4 Ways Your City's Design Can Be Better Toward Women

July 1st 2016

Ah, to be a woman in the city! From Virginia Woolf's London to Carrie Bradshaw's New York, pop culture is saturated with ladies proclaiming their love for urban life.

Unfortunately, the feeling isn't necessarily mutual. Many of today's cities were designed in ways that inconvenience and even endanger their female inhabitants.

"Conventional forms of land use regulation constrain mobility and limit employment opportunities for women, reinforce outdated family structures as the norm, and provide inadequate support systems," researchers from Cornell University's Department of City & Regional Planning wrote in a 2014 brief on gender and urban planning.

Here are 4 ways your city is sexist.

1. Public transportation.

Isolated and poorly lit bus stops and train stations can make women feel particularly unsafe, The Huffington Post reported.

And they have good reason to be afraid. In a study published May 2015 by the sexual harassment advocacy group Hollaback! and Cornell University, 75 percent of women surveyed said they had changed transportation plans due to harassment, Good reported.

In even more a of a train wreck, a 2015 survey asked 600 female commuters in France if they had experienced sexual harassment on public transit, and all 600 of them said that they had.

Let's just let that sink in for a second.

Some cities have tried to remedy these issues by adding cameras and lighting fixtures to public transit hubs, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an associate dean and professor of urban planning at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, said in a 2008 paper.

"The tendency of many transportation agencies to retrofit their station platforms and bus stops with CCTV cameras seems to offer little comfort to women, who do not feel more secure in the knowledge that someone is supposed to be watching them," Loukaitou-Sideris said. "Certain design measures, notably good lighting, seem to have a positive effect in reducing women’s fear."

Others have advocated for public transit systems that serve women only.

"Using women-only transportation to ensure women’s safety is a highly controversial idea," sociologist Amy Dunckel-Graglia wrote in a 2013 paper in the Journal of Public Transportation. Segregated transit may keep women safer in the short term, but many women's rights advocates believe it would ultimately weaken the fight for gender equality, Dunckel-Graglia argued.

Some countries have already tried this out.

2. Sidewalks

No one loves a poorly paved sidewalk, but these can prove particularly challenging if you're pushing a stroller, The Huffington Post reported. Women with stroller-aged children also feel the effects of particularly narrow sidewalks.

In 1999, officials in Vienna surveyed residents about public transportation and discovered that many women complained about their experiences as pedestrians.

"Most of the men filled out the questionnaire in less than five minutes," city administrator Ursula Bauer told City Lab. "But the women couldn't stop writing."

Somewhat shockingly, the city actually listened.

"Sidewalks were widened so pedestrians could navigate narrow streets," City Lab reported. "And a massive staircase with a ramp running through the middle was installed near a major intersection to make crossing easier for people with strollers and individuals using a walker or a wheelchair."

3. Street names

A few streets you might have encountered:

  • Washington Boulevard
  • Jefferson Avenue
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
  • James M. Wood Boulevard

Hey, wait a second ...

Those are all dudes!

In November 2015, Mapbox developer Aruna Sankaranarayanan published an interactive map illustrating how streets were gendered in seven major cities around the world.

Her team found that, on average, only 27.5 percent of streets were named after women.

The map includes some errors, but it still paints a stark and unequal picture of who gets memorialized with city signage, Hyperallergic reported.

4. Lack of affordable child care near residential neighborhoods

If think you can "have it all," you might want to check your local zoning laws first.

These regulations can massively limit child care services available in residential neighborhoods.

Researchers cited in the 2014 Cornell brief surveyed 352 women about local land use regulations regarding child care. Forty-six percent of survey participants said their communities allowed child care services by right, while 52 percent lived in neighborhoods where child care providers needed to apply for special use permits — a lengthy and expensive procedure, the researchers said.

ATTN: previously reported that the cost of child care in the United States is outrageously high. This can leave women struggling to juggle their careers and child care duties or cause them to leave the workforce altogether.

You can learn more about urban planning and efforts to make cities safer and more welcoming to women at the American Planning Association and the United Nations.

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