Reimagining the city for gender inclusivity

Ellie Cosgrave

by Ellie Cosgrave

Director of Research, Publica and Associate Professor in Urban Innovation and Policy, UCL

Challenging entrenched ways of thinking is never easy. Many of us have come to understand our urban landscape - largely defined by roads, pavements, and buildings - as essential. We have learnt to think about public space as fixed in space and time – concrete in every sense of the word. This means that the way we design cities often does not serve us as well as it might do, if only we were able to unleash our imaginations. 

In 2023, women, girls and gender diverse people still feel the fear, discomfort and everyday inconveniences that come with presenting as female in public space. This fear stems from their own lived experiences of violence and harassment as well as the high-profile assaults and murders of women on our streets, and sends the signal that public spaces are not ‘for’ people like them. 

Society has reached a critical moment and is finally asking how we can make public space safer. Too frequently, however, I fear we are coming up with inadequate answers. 

Responsive public space

Cities actually exist in a state of constant flux. A certain level of ‘responsiveness’ – one of the six key principles outlined in Landsec’s Shaping Successful Future Cities report – is baked in.  Cities develop and decay, as do their populations, institutions and systems. On one hand this should give us hope: in theory, their adaptability means they could flex to play a role in delivering social justice. But on the other, we have seen that the outcomes of such responsiveness are often unbalanced. 

To illustrate the point, imagine this scene: a spate of violent crime against women in a UK city results in calls to make public spaces safer. The local authority responds by increasing policing and surveillance, and removing planting as a way of reducing spaces where people might hide, or benches where young people might gather. This approach often attempts to remove crime by removing people, thus stripping a sense of activity and ‘eyes on the street’ that is essential to the feeling of safety. An additional consequence is the detriment of already marginalised communities – Black communities, or communities in poverty, for instance – who might not have indoor spaces to gather in, or who might be disproportionately targeted by surveillance technologies and police. As Dr Adonna Lugo writes, in her research for The Untokening Collective: “We are what gets removed when spaces get safer for you.” 

We’ve seen this approach - which can fairly be described as patriarchal and disempowering - to public space time and again, and it can reinforce the wrong values. 

The question is: how can we adapt urban spaces to overcome safety challenges, whilst avoiding unhelpful and destructive binaries which stereotype people into the position of either the ‘helpless victim’ or the ‘threating illegitimate’? How can we harness public space to benefit the city as a whole? 

Responsive communities

Crucially, there is no one-size-fits-all solution: every city and community is different, so our approaches to the problem need to be experimental and – importantly – participatory. We need to create space for people to share their experience of the city, trusting that they are the experts in their own communities. Planners and designers should be reframed as the custodians of a community’s own vision. Only by listening to communities directly can we begin to create cities that work for them; by seeing them as active participants, rather than moving objects, in space. 

Projects which start small can be scalable. An initiative which begins in a street can grow to encompass a borough, and maybe eventually a whole city; but the focus needs to be on collective creativity – allowing solutions to evolve to meet the needs of the community. I admire, for example, the experimental project Her Barking, devised and led by Street Space , which found that 51 per cent of Barking residents do not feel safe after dark. Together with the survey participants, they designed interventions to address negative experiences of the local area. Solutions came from within and were developed collaboratively.  

Responsive planning

I hope projects like this show planners and developers that by considering and prioritising the needs and experiences of women and all marginalised people during the design process, we can rethink public space planning to take a more holistic approach. By investing energy, money and time into a wide range of participatory projects, developers can build up a base of knowledge and data to show that centering the experiences of women and girls results in better outcomes for the city as a whole. 

Imagine how different the planning environment would be, were we to build up a best practice hub of data and creative projects here. At Publica, we are building this resource hub through our Campaign for Inclusive Cities. The more complete and compelling the picture, the more easily it can be adopted into planning frameworks – but critically, without resulting in rigid mandates. The moment creativity is lost, so is the essence of the work. 

Collaborative thinking about planning reform is certainly becoming more mainstream. As Landsec highlights in its recent Cities Manifesto, the current planning system is set up to be somewhat adversarial and limiting. Perhaps, as our collective thinking changes, experimental projects will be seen as an important tool in the planning framework. 

The task at hand is to rethink the rebuilding of our public space, challenging our existing assumptions about how to deliver cities which are successfully inclusive. I envision the gender inclusive city as safe, connected, populated and beautiful, with a sense of belonging at its heart. This belonging includes the creation of space and acceptance of all types of bodies. I want to see multiple generations of women, of all body shapes, dancing in public squares without fear of violence. If developers, planners, landlords and occupiers all work together, perhaps the next generation of young women will feel truly at ease in our cities.