Embedded in the upbringing of most women is the “don’t” narrative: don’t walk there, don’t wear that, don’t stay out late, don’t attract attention.
We pass down this narrative from generation to generation, like a family heirloom.
Over the past few weeks many have protested across the country, poking holes in the “don’t” narrative by explaining that the safety of women is not just a personal responsibility, but also a state and societal obligation.
The “don’t” narrative was designed to teach women to self-police by introducing them to fear at young age, so as to keep them out of harm’s way.
However, in the blind panic about safety we’ve overlooked its damning implications, the most significant being that in perpetuating this narrative we are telling our female population that the city is no place for a woman, that the space within which she finds herself is inhospitable to her feeble frame and that every day she enters her society she does so at her own risk.
This anti-female and exclusionary social narrative is reinforced and reflected in our city planning, design and infrastructure.
The city fails to accommodate any part of the female experience.
Women feel less safe in the public space and therefore feel the need to do something to justify their occupation of it.
Government straddles two complementary failures: it does not prioritise the female population, and it is grossly unimaginative.
Gendered social issues within the city have become increasingly obvious, but how these are reinforced by our urban infrastructure remains undiscussed.
Physical infrastructure affecting women includes unlit street lights, inadequate surveillance, poor provision of public bathrooms and safe ones at that, and overcrowded transport systems.
To think of this in terms of safety is a step in the right direction.
However, the implications of these urban infrastructural blunders go further than that – they influence access to comfort, opportunities and financial freedom.
Looking at urban planning through a feminist lens has incorrectly been categorised as an ideological experiment reserved for nations with abundant resources.
As a country where public infrastructure can barely keep up with daily use, a feminist approach to the city has been neglected and undermined in the government’s approach to urban development as reflected in the Integrated Urban Development Framework of 2016.
Gender mainstreaming in city infrastructure has the potential to decrease gender-based violence and improve economic productivity.
Sexual assault, for example, would be reduced by 30% in Khayelitsha by doubling the number of functional bathrooms.
This was illustrated by a study released by Gregg S Gonsalves, Edward H Kaplan and A David Paltiel in 2015.
It practically illustrates how government has failed to prioritise women by failing to consider the necessity of out-of-the-box solutions.
Before delving deeper into the relationship between municipal infrastructure and gender-based disadvantage, it’s helpful to briefly explore the history of urban planning.
In summary, professions associated with the built environment have been predominantly male dominated. These include architecture, urban planning and civil engineering.
Naturally we tend to design and create from personal experience, which is how our cities have come to reflect so little of the female reality.
A prime example of how municipal infrastructure affects women’s access to opportunities and financial freedom is public transport.
Women tend to spend much more on transport, not only because of safety considerations, but also because of caretaking responsibilities.
Public transport timetable schedules and route systems are geared towards transporting people to and from work, without considering varied trip patterns and off-peak commuters in a zoned city where places of employment, retail and caretaker facilities are widespread.
There has been many a movement to “take back the city”, yet few have approached urban infrastructure through a female lens.
These movements recognise the significant relationship between the construction of our cities and the construction of our identities, yet we have failed to recognise the female experience in the conceptual and practical development of our cities.
To counter the creation of female identities defined by the “don’t” narrative we must promote female-orientated advocacy groups in the built environment industry in both public and private capacities.
Aotearoa in New Zealand has a Women in Urbanism advocacy group, comprising engineers, planners, architects and politicians, which promotes gender-neutral infrastructure.
Vancouver in Canada has a Women Transforming Cities advocacy group promoting the same.
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South Africa, where is ours?
Research institutions and academia need to encourage women in all disciplines to form and join such advocacy groups, in which we put pressure on municipalities to increase street lighting, widen pedestrian pathways, increase bike lanes and ensure that female-only public bathrooms are in decent and safe locations.
In this way we will shape our cities, in this way we will make our cities reflect the needs of women and empower them.
Lezanne Janse Van Vuuren is a researcher at SpatialiZe urban development company in Johannesburg
As a woman, how do you want your city’s urban planners to take your needs into account?
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