Urban Transformation

Cities aren't designed for women. Here's what's needed next 

Cities don't provide the same opportunities to women as they do for men - so what needs to change?

Cities don't provide the same opportunities to women as they do for men - so what needs to change? Image: Unsplash/João Ferrão

Ewan Thomson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Cities and Urbanization

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  • Seven out of 10 of us will live in cities by 2050, but they are an unfair environment for women, a new report finds.
  • The price women pay for living in cities includes violence, poverty, unequal amounts of unpaid care work, limited job opportunities, and a lack of power in public and private decision-making.
  • The UNDP identifies 4 key areas for improvement when it comes to designing cities that work for women.

As we head towards World Cities Day on 31 October around half of city populations are at a disadvantage — cities are unfair environments for women, according to the UN.

This is despite the fact that more people live in cities than ever before - around 4.4 billion people — or 55% of the global population. And this number is set to double by 2050, with seven out of every 10 people living in urban environments.


“The ‘penalties’ women pay for living in cities include violence, poverty, unequal amounts of unpaid care work, limited job opportunities, and a lack of power in public and private decision-making,” the UN Development Program (UNDP) says in a new study.

Designing Cities That Work for Women looks at contemporary urban life from the perspective of women from a range of backgrounds to identify problems and find out ways to make cities better.

So what needs to change to improve cities for women?

A graphic showing how women's average wait time for a toilet in cities is 6 times longer than men's.
Many aspects of urban design do not adequately reflect the needs of women. Image: UNDP

1. A voice in leadership roles

Most cities were designed and built by men, resulting — perhaps unsurprisingly — around policies and including features that often overlook the needs of women.

Women remain greatly underrepresented in key decision-making positions, even in developed countries. Currently 35% of members of parliament in the UK’s House of Commons are women and this figure is an all-time high.

The report recommends that policymakers in city planning roles should seek out women’s perspectives in order to design spaces that create improvements for everyone.

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As well as giving women a voice in urban decision-making, leadership, and law making, the use of gender-disaggregated data — which splits data sets into binary male and female categories — can inform design and policy decisions.

One example is in Sweden, where using such data showed that prioritizing the clearing of arterial roads of snow adversely impacted women and children, who were predominantly using cycleways. Clearing cycleways first decreased accidents by 50% and saved the local government money.

A graphic for the four main themes than can help improve cities for women, the UN says.
These are the four main themes that can help improve cities for women, the UN says. Image: UNDP

2. Cities that celebrate female achievement

Statues, monuments and street names can imbue a sense of urban identity, highlighting the work and achievements of groups and individuals. But not for women, it seems. Only 4% of statues in London represent women — around half the amount that depict animals — and London is actually ahead of the curve, as only 2-3% of statues represent women in most cities, the report says.

Not so in Aspern, in Vienna, where all the streets and public places are named after women, improving a sense of belonging and identity by recognizing and raising awareness of female achievement.

As well as acknowledging women’s history, the study recommends providing more inclusive workplaces and schools, safe leisure and cultural spaces, and designing diverse and flexible spaces for the disabled and elderly.

3. Safer streets, better laws, education

Women often do not feel safe in their own cities, and with good reason. In the UK, 71% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while over half of women and girls have experienced violence on public transport in Ethiopia, the UN says.

The study promotes the creation of safer streets, public spaces and public transport by using intelligent design. Incorporating violence prevention in laws while educating those that exhibit misogynistic behaviours will also help to reduce violence against women.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

There are already success stories around the world. In Melbourne, Australia, a project was launched to identify unsafe areas in public places by taking crowdsourced data from the Free to Be campaign. The results were used to identify lighting requirements, and the data is now used as part of the urban design process.

Utilizing technology to create a human-centred approach to safety can also make a significant difference for women in urban environments. In Quito, Ecuador, an SMS service is being used to fight sexual harassment on public transport. Besides raising public awareness of gender violence, nearly 3,000 cases of sexual harassment were reported and over 70 perpetrators were prosecuted.

A graphic of the UN's 17 sustainable development goals.
The UN’s Sustainable Development goals include issues like gender equality and clean water and sanitization that disproportionately affect women. Image: UN

4. Increased water and sanitation for all

According to the UN, one in four people do not have access to safe drinking water. Globally, women and girls bear the responsibility of water collection in eight out of 10 households, so are disproportionately affected.

And one in three women do not have safe, inclusive toilets, which promotes gender-based violence and exclusion, particularly for elderly and disabled women who tend to avoid visiting areas without accessible public sanitation.

City-planning that works for women’s health and well-being needs to focus on raising water and sanitation facilities, improving standards of healthcare and nutrition, and creating more safe, accessible and green environments, urges the UN.

It is critical that we design our future cities — and redesign our existing ones — in a holistic way. The World Economic Forum has released a series of reports about “future-ready cities”, which details how to build inclusive environments for all.

To tackle the many challenges women face in urban environments, it is vital that under-represented communities be given the opportunity to play a bigger part in making our cities better for everyone.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Urban TransformationEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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