Urban Planning

Women and the city: It’s time to rethink urban planning from a gender-based perspective

Women deserve to live in cities that treat them equally, respond to their needs and reduce opportunities of violence.

“In Argentina, ‘a woman is killed every 30 hours’, reports Telam, the country’s official news agency, based on a report of the Observatorio de Femicidios Marisel Zambrano from the NGO La Casa del Encuentro.

From July 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016, 275 women had been killed. The violence that takes place in cities goes beyond robbery and assault, the gang that controls the corner, the abuses, the drug ring that terrorises the neighbourhood or the illegitimate use of force by diverse actors.

Violence is also hunger, a lack of basic services, and an unjust legal system. And it is discrimination based on ethnicity, birthplace, sexual orientation and age.

Urban design is for white young productive men

Women are the omitted subjects in much urban design and planning. As Saskia Sassen expressed in a 2016 article:

“Urban planning is not gender neutral. While there has long been research on how urban systems fail to respond to women’s needs, it was only a decade ago that the subject surged. Since then, countless cities have been host to initiatives addressing a version of the ‘urban-planning gender gap’.”

Much research and theory is now focusing on gender and cities, bringing light to these omissions and to the subordinate situations of women in cities.

Gender is here used as an analytical category useful for highlighting the asymmetries between men and women. Society is not binary therefore it is equally concerns LGTBI population, youth, ethnicities, others.

Even as change is happening, many women experience the city differently than men. Women combine productive work with family duties, fragmenting the use of time and space. During daylight hours, public spaces are more likely to be used by women, spending time in nearby parks, with children, disabled and/or senior citizens. And yet, those spaces are mainly designed for men’s needs. Urban design and planning, particularly since Modernism, has answered to a universal citizen: white young productive men.

Millions of women and girls experience violence as a kind of pandemic, natural, invisible and justified. Only recently has it been seen as resulting from patriarchal conditions where ideology and culture hide symbolic dominance and economic exploitation.

Urban planning often does not include women in the design. Street lights, infrastructures are missing. Photo credit:  Francisco Moreno/Unsplash [Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND]
Urban planning often does not include women in the design. Street lights, infrastructures are missing. Photo credit: Francisco Moreno/Unsplash [Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND]

A simple street light can reduce violence

This recognition has produced diverse initiatives. For instance, the Safe Cities for Women Campaign developed in Brazil by Action Aid for the municipality of Garanhuns, located in the state of Pernambuco, launched a plan of public policies for women’s safety.

It includes strengthening the focus on women in special courts of justice, police stations, police training, improvement in public transport, investment in street lights, training on gender and violence against women in schools, and more. Renata, a transsexual woman, political leader in Garanhuns and an active member of the Women’s Forum of Pernambuco, reports on the positive actions taken by the city, including how a simple investment in street lighting is reducing violence.

Denying women’s work

If our understanding of cities and potential policy reforms are to enhance social progress, we must revisit urban planning from a gender-based perspective. The use of time and space should be central to gendered planning.

Mothers use time in fragments – domestic tasks, school and health care each gets its own slice of time.

Women’s responsibilities as family careers are not recognised at the workplace and thereby their economic contribution to both reproductive and productive work is rendered invisible. Ana Falú takes this analysis further by underlining the significance of both kinds of omission: it is the central factor organising urban space in ways that build obstacles for women.

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Anà Falù in addressing women and public space.

As social sciences professor Silvia Federici points out: “We must admit that capital has been very successful in hiding our work. It has created a true masterpiece at the expense of women. By denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love, capital has killed many birds with one stone.”

Surveys and analyses of time use and time budgeting in diverse cities highlight on the invisible unremunerated contributions of women to society, estimated around the 20-30% of the GDP of cities.

Total time spent on paid and non-paid work, disaggregated by sex, hours per week. ECLAC (2016), Author provided
Total time spent on paid and non-paid work, disaggregated by sex, hours per week. ECLAC (2016), Author provided

This is not new. Jane Jacobs taught us in 1961 about the significance of the proximity of basic services and infrastructures for women in particular.

Gaps in knowledge about omitted subjects are part of a larger epistemological question central to systemic inequality and its reproduction. Debates surrounding compact versus diffused cities, or the impact of new, urban spatial fragmentation must address specific identity-based exclusions.

Growth trends tend to be associated with women’s social progress. And yet even though women at all levels of education are better qualified than men, they earn less and much search longer for work. The majority of women work in the low-end service sector.

Unemployment rate, disaggregated by sex and race. Based on IBGV/PNAD (2013), Author provided
Unemployment rate, disaggregated by sex and race. Based on IBGV/PNAD (2013), Author provided

Assessing the informal sector

A paradox persists: The more women work, the poorer they are. For instance, in the Latin America and the Caribbean region, female participation in the work force increased by 21% between 2002 and 2012, totalling over 100 million women.

In this period, the region registered significant economic growth and a decrease in poverty, but not among women. In 2002, there were 109 poor women for every 100 poor men; in 2012 the ratio rose to 118.

These trends point to a disjuncture between economic growth and overall social progress, a pattern not unique to this region. Women constitute the majority of the low-paid service sector.

Haitian domestic worker, 2012. Women account for the majority of such workers yet they remain invisible. Photo credit: Alex Proimos/Flickr [Licensed under CC BY-SA]
Haitian domestic worker, 2012. Women account for the majority of such workers yet they remain invisible. Photo credit: Alex Proimos/Flickr [Licensed under CC BY-SA]

And in Latin America, 71% of domestic workers are women, most of whom are indigenous and/or black. Further, poor women have high fertility rates, having twice as many children than rich women. Accessing sexual, health and reproductive rights is severely limited due to low social and economic status.

The patterns in Latin America are evident throughout the world. Data on the informal sector in India shows that home-based workers, numbering 23.5 million, are mostly women. In the South Asian context, women’s work place is often determined by social and cultural constraints on mobility. As a result, home-based work is the one or only possible option for women to secure an income. As in Latin America, this pattern is unlikely to change even in times of robust development, such as India saw over the past two decades.

Taking risks to build citizenship

In addition to space and income considerations for social progress, it is central to consider the intangible dimension of violence suffered by women in private and public spaces, just because they are women. The persistence of male violence on the bodies of women to discipline them, is one of the most universal human-rights violations in the world.

Diverse instruments have been adopted across the world: laws, protocols, participatory planning and gender budgeting. But progress is slow, as with all policy, political will and adequate resourcing are key to achieve impact.

Reports on violence in cities find reports that 60% of women feel unsafe in urban spaces. Criminality and threats limit women’s freedom of movement. Women are poor in rights: political participation, autonomy, equal access to work, infrastructure, transportation and security all are marked by limited recognition of women’s rights.

Women can become invisible subjects in a context where the city is a political territory for making citizenship. That is why women often have to build their citizenship by taking risks. While this risk-taking builds confidence in terms of advocacy, it nonetheless requires significant economic, cultural and symbolic resources.

Ana Falú, Professor of Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture, Universidad de Còrdoba and Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology, Columbia University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.