In essence, women friendly cities are those cities where all the residents of that particular city can equally benefit from the financial, social and political opportunities presented before them."
Cities should always be planned and designed based on the needs of their users. On International Women's Day, let's think for a moment about the movement towards designing cities that empower women as much as they do men. With women comprising at least half of urban populations, many have pointed out that the disciplines of urban planning and design have historically been dominated by men and consequently, by the male perspective. This is a big topic. This is just a brief overview.
Thinking about designing cities 'for' women runs the risk of reinforcing all sorts of unhelpful gender stereotypes. But this isn't about superficial, potentially patronising projects. Effective city design needs to take into account the different patterns that emerge about what different people do in the city, and what they need. In many cases, women and men have similar needs. But research also tells us that males and females do use cities differently, all over the world, and that certain factors associated with being female tend to restrict freedom of movement within the city. Many of these needs gaps, such as caring responsibilities and work patterns, will likely narrow as society moves towards gender equality. But right now around the world, certain urban design and planning factors can create challenges to women's self-esteem and belongingness, and can restrict their likelihood of accessing healthy opportunities in the urban environment, such as access to nature, exercise, or positive social interactions.
As such, this is a matter of social justice that affects women's ability to engage in public life. It is fundamental that cities integrate the female perspective in design and planning process, and ensure that genders can benefit equally from services such as transportation, exercise venues, parks, health and social care facilities, and all other aspects of the city. So what's currently stopping them?
According to the research, factors associated with gender in urban design and planning seem to be largely divided into two main challenges: accessibility (psychological and physical); and safety. Some examples include:
Psychological and physical accessibility
How this all affects mental health
Exclusion, anxiety, fear and marginalisation are detrimental to our mental health. Good design helps people feel included and valued, prevents isolation, and empowers us to access places that can have a protective effect on mental health, such as health facilities, natural parks, places to exercise, or settings to socialise. Feeling able to use the city also helps create feelings of community belongingness and social cohesion.
A To-do List starter for cities to deliver urban design that empowers females as it does males
ARE CITIES WHERE WOMEN
- Women-Friendly Cities Initiative
Note: gender, urban design and mental health is a challenging intersection. This op-ed cannot hope to fully cover its many facets but is intended to inspire thought about the opportunities to design more inclusive and empowering cities. If you want to examine a different angle, please submit to this blog.
Read about how urban design can promote good mental health for everyone here
About the Author
Early planning practices were predominantly focused on addressing the issues of the postindustrial city. Among these issues was access to clean waterfront spaces. As cities by the sea and large rivers expand and become more dense, access to clean waterfront spaces has become an increasable asset to overall health and public life of cities.
Key West is a south Florida town located on an island at the southernmost tip of the continental United States. Naturally much of the island’s public life and overall movement is centered around waterfront spaces or within the ocean itself. The island is among the most densely populated areas in the state. Key West has long been, and continues to be, a haven for immigrant communities, artists, the LGBTQ community and fishermen. Given that it is an extremely demographically diverse town with high density levels, the island serves for a very unique observation on public urban life, specifically public spaces.
Among the island’s most iconic public spaces is White Street Pier. The pier is a unique structure that starts at the southern end of the street by the same name and begins at the edge of the sea. The structure stretches into the ocean for several feet, removing itself from the noise pollution of the surplus of motorized vehicles the island possesses. The pier contains at its end an open space with direct proximity to the sea. The pier is lined with benches, walkways, and bike paths; not specifically delineated. The versatility of the space and its proximity to clean ocean water allows for quite a variety of uses in the space. One can observe a variety of activities ranging from fishing, to strolling and skate boarding. Considering that the island’s surface is very small, access to public spaces is limited, enhancing a convergence of many different social demographics within the public realm. The pier becomes an urban oasis from the access to fresh ocean air and lack of noise. The only sounds that can be easily heard are those coming from the sea and those generated from people, adding an additional natural element to the pier.
White street pier has a unique form of public space on a grander scale, however the island of Key
West is full of public life by the sea.
Given the overwhelming impact that urbanized areas have on people's access to silent spaces and natural amenities, a piers and other waterside walkways can be helpful in neutralizing the overstimulating effects of urban noise pollution and contributing to the overall mental health of a city.
Key West’s small roads and plentiful bike lanes offer a pedestrian and bike-friendly environment. In addition, the island boasts plentiful bike trails which are completely free of car traffic allowing for the easy movement of people. The walkway is also used as a major bike route connecting the island. The city government of Key West has led a variety of initiatives advocating for the use of bikes instead of cars and other sustainable modes of transportation. Cycle Free Key West is an initiative started by the city’s planning department as a means of promoting the use of the bike as a healthy, safe and fast alternative mode of transportation on the island in addition to promoting walkability and other sustainable modes of transit throughout the island.
The waterside walkway serves as a major sustainable and healthy means of transportation and is frequently used by locals and tourists alike. The ocean gives one a sense of peace that is often not present in urban environments. The citizens of this busy seaside town are lucky enough to enjoy this. Furthermore, given that physical health and mental health go hand in hand urban planning initiatives that promote physical activities are of the utmost importance.
About the Author
For #WorldBookDay we asked our UD/MH fellows and other Twitter followers which books they would recommend that are relevant to the nexus of urban design and mental health. Behold: your UD/MH reading list. We hope you find some of these enjoyable.
Recommendations from UD/MH friends on Twitter
EVERY book about urban design is relevant to mental health □— Ben Hockman (@BAHockman) March 1, 2018
Sanity and Urbanity:
a UD/MH blog
Reading, seeing, thinking and doing urban design to improve mental health.