In this series, we will explore the role of women in- and outside the city. Different urban issues concerning the lives of women will be discussed in this series. This article will cover the topic of women and public spaces. The time when women were confined to their own homes is long gone and women are nowadays just as visible and present as men in European cities. Therefore, we should rethink who owns the public space and who operate it. The formerly male-dominated sphere should make way for a gender neutral approach. In this article, we will zoom in on the problems women encounter in public spaces and what has been done so far to solve these problems.
“A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, our of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighborhoods always do, must have three main qualities:
First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.
Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”
Jane Jacobs in
Jane Jacobs was a famous urbanist in the 20th century. The book the quote stems from has been highly influential for the way we perceive public space nowadays. Traditionally speaking, public space has been a male domain; public space has been characterised by social and political activity and has therefore been associated with men. Women, on the other hand, have traditionally been identified with the private sphere, characterised by domesticity and childcare. Although increasingly more women are participating in the workforce and are involved in politics, these old divisions in public spaces still stand. Many public spaces that have been developed during these times still exist and are therefore not always sufficient for both and men and women.
It seems strange that public space is mostly designed for men, especially when you take into account that women occupy the majority of public spaces. An issue that is closely related to the design of public spaces is women’s fear of violence. Although research has shown that the majority of attacks on women happen in private spaces by someone they know, many women are scared to enter the public domain because they are afraid of harassment and other security issues. Important for a public space is that people feel a sense of belonging. This feeling of belonging has a gendered dimension. Research has shown that most women feel like they belong in the neighbourhood where they live after they had children. They were confined to a smaller area and became attached to it. Men didn’t express that they felt this kind of change.
There are two major issues that have to be addressed when it comes to women and public space; security and accessibility. Women should feel comfortable and safe in public space and have to be able to easily access them.
Public space and street harassment
The issue of street harassment caught international media attention after a women recorded herself walking through New York City. Questions about what is acceptable behaviour and what is not have been frequently discussed ever since. The video points out the insecurity many women feel while walking around the city.
There are multiple ways to address this issue. One of these approaches is to bring attention to the urgency of the topic. People are not always aware that their behaviour is negatively perceived or that harassment is a topic many women struggle with daily. >>
Hollaback! is a worldwide movement against street harassment. People who have had experiences with street harassment often feel uncomfortable and powerless, feeling that there is nothing that they can do. Hollaback! however wants to show you that it is possible to take action. Documenting, mapping and sharing incidents of harassment, by the use of your smartphone or computer takes away the power of the harasser. This is why Hollaback! has decided to create an online platform where people can share their stories with each other. You have the option to click on the button ‘I’ve got your back!’ to show your support. The platform brings awareness to the issue of harassment and works toward creating equal access to public spaces for all. Hollaback! has an active network in countries all over the world; from Amsterdam to Mumbai and from Zagreb to São Paulo.
>> Another approach is to re-design public spaces in a way that women feel more at ease. As we will see later in the article, several cities have initiated gender mainstreaming processes, where the public spaces are adapted to create a feeling of safety. Street lighting, for example, is installed in dark places, helping women overcome their fear of entering the public space. >>
Stop Telling Women to Smile
Stop Telling Women to Smile is an art series addressing street harassment, by Brooklyn-based painter/illustrator Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Street harassment is present in every community, but Tatyana has been putting up portraits of women who are harassed, and have something to say. Women on her posters are real, and so are their stories they tell her in interviews. She started in 2012 in Brooklyn but has been travelling through multiple cities and countries to tell women’s stories there.
Women designing public space
It has become clear that public spaces have mostly be designed for men since they have dominated the public space for a long time. However, since nowadays more women than men are making use of public spaces and public transport, the re-design of these areas are up for debate. Is it different when these spaces are designed by women? Liane Hartley, who is an urban planner, admits that: “It gives you a little bit more of a sensitivity to what it might be like to have another vulnerability.” There is a clear advantage of having male as well as female urban planners. But then the question still remains: what would a gender neutral public space look like? American urbanist Dolores Hayden poses an answer to this question in her essay What would a non-sexist city be like? In this essay, she calls for the domestic and public sphere to merge. Public spaces would, therefore, have to transcend the traditional divisions. This would mean that house and work will be combined and that care takers (of children, disabled relatives or older people) are less excluded from economic life.
An example of a focus on gender neutrality in the public space can be seen in Austria’s capital. Vienna is an EU-capital that actively works on making the city available to men as well as women. It started “gender mainstreaming” the city in the nineties and is still working towards this goal. A questionnaire distributed in 1999, where men, as well as women, were asked about their means of transport and use of public space showed that women did not only make use of pubic transport more frequently but also that women tended to walk to their destination more. Therefore, the municipality of Vienna decided to change the urban planning of the city. Different elements have been transformed since. For example, pavements have been broadened and there are extra ramps for strollers, wheelchairs etc. Furthermore, extra street lighting has been installed to give people a feeling of safety, since many women have indicated that they feel insecure on the street at night. This is not to say that these actions are merely undertaken for the sake of women, men can benefit from these changes as well.
In order to stay away from reinforcing stereotypes or being accused of it, the municipality has changed the label of gender mainstreaming and now calls it ‘Fair Shared City’; a city that looks at how both men and women can have the best urban circumstances possible. The project has been pointed out as a best practice by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. Gender mainstreaming was endorsed as the official European gender equality policy and it has been legislated in the Treaty of Amsterdam of 1997. Although public spaces today are not always completely gender-equal, many EU cities are working towards this goal. We should all think of how to improve gender equal public spaces, keeping this question in mind: who owns the public space?