Considering gender in urban planning

Woman alone on a downtown street

It’s nine p.m. on a chilly Thursday evening in Calgary. You’re waiting at a CTrain station preparing to make the long journey home. The streets of downtown are all but empty, and only a few other transit users stand shivering on the dimly lit platform.

For some of us, the space and place described above is routine, common and benign. For others, the thought of standing alone on a dimly lit platform late at night is uncomfortable. This difference in the way we perceive space relates to our different experiences, and it can also relate to our different genders, says Chaseten Remillard, urban studies instructor at the University of Calgary.

The question then is: how do we design cities and spaces to accommodate these lived experiences? In Part 2 of the Calgary Journal’s three-part series, Built for Women, we explore urban design in Calgary through a gendered lens to find out whether or not our city is built in a way that helps its female citizens thrive.

With work, family and recreational responsibilities, women often make multiple, meandering trips around a city. And as targets for sexual violence, women often have a heightened fear of crime, suggests Statistics Canada. But one may not think these factors are related to the field of urban planning.

“Women have much more complex patterns of mobility because they are often responsible for the labour in the household and the children,” says Gerda Wekerle, professor of environmental studies at York University. “Add on top of that fear of crime, and you’ve got issues of women being less willing to stand around at isolated bus stops early in the morning or at night.”

Acknowledging these issues, cities all over the world have introduced safety policies that provide additional protection for women. In Vienna, city planners added extra lighting so women could feel safer walking at night. In Mexico City, women-only buses and trains were created to prevent groping. Here in Canada, women in Montreal travelling on the bus late at night are allowed to get off between stops to decrease their walking distance and get them closer to their final destination.

Taking gender into account

Woman alone on a CTrain platformDue to a “more complex pattern of mobility” as family’s main caregivers and a heightened fear of crime, women are less likely to feel safe taking transit or walking, says York University environmental studies professor Gerda Wekerle.

Photo courtesy of Hausmzk/Flickr City planners around the world have been able to tailor infrastructure to address women’s safety concerns using a strategy called “gender mainstreaming.” As defined by UN Women, an organization part of the United Nations, gender mainstreaming is a strategy that takes into account gender perspectives when designing or implementing policies and programs.

Wekerle says building a safe city for everyone means recognizing that different genders have different needs and experiences.

“We should look at the data on men and women’s use of city space,” Wekerle says. “Equality is addressing those patterns of behavior rather than assuming from the outset that they’re all the same.”

Urban studies professor Remillard says space and the built environment carry different meanings for different people.

“One of the things that has shown to be successful is to consider that space is not the same,” he says. “Space isn’t neutral. You, as an individual, with your own personal history, will interact with space completely different from the next person.”

Remillard says designers should aim to construct spaces that will accommodate the widest spectrum of society, a concept known as universal design.

“If we have to design for the universal, then we have to take into consideration that a light overtop of a bus stop is not just a matter of convenience. It might be viewed as a matter of safety,” he says.

The City of Calgary does not have a department that considers gender in urban planning. The closest group is a Calgary Police Service’s program called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), which looks at how built structures can influence crime. Working with the city, the CPTED team examines and assesses building development applications for potentially unsafe design, then provides their input.

“We like to open up sightlines. We want there to be a perception that (criminals) could be seen,” says Const. Glenn Rowley with the CPTED team.

However, the program does not deal with gender mainstreaming concepts like the different ways women use urban spaces in their daily lives. The program takes a more policing-oriented approach, focusing on reducing crimes like vandalism and muggings.

“We’re not really looking at it as a gender-based thing. It’s an overall guiding theme of personal safety,” Rowley says.

But for Remillard, not evaluating spaces in terms of gender may be missing the big picture.

“If we’re not designing spaces that recognizes that certain demographics of the population don’t feel comfortable using that (space), then you’re inherently building into the design of flaw,” Remillard adds. “You’re not creating a system that’s open or user-friendly. And you’re not facilitating safety for the most amount of people.”

Remillard suggests that while a focus on crime reduction is important, public service groups like the Calgary Police Service could benefit from evaluating the ways different genders experience spaces.

Role of women’s groups

York University’s Wekerle says women’s safety issues first took centre stage around the late ’80s and early ’90s when there was a strong women’s movement. However, Wekerle says she saw funding for women’s organizations decrease as more conservative governments were elected into all levels of Canadian government.

“Over time, as councils changed to be much more conservative, those interests went out,” she says.

She says the focus shifted to policing, youth crime and gun crime rather than how public space could be used by a variety of people safely.

“Women disappeared from the discussions. The word ‘woman’ started to evaporate, and it became ‘youth’ or ‘gangs,’” she says.

Werkerle says it was the energy of women’s groups that was essential in bringing these issues to the municipal governments’ attention, adding that women’s organizations were organized and motivated to bring forward their different experiences.

“These kinds of changes only came about because there were organized groups who were willing to put time and energy into mobilizing their grassroots,” Wekerle says. “They also knew that changing the lighting wasn’t necessarily going to change crime rates, but it might change fear of crime and encourage women to be out more.”

Fear of crime

A study on fear of crime by Statistics Canada revealed that women and older Canadians reported having a higher fear of crime “regardless of income, education or personal experiences of victimization” than men and younger generations. Twenty-eight per cent of women living in urban areas over the age of 15 reported feeling somewhat unsafe or very unsafe from crime in their neighbourhood compared to only eight per cent of men.

Dr. Kara Santokie, project director at the Toronto Women’s City Alliance, a women’s group that advocates for political commitment to women’s issues, says gender-responsive policies and reducing fear of crime also relate to quality of life not just for women, but for everyone.

“Think about how all our lives can be better. How can we actually have a city where everyone feels as if they are living to their full potential?” Santokie says. “Gender-blind city policy planning ignores the needs of a large chunk of our population.”

She adds that it’s important not to trivialize the dangers men face.

A report by Statistics Canada suggests that women were more likely to experience a sexual offence while men were more likely to be robbed. As of 2011, women were 11 times more likely than men to be a victim of sexual offences.

“But the fact is, the empirical evidence suggests that women are statistically more likely to be victims of certain kinds of crime. For example, sexual assault. So given that, this is why women’s safety becomes a big issue and that should be reflected in planning,” Santokie says.

Women and transportation

The 2001 Canadian census reported that women use public transportation more frequently than men. And a survey by Calgary Transit revealed that females generally provided lower ratings of safety for transit services, and were less likely to feel safe when they were using transit after six p.m. Forty nine per cent of women surveyed said they have avoided using public transit services at night due to personal safety and security reasons.

Emily Thomas, a second year student at Alberta College of Art and Design who regularly uses Calgary Transit, says she feels safer at CTrain stations where there is constant surveillance, but would feel less safe at bus stops due to their scattered and sometimes isolated locations. She says she also feels the most unsafe downtown.

“I find that Calgary has got a strange downtown core,” Thomas says. “There’s a lot of business buildings and after a certain point on weekdays, there aren’t really that many people left downtown. It feels like the type of people that are left are not the type of people you want to be running into if you’re a woman at night.”

Nancy Thomas, who works downtown, says she would think twice before using public transportation at night. Nancy (unrelated to Emily Thomas), says taking a cab might not be much better as she doesn’t perceive cabs to be any safer.

Nancy says she would like to see more peace officers on Calgary Transit. Throughout the three years she has been using the transit system regularly, she reports only seeing peace officers a handful of times.

Environmental studies professor Wekerle says, “If you are not a driver and you are more dependent on walking and transit, you’re going to be concerned about how the sidewalk is lit.”

She adds that the current view of public transportation policy is very focused on funding instead of the user experience.

“There’s no talk about how to design it to meet the needs of the users and women, old or young. It’s just not there,” Wekerle adds.

Causes and solutions

Project director Santokie says there may be a lack of diversity in city councils, and therefore they might not be able to represent issues concerning women or marginalized groups. She also suggests it may be that there just aren’t councillors who are willing to take on the issues.

Calgary’s current city council only has two women out of 15 representatives, including the mayor.

Urban studies professor Remillard says Calgary may not be dealing with these issues as there is currently no pressure from citizens. As mainly a commuter city, most Calgarians may not be dependent enough on the public transit system to raise these issues.

Calgary Transit reports that only 38 per cent of Calgarians over the age of 15 are regular transit users.

“I think as demographics change, and people become more reliant on public transit and look to public transit to facilitate their movement around the city more and more, I can’t imagine these kinds of issues not being raised (in Calgary),” Remillard says. “You might see that there are changes in the way we approach design from a more gender-based understanding of space.”

“And since gender is such an important part of our own sense of self, we have to recognize that gender does interact with the use and understanding of space,” he adds. “There has to be recognition of that from a design point of view.”

What should Calgary do to make it a safer place for women? 

Read more about women’s livability in Calgary: Young mothers 

Read more about women’s livability in Calgary: Women in politics

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