are historically meant to bring people together, they can leave women the most vulnerable too. I was surprised when Emily May, the director of Hollaback NYC, a local branch of the anti-harassment organization told me that women in New York reported the highest rates of street harassment in areas like Times Square and Penn Station, not in dark and empty corners of the city.
“There’s a core assumption that people around you will respond,” she said, but bystanders are not reliable. “The trauma is increased when nobody says anything.” May said there are tangible things that make women feel less safe in a city—a lack of store fronts and dark lighting for example, which can be remedied.
Public safety is, of course, not solely a product of poor urban planning. Much of it has to do with culture or law enforcement. And women of color and people in the LGBTQ community are harassed more than their white and heterosexual counterparts. But designing both public and private spaces with women in mind will drastically change their experiences within them, and the way that society interacts.
When it comes to the cities I’ve lived in, some of these insights helped me understand my own experience. In Mumbai, for example, the public spaces were well lit and teeming with both women and men, whereas exiting the Delhi metro often left me on dingy corners of big roads. In Washington, DC, the metro has far fewer stops than the New York subway, and the areas I lived in were often far from the office buildings and manicured parks, requiring a long walk home.
Zielenski is hopeful that technology and innovation will change the way women experience their cities. Sustainable lighting on the sides of sidewalks, for example, could light up pathways at a low cost to the city, and apps can help find safer routes home. And many urban planners have started to adopt the philosophy of universal design, which accounts for the differently abled, the elderly, and of course, women.
While urban planning might not completely change some core issues with being a woman in the city—like street harassment, or men in heterosexual relationships not doing as much household work—designing a city with half the population in mind will create a better environment in the slow crawl toward equality.
“The line should be blurring,” Zielenski said. “What’s good for women is good for everyone.”