“What works for men doesn’t work for everyone”: why cities need to start planning with women in mind

Mannequins erected in London's Marble Arch to promote Safer Cities for Women Day. Image: Action Aid.

Last year, councillors for the city of London, in Ontario, Canada, spent 90 minutes discussing a 12 word addition to a document. The contentious sentence read, “Consider a gender lens during the development and execution of new policies”.

Harmless sounding, perhaps, but some of the male politicians felt the line impugned their honour. Bill Armstrong, representative of Ward 2 since the 90s, accused Maureen Cassidy, the councillor who introduced the offending line, of “questioning the integrity of our administration and suggesting they were doing practices that would be discriminatory”.

That, he said, was simply not the case, and “I’ve been there long enough to know” – a reference perhaps to his opponent’s more recent assumption of office. “Plain and simple,” he concluded, “all people are treated equally, so it doesn’t have to be said.” 

The thing is, while Armstrong’s sentiment may be admirable, treating people equally has a long rap-sheet when it comes to achieving equal outcomes. That is to say, treating people equally often translates as treating people like men.

And not all people are men. Some of them (quite a lot actually) are women. Some of them are also girls – and boys. Sometimes people are men, but they aren’t the white, middle-aged, able-bodied men that are imagined when city halls are drawing up plans to treat people equally. 

What all this means is that what works for men, as imagined by city hall, doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else. By treating us in a way that suits this male ideal, the rest of us are disadvantaged – often in surprising ways.

For example, I bet you’ve never thought about snow clearing as a gendered issue. Neither had city officials in Karlskoga, in Sweden. “The community development staff made jokes about how at least snow is something the gender people won’t get involved in,” explained Bruno Rudström, one of the city’s gender equality strategists.

But on reflection, they realised that even something as seemingly neutral as snow-clearing, actually could have a markedly different impact on men and women, due to the gender split in travel style. Women are more likely than men to walk, bike, and use public transport, whereas men are more likely to drive. By prioritising clearing the roads, the city was prioritising the way men choose to travel, despite the fact that walking or pushing a stroller though 10cm of snow is much harder than driving a car through it.

So the city changed the order of snow-clearing to focus on the pavements and cycle paths first, particularly around schools. As an unexpected by-product, it found a marked decrease in injuries: pedestrians are three times as likely as motorists to be injured in accidents due to slippery conditions. 

Parks are another area you might not immediately think of as gendered spaces – but a study in Vienna found that, after the age of nine, there was a dramatic decline in the number of girls using them. The reason behind this decline was not that girls stopped liking the parks: rather, if they had to compete with boys for space, they tended to lose, because they were less assertive.

If she was older she probably wouldn't be here. Image: Getty.

In response, the city redesigned the parks to include a variety of courts to encourage different activities. It also divided large open areas into smaller semi-enclosed spaces. The effect was dramatic, and almost immediate: now that they didn’t have to share the same space as the boys, the girls returned. A small change, but an effective one.

There are a number of other hidden ways in which cities can exclude women – for example, the traditional “human scale” for buildings as advocated by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, where human meant a 6 foot male. But the number one way in which women are let down in city planning is through a lack of safety, which in turn can impede women’s access to work, a social life, housing and transportation.


Last Friday, ActionAid held a demonstration in Marble Arch, for Safer Cities for Women Day: 30 mannequins, a third marked in red, to symbolise the one in three women who will experience male violence in her lifetime. Each mannequin carried a quote from a woman. “The police told me not to tell anyone,” read one. “This is my city,” read another.

It may be her city in theory, but in practice, things are a little different. Poor lighting, dangerous public transport, even inadequate public toilet provision can all lead to cities being inhospitable places for women: in a typical Mumbai slum, there are around six toilets per 8,000 women, many of them infested with rats or without water. Women are often raped or assaulted as they search for a toilet.

Inevitably, it is Sweden that is leading the way in tackling these issues. After research finding that women were reluctant to use municipal car parks – due to traditionally poor lighting, windowless concrete walls, and lifts and stairwells tucked out of sight with few people around and no easy means of escape – officials in Gothenburg decided to do something about it.

Concrete was substituted for glass, and better lighting was installed, as well as an increased security presence. “A car-park company cannot solve the underlying problem, which is men’s violence against women,” said Jonas Nilsson, the company’s head of car park security, “but we can take many measures to reduce people’s insecurity.” And making cities more woman-friendly doesn’t have to be a purely selfless act: since the changes, more women have started using the car-park, and so the company made more money. Everyone wins.

Commuters board a tram in Gothenburg in 2004. Image: Getty.

To the east of the country, in the city of Kalmar, research found that women were avoiding taking the bus at night because of safety concerns. So, in order to achieve the city’s goal of increasing public transport use, officials introduced “night stops”. Passengers travelling alone could ask the bus driver to stop between two regular bus stops — somewhere closer to home, or somewhere that simply felt safer. The bus driver would open only the front doors, and only allow the single passenger out, reducing concerns of being followed. The number of people using the night bus increased significantly following the introduction of these measures.

But we all know Sweden is insufferably progressive on gender issues – what about less enlightened countries? Like the UK, for example?

Well, since 2007, public authorities have technically been required to consider all planning decisions in the context of the Public Sector Equality Duty. This duty requires all public bodies to explicitly consider whether their decision will “promote equality of opportunity”.

And there have been some examples of good practice – for example, the London Borough of Lewisham “shifted its policy on employment site provision, to provide more local jobs to benefit women and reduce long-distance commuting”. (Women tend to make “more complex journeys than men” as a result of their shouldering the majority of the childcare and household burden.)


But there is still a long way to go. Last year reporting of sexual offences on trains and at stations reached “record levels”. In part this was because of increased reporting, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is still happening on a significant scale. Meanwhile, councils continue to switch off street lighting to cut costs. It is debatable whether or not this actually leads to an increase in crime, but it certainly will not make women feel more safe.

Such considerations are perhaps likely to continue being overlooked, while female representation in local government remains so low: 32 per cent, 28 per cent and 24 per cent in England, Wales and Scotland, respectively. The issue is particularly acute in planning and construction, which Kate Henderson, chief of the Town and Country Planning Association describes as “very, very male-dominated”.

The evidence from cities around the world is clear: women and men use and experience cities differently, and if we want to ensure equal access for everyone, we have to take these differences into account. To return to where we began, London – this time the one in England – we have a new mayor in Sadiq Khan.

And here there is reason to be hopeful: Khan’s new team has not been fully appointed (a deputy mayor for planning has yet to be named), but the signs so far look good, with a diverse team in stark contrast to our usual pale and male diet when it comes to city officials. With a range of perspectives on offer, perhaps London can start to move away from treating people equally and start instead to treat them equitably.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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