A feminist approach to urban planning is vital for the future of cities

Integrating feminist priorities into city planning is essential, not just for gender equity, but also for climate resilience and wider sustainability. The concept is not new on a global level, but it is becoming increasingly relevant to the urgent problems facing Asia’s megacities. They are witnessing some of the world’s fastest rates of urbanization, industrialization and climate change, as well as struggles against gender inequity and violence.

What would women worldwide do if there were no men on Earth for 24 hours? Go for a walk at night in their city, is what most women answered in response to a viral TikTok video just last year. The simple act of walking the city at night has come to exemplify the urban male privilege characteristic of cities designed often by men. Most urban design engenders systemic discrimination that permeates women’s experiences in the city, their freedom, safety, mobility and access to urban public spaces.

On top of their access challenges for women, girls and other marginalized groups, cities are also facing serious ecological challenges due to human-induced climate change. It is important to address these interlinked problems with a social-ecological approach, one rooted in the idea that our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. In the context of cities, this entails addressing the social dimensions of inequality as a prerequisite to build climate-resilient cities. For women and gender minorities, safety mediates the relationship to the city. Therefore, it is essential that the needs of their everyday life, safety, comfort, convenience and accessibility are made an integral part of urban design and planning.


No city for women: the need for feminist urbanism

Existing urban planning paradigms are dominated by an androcentric approach with limited understanding of the interrelationships between the gender, socioeconomic inequities and violence. The report Making A Feminist City notes that when the assumptions underlying urban planning are based on outmoded social norms rooted in patriarchal and paternalistic gender roles, it results in the making of exclusionary and hostile cities for women and girls. However, by centring them at the core of city planning and design, one can not only build cities that are equitable, but also challenge entrenched social norms on gender roles in the city, transforming social relations in the process.

This is the fundamental premise of feminist urbanism, a critical approach to planning that aims to address the needs of different social groups in urban development and planning. It is particularly focussed on those who have been left out of consideration of dominant city planning and development narratives, notably women, girls and sexual and gender minorities. It is sensitive to the multiplicity of differences in one’s social and economic status across different axes of marginalization such as class, caste, age, sexuality and disability among others and how it intersects with gender in affecting people’s access to and autonomy in the city and would, therefore, result in the creation of cities that ultimately benefit everyone.


Towards climate-friendly cities: A feminist approach

In the Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, the World Bank notes that women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities are more susceptible to climate risk. The impact of the built environment interacts with factors such as poverty, primary caregiving responsibilities, gender-based violence and decrease in mobility and access. This exacerbates the vulnerability of those groups, especially in informal settlements where basic infrastructure is lacking.

In order to ensure their success, climate initiatives need to integrate a feminist approach in their development and execution. It is notable that there are significant convergences between feminist urban planning and sustainability practices. Some of the key features that characterize feminist design interventions in cities are compact, mixed-use neighbourhoods, pedestrian-centric street design and public provision of critical urban infrastructure, especially in the context of public transport, childcare and sanitation. Recently in India there has been increased interest in adopting sustainable urban planning concepts such as the ‘15-minute city,’ which recognizes an urban environment where each inhabitant can reach everything they need within 15 minutes’ travel, ideally by foot or bicycle. Such concepts need to be tailored to the Indian context, focusing on gender disparities and income inequality, particularly in regard to access to urban amenities.

Furthermore, studies show that women predominantly rely on public transport and non-motorized transit such as walking and cycling. Affordable or freely accessible, well-connected public transport infrastructure is critical for reducing carbon emissions and discouraging private vehicular use. Sustainable urban policies that prioritize development of public transportation and low-carbon non-motorized transport need to address issues of concern such as safety, access to sanitation and affordability that impact women in particular, and must take into account how women use and navigate the city.



The report Making A Feminist City examines the municipal legal frameworks on planning from a feminist perspective and makes the following recommendations to ensure that urban planning is people-led and integrates women’s participation.                                                                                                                             

Participatory municipal planning and gender representation: It is necessary to strengthen political processes that decentralize planning and empower local communities to participate in municipal planning and to make decisions that affect their neighbourhoods. This can be achieved through institutional processes such as representative area or ward committees, as seen in India. It is necessary to endow such committees with the necessaryfinancial and functional powers to operate independently and ensure that there is mandated representation for women, girls, and gender and sexual minorities, particularly from marginalized groups across axes of disability, class, caste and others.

Adoption of gender-responsive tools and methods for feminist urban planning: It is necessary for cities to incorporate feminist urban planning tools and methods in the urban planning process. This includes the use of tools such as safety audits, exploratory walks, participatory mapping and other approaches involving women and girls to identify needs and provision of services in their neighbourhoods as well as areas for intervention and development priorities in their neighbourhoods. It also includes methods such as collecting accurate gender-disaggregated data orgender-sensitive data in urban planning processes along with undertaking training and sensitization programmes in feminist methods for all relevant stakeholders involved in municipal planning.

Sneha Visakha is a research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Karnataka. She is the creator and host of The Feminist City, a podcast series looking at all things urban from a feminist perspective.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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