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Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity

IWD: Why Cities Designed for Women Work Better for Everyone

If you’re reading this, there’s a 55% chance you live in a city and by 2030, you might be one of the 5 billion people living in cities around the world. Cities are engines of economic growth and innovation, shaping the lives of everyone who calls them home. Yet not everyone has an equal say in the design and trajectory of their city. Most cities continue to be designed and managed by men (and for men), even when women make up more than half the population.

Access to the opportunities that cities offer remains deeply unequal in many places and low-income residents, especially women from low income communities, continue to face exclusion. To tackle these gender-based inequalities, we need to recognise the unique ways in which women experience city life. These insights serve as the foundation for building cities that are more inclusive and urban infrastructure that works for everyone.

Shining a light on the way women experience city life

In 2024, most megacities are located in the Global South and the fastest growing cities are in Africa and Asia. An estimated 1.2 billion city dwellers worldwide lack access to basic services, and most of them live in slum conditions, without adequate housing, health, and transport services. Women are overrepresented in urban slums among those aged 15 to 49, according to a UN Women study of 59 low and middle income countries. Gender-based inequalities continue to hinder women’s access to education, secure housing, water, and sanitation as well as economic opportunities.

In most cases, women’s needs are not prioritised when city governments plan, design, and budget for public infrastructure and services. As a result, gender-based inequalities worsen, and many aspects of city life are simply not as safe or accessible for women as they are for men. For example, research on public transport in cities around the world shows significant differences in travel patterns between women and men. Women undertake shorter and more frequent trips for work and are more likely to travel at off-peak hours. Because safety is a primary concern, women navigate more complex routes to access essential services. As a result, their access to public transport is unequal, which hinders their social and economic opportunities.

Furthermore, a 2024 study of safety in five African cities concluded that age and gender are key markers of vulnerability and insecurity in public spaces. Women and younger individuals face a greater risk of sexual violence in public spaces such as parks, streets, and footpaths. Similarly, data from India and South Africa shows that women living in urban slums are more concerned than men about the location of communal facilities like taps and toilets. Women and girls’ safety and health depend on having access to facilities that are located closer to where they live, with good public lighting, and safe pathways.

More progress is needed on gender-inclusive city planning and development

The idea that urban infrastructure has an impact on women's safety, freedom of movement, and access to vital services, is not new. Yet, given that there are over 10,000 cities in the world, there are relatively few examples of cities that have successfully shifted to gender-inclusive urban development. These include the self-declared “feminist city” of Barcelona which has a Strategic Plan for Gender Justice and has made significant efforts to make public spaces safer and more accessible through public transport planning. Similarly, after pioneering gender-sensitive planning over 25 years ago, the city of Vienna has been systematically accounting for women’s needs in the design of transport routes, public spaces, and buildings by conducting gender-sensitive assessments and engaging women residents and groups during planning processes.

In Colombia, the city of Bogota has been conducting gender safety audits - a tool to assess urban safety and security focusing on women and girls, since 2015. Whereas in Kerala, India, the implementation of a Gender Action Plan has boosted women's participation and inclusion in infrastructure planning in five cities: Kochi, Kollam, Kozhikode, Thiruvananthapuram, and Thrissur. In addition to engaging women during each project phase, the programme also offered leadership development and vocational training to enhance women’s earning potential. These examples showcase how gender-inclusive approaches are not just beneficial but crucial for the future success of cities. So why has progress on a global scale been limited?

Firstly, the shift to gender-responsive approaches amounts to a change in organisational culture and individuals’ behaviours. Change of this magnitude is typically met with uncertainty at best and resistance at worst. Having worked in government for several years, I learned that policies and plans don't budge unless people do. Officials need to understand the impact of urban infrastructure on women’s safety and well-being; they need to believe that it is their job or mandate as public servants to do something about it; and they need to be held accountable for making sure that the change is embedded in the system of governance.

Secondly, women continue to be underrepresented in built environment professions and city leadership positions, which further hampers progress. Whilst everyone (and not just women) have the responsibility to drive gender-responsiveness, the lack of women in decision-making positions means that women’s perspectives are less likely to influence the practice and systems that govern urban development. Women from marginalised groups are particularly underrepresented, and it is therefore not enough to simply call for more women representation, but instead we urgently need greater representation of Black, indigenous, and other women of colour in positions of influence.

Thirdly, public participation is often treated as a compliance exercise rather than a process for building trust and fostering innovation. However, public engagement for the sake of it does more harm than good. To have a real chance of change, public engagement must be part of a broader shift towards bottom-up approaches to decision-making, and it must be done with the intention of including a diversity of voices and perspectives, not just a selected few. Among other things, that means engaging women from all corners of the city, especially those who have been historically excluded, and treating them as experts rather than merely as participants in the planning and policy processes.

A call to action: Make sure your city considers women’s needs

If every city in the world would take steps towards women-centric design and decision-making, urban spaces would be completely transformed. We would have well-lit streets with clear signage and accessible public transportation that accommodates the diverse mobility needs of residents, whether they're youth, mothers with strollers, or elderly individuals. Sidewalks would be widened to allow for safe passage and seating areas would be strategically placed for rest and socialising. Parks and recreational and communal areas would be designed with visibility and safety in mind, fostering a sense of security. Public facilities such as sanitation would prioritise cleanliness and safety and clean water would be readily available. There would also be greater investment in healthcare facilities and family support services that address the unique needs of women and girls.

In essence, cities designed with women's safety and welfare in mind would not only prioritise physical safety but also foster a sense of belonging, inclusivity, and well-being for all residents. That’s the kind of city that I’d like to live in. Wouldn’t you?

Public engagement is a two-way street, and you can play a role in shaping your city’s future. I urge you to visit your city’s website and explore the latest urban development strategies. Next time there’s a public participation event in your city, show up, and ask questions about how women’s needs are considered in your city’s plans and budgets. Challenge your policymakers, urban planners, and community leaders to apply a gender lens to their decision-making. In a world that's ready for change, your voice can be a catalyst.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Tracy Jooste AFSEE

Tracy Jooste

Social Impact Consultant

Tracy Jooste is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity, and a public policy practitioner, researcher, and social impact lead. She has successfully championed fairer access to housing, water, sanitation, and healthcare for low-income households in South Africa, with a focus on women and youth. She has also led gender-responsive budgeting programs for the last few years and currently supports gender justice initiatives in the Global South. 

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