Urban Inclusivity: Women's Mobility in the City
July 15, 2014 12:50 PM   Subscribe

What does a city for women look like? "In the city for women, a woman can sit alone in parks, linger, run, jog, without much diminished fear at any time of the day. Women too can be flaneurs and have the right to loiter. Rather than just prioritise safety and freedom from harassment, women can prioritise speed and convenience of mobility. Women’s mobility is not just about getting from point A to B, but also about social mobility. Greater physical mobility for women is conducive for social mobility and self-actualisation."

Who decides how to make a city inclusive and accessible, and whether it's successfully been made so?

"Inclusive cities are not merely safe for women. In fact, many cities are not inclusive because of both the deliberate and unintended emphasis on an often paternalistic and draconian notion of ‘safety.’ Safety measures have resulted in increased policing, surveillance, and even total exclusion of certain groups of people from participating in public life. Protective safety measures are also behind gender-segregation in public spaces and transportation. While welcomed by some, such measures address short-term safety, marginalise women, and grant perceived and would-be perpetrators freedom."

For very basic background on urban accessibility in general, here's a pdf with many visual examples, which I've found helpful (linked from a Spanish university).
posted by rue72 (23 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
It's horribly written, but it has some good points.
posted by Kokopuff at 12:55 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you want to talk about cities for women and your examples are cities in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Colombia.. and that is probably the least terrible part of the article - wow if this article was written on an MRA blog as a parody I would have dismissed it for being too rediculous.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:40 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Care to elaborate?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:44 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

or you could just kick out most of the men, forcing them to live outside the city in warrior camps such as in Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 1:44 PM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have the impression this is a much bigger issue for women in third world countries.

First of all, when I was reading a lot of urban studies stuff, I read a snippet from a book or essay that asserted "A woman's place is in the city." It talked about why suburban life in America was a patriarchal mental model of "separating work and home" (because for women of the era, who were often homemakers, much of their work was done in the home) and how this isolated women and children for the benefit of men and why cities were, thus, better places for women.

Second, when I was living in Fairfield -- a small-ish city in the San Francisco Bay Area, with about 100k population at the time -- I was online talking to a friend. I think this friend was Pakistani. I commented on the fact that I needed to log off and go get some groceries. It was probably nearly 2am my time. This friend expressed concern for my safety and could not imagine a woman going alone in the wee hours of the morning to get groceries, something I did very routinely at that time. There were at least two 24 hour grocers in town, one in a very safe neighborhood, and it did not scare me to go in the middle of the night to pick up a few things. I thought nothing of it.

I no longer recall the details of the discussion but we did have a somewhat lengthy discussion about it. I did not expect my remark about "Welp, gotta log off for now. Time to grab a few groceries." to be anything noteworthy or shocking.

Not long ago, I saw some information about how, in developing countries, many areas lack adequate infrastructure for indoor plumbing and the like, so people go to the nearest field or wooded area to relieve their bladder or have a bowel movement. For women in these areas, this is a serious safety hazard where they risk being sexually assaulted and/or murdered. (I did a quick google. The first article I found is pretty ugly. Here is something with statistics on the issue that is probably less triggering.)

I am not saying American women face no risks and live totally cushy lives. But I really think this is much more of an issue in developing nations.
posted by Michele in California at 1:46 PM on July 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

JulyByWomen is kicking ass. Awesome.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:55 PM on July 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

If you want to talk about cities for women and your examples are cities in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Colombia.. and that is probably the least terrible part of the article - wow if this article was written on an MRA blog as a parody I would have dismissed it for being too rediculous.

Why is it ridiculous to talk about research or programs that are being conducted in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Columbia? Apparently, research and projects are being done in those places that highlight improving women's mobility as an urban planning and social issue. Frankly, I'm unaware of any similarly large programs aimed at improving or even studying women's mobility here in the US or in Europe. I'd never even heard about women's mobility in terms of accessibility before. (Though of course that doesn't definitively mean that research/those programs/that discussion isn't happening). This article's framing of women's mobility and use of public space as an accessibility issue was what piqued my interest in the first place, and why I wanted to post this article here.

Anyway, here's the relevant quote from the article:

"Women’s safety audits are conducted have been conducted in India, Bangladesh, and Colombia. Privately owned car-free days that are complimented with affordable and physically accessible public transport have been implemented with varying success in Colombia and Indonesia."

I am not saying American women face no risks and live totally cushy lives. But I really think this is much more of an issue in developing nations.

I think accessibility is an issue everywhere, though what particular barriers exist for accessibility and for whom they exist is pretty culturally specific. That women would be a group that faces barriers to accessibility in public spaces or that benefits from greater accessibility in public spaces in many countries/cultures isn't surprising to me, though I'd never thought of that in terms of accessibility specifically (which I tend to think of in terms of ADA issues, as a basically parochial American, I guess).

I was struck by the idea that women had* to have a socially acceptable reason (such as going to work or getting the family groceries) for being in public spaces, and had to broadcast that purposefulness to all and sundry, or else risked getting censured for using those public spaces or bared from them. I'm an American woman and that phrase, the "tyranny of purposefulness," definitely rang true for me. That's a variation on the old advice to "look like you know where you're going," which my mother always told me as part of her usual "don't get raped!" spiel.

*"had to" as in, felt social pressure to. Though that social pressure might be backed by shows of force or by pressure from law enforcement. Not just in the "third world," either.
posted by rue72 at 2:08 PM on July 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

Oooh, this is leading me down a delightful rabbit hole of academic work done by folks who specialize in the arena of gender-aware urban planning, so please find below a bunch of links for any/everyone who might be similarly interested in this subject.

Gender-Sensitive Open-Space Planning

Safety in Public Urban Space: The Work of Women's Design Service

How to Design a City for Women

'Shall We Go Out?': Women’s Safety in Public Spaces in Delhi [PDF]

And this sums it up beautifully: Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls
What Does Planning And Designing Safe Public Spaces For Women And Girls Mean?

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 the following characteristics:
  • Easy access to and from the location
  • Easy movement within the location
  • Good lighting so that users can see and be seen
  • Easy-to-read signs to help users find their way
  • Clear, well-kept paths where users can easily see each other
  • General visibility of the entire space, free from hiding places where a person could wait unseen
  • Includes mixed uses – many places to hangout, walk, play, eat, exercise, etc. for diverse user groups at different times of day
  • Provisions for different seasons (shade in hot weather and protection in cold weather
  • Provisions for young children and the elderly (because women are often caretakers), e.g. in urban areas this could mean low, wide sidewalks for strollers, wheelchairs, and walkers, and areas with slow-moving traffic
  • Access to clean, secure, easily accessible toilet facilities with space for changing children's diapers
Along those lines, the top recommendation I would offer is to create spaces that are well-lit and wide-open. Attempting to remain in a position where I will always be able to a) maintain a sense of awareness as to who/what is physically near and/or approaching me at all times, on all sides, and b) GTFO of any kind of enclosed area? Good god, it takes up so much of my mental energy.

Thinking about safety all the time is exhausting, but it's also -- as far as I've ever known or experienced -- utterly inescapable, to the point where I very keenly associate the cyclical amalgamation of alertness and exhaustion with my very existence as a woman. Which is funny, because when women admit that we can and do feel this way sometimes, we get called out on the carpet for being needlessly paranoid, letting fear rule our lives, perceiving threats where none explicitly exist, etc. But if we let the heightened attention we often pay to our surroundings move to the back burner for even a moment, we're castigated just as roundly for being lazy, lax, sodden, unable to take care of or defend ourselves. Like if you're at a party and you decline every drink you're offered, dudes will say you're a fun-hating prude, but if you have more than one or two, those same dudes are going to tell you it's at least half your fault if you wind up getting assaulted.

Shit like this also never fails to remind me of the fact that I will never be able to escape being viewed and treated as a woman before I'm viewed or treated as a person. No matter what I do or say, no matter how I dress or speak or present myself, I'm going to be viewed and treated as inherently weak and ineffectual because I'm a 5' tall, 100-pound woman. So I just try to make myself as invisible and light-footed as possible, and try to bridge the gap by staying aware of where the nearest exit is and how fast it will take me to get there. Maintaining that level of awareness makes me feel just a little bit safer, even though I know that perception of safety will be rendered illusory and useless if anyone larger or stronger than me decides they want to take it away. (Ask how I found out! Wait, don't.)

Thanks so much for the post, rue72. Fantastic topic.
posted by divined by radio at 2:17 PM on July 15, 2014 [40 favorites]

Some years ago there was an interesting article about this in I think Austria maybe? It's an understudied and definitely under resourced area in terms of municipal practice, where the usual assumption is that urban form and safety is a one size fits all problem, which obviously isn't the case.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:22 PM on July 15, 2014

Go to a city. That's what it looks like.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:26 PM on July 15, 2014

Dwellings, neighborhoods, and cities designed for homebound women constrain women physically, socially, and economically. Acute frustration occurs when women defy these constraints to spend all or part of the work day in the paid labor force. I contend that the only remedy for this situation is to develop a new paradigm of the home, the neighborhood, and the city; to begin to describe the physical, social, and economic design of a human settlement that would support, rather than restrict, the activities of employed women and their families.
--"What would a non-sexist city be like?" by Dolores Hayden. PDF here. Written in 1980 but a classic of this area of study.
posted by mcmile at 2:30 PM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just because the idea has value does not mean everything written about it does - changing the architechture of cities to be more aware of women might well be valuable - but this article sucked they just overgeneralise to inanity, talk meaningless platitudes and dangerous relativism for a bit and then sprinkle on a dodgy quote from a marxist philosopher and serve.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 2:33 PM on July 15, 2014

Do the people criticizing the writing and complaining that the focus is on cities in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Colombia realize that the author is Malaysian?

Rejecting it out of hand because the language isn't perfectly polished and implying that unless it's looking at North America and Europe is arrogant and seems like a perfect example of latching on to irrelevant issues in order to avoid having to actually consider what's being discussed.
posted by Lexica at 3:50 PM on July 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

The piece is authored by "Angry Malay Woman" and some folks here are saying it's a pretty bad piece. Part of my point was that if you can't quite relate to it and live in a more developed country, perhaps that is in part because you aren't at high risk of being raped and/or murdered for ordinary daily activities like trying to take a leak. Which, again, is not to say that American women have it all solved. Just to say that if this seems really over the top to you, perhaps you should consider the context.

Sort of speaking off the cuff /thinking out loud here:

I also wonder if that "tyranny of purposefulness" is in part because women can be part of the middle or upper class and have more leisure time in some sense. A woman can be a homemaker and not really have any place she needs to be for parts of the day. Men who are those classes are much more likely to have full time jobs. For men, their job is usually their ticket into the better parts of society but women can just marry their way in. I have been on the street for 2.5 years with my sons and the obvious air of purposelessness that many homeless people have is part of what marks them as outsiders. So I kind of wonder if the reason women have to be told to look purposeful is because they may be statistically less likely to have an actual purpose. Perhaps men are much more often actually there for a purpose.

This might seem like a strange concept if you are a working woman but I was a homemaker for a lot of years. I think in more conservative/old fashioned countries where homemakers are more common, this might be a real gender difference. I think I am so often mistaken for a middle class person or tourist in spite of being homeless in part because I always am going somewhere with a purpose. I don't just hang around, purposelessly. I don't think I have yet said much about it on my homeless blog but I have long had a stub called something like "Hang time" and my intent has been to talk about how important it is to engage in purposeful action if you are ever going to resolve your problems and get off the street. Hanging around without purpose is soul sucking, it amounts to wasting your life, and it is a class marker: Homeless people who are obviously engaging in purposeless, directionless hanging around read as much more obviously homeless/losers/social outcasts/etc.
posted by Michele in California at 3:53 PM on July 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

Rejecting it out of hand because the language isn't perfectly polished and implying that unless it's looking at North America and Europe is arrogant and seems like a perfect example of latching on to irrelevant issues in order to avoid having to actually consider what's being discussed.

No kidding. Some of the jackass comments here are just embarrassingly unthinking. It's fine to criticize, but at least give it at least the courtesy of a few minutes of critical thought first.

sprinkle on a dodgy quote from a marxist philosopher

Harvey is the unapologetic marxist, but not a philosopher and she doesn't quote him. Park is quoted but I know of him as an urban sociologist of the Chicago School and wasn't aware that he was ever a big marxist. Both of them are/were incredibly smart and gifted thinkers and remain central to urban theory. Are you sure this is what you meant to criticize and how you wanted to do so, or was this just a sloppy attempt to preemptively reject ideas about women's access to urban spaces?

It's a great article. It's short and could use more detail (especially about the ways women's access is different in the cities she mentions than in the places where the urbanists she is quoting live) but hopefully she intends to expand it in the future. She defines her terms and gives actual citations, which is better than 99 percent of what you see online, and aside from maybe three minor grammar mistakes the writing is clear and better than most undergraduate essays on urban topics (says the person who had to read and grade far too many).

I liked how she talked about risk -- she isn't talking about a bubble-wrapped pretend city where everything is safe and manicured, but about a place where women have an equal right to use space imperfectly and interact in the same ways that men currently can:

The right to undertake risk is part of a woman’s right to the city, an experience that involves encounters with strangers including those that make others feel uncomfortable. In inclusive cities, not only can women walk freely alone without fear but they are allowed to roam the city, be serendipitous and be lost without fear or repercussion.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:08 PM on July 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory: "If you want to talk about cities for women and your examples are cities in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Colombia.. and that is probably the least terrible part of the article - wow if this article was written on an MRA blog as a parody I would have dismissed it for being too rediculous."

The author is a scholar of Indonesian and Malay culture, at the world's premier instution for the study of Asian and African cultures, so her focus on Asian nations is entirely natural. More to the point, those nations are the ones where women's safety audits have been undertaken, and where experimental interventions have been tested for efficacy based on those audits. If you know some alternative data source, please, do share.
posted by gingerest at 5:15 PM on July 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

Great post! Thanks for the additional links, divined by radio. Safety is the primary concern, but it's not the only reason to design cities around the input of women. I never thought about the fact that genders play differently and cities need to allow for that, or how unaccessible public restrooms and transportation can seem when taking an elderly parent or relative around. A city's design should reflect the ways caretakers get around. Public transportation is not just a thing for going to and from work, and fewer women drive even though they're most often the ones tasked with errands for the entire family.
posted by JLovebomb at 5:25 PM on July 15, 2014

(Organized religion trigger warning)

Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), written by Christine de Pisan (1365-1430), offers a literary take on the idea of city/space for women.
posted by datawrangler at 6:15 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm admittedly a little baffled by the briefness and generality of the article in the FPP-- it makes a great abstract!-- but feminist planning is a really interesting, underexplored, and important area of inquiry. I have a master's in planning and regretfully I don't think I heard the F-word a single time in any classroom. Gender is so rarely even mentioned in mainstream planning venues, though writ large it does come up from time to time when talking about vulnerable populations (which itself is a "topic" still shockingly under-treated...deeper and deeper into the Mandelbrot of marginalization we spiral).
posted by threeants at 11:34 PM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

(By the way, for folks not familiar with critical geography, it might be somewhat clarifying to know that "right to the city" is a term of art with significant pedigree, not just an oddly vague phrase that the FPP article's author became attached to.)
posted by threeants at 11:39 PM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just wanted to add-- a feminist planning ethos (obviously or maybe not obviously) could/does concern itself with many issues beyond basic personal safety. To wit:

Housing! ("Women's Place, Housing Design, and Work-Family Balance") [pdf]
Transportation! ("Where Do Women Feature in Public Transport?") [pdf]
GIS methods! ("Feminist Visualization: Re-envisioning GIS as a Method in Feminist Geographic Research") [pdf]
etc. etc.

The literature is sort of sparse but the implications sure ain't.
posted by threeants at 11:48 PM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is a great topic - thanks for this post, and to some of the commenters for some excellent supporting reads. I have reading to do, apparently!
posted by Stacey at 5:42 AM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read this a long time ago but it blew my mind and I thought it was just dandy:

Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment.

It was published in 1984, when second wave feminism was still quite strong but fading. Unfortunately out of print; you can find it used, still.

(Also: gendered space is totally a thing on Amazon, hooray.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:40 AM on July 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

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