Unspeakable Inequalities: Revisiting urban design as if women mattered

by Kavitha Selvaraj

Spaces are both public and private and common spaces can be discussed in the context of both urban and rural environments. For the purpose of this article on ‘gender violence’ and ‘space’, the discussion is restricted to the urban public space.

Quite honestly, I have been very interested in the quality of design in the public realm for many years but have not looked at it specifically from the ‘gender’ perspective. It was always about accessibility, mobility, right of the pedestrian etc. But increasingly, with the kind of heinous crimes we hear in the papers against women in public spaces, I now feel this topic merits close attention. While an actual attack is the ultimate form of violence, the feeling of insecurity is no less a threat to our basic freedom.

It is time for those of us living in the Indian Metropolis to call for active design of public spaces keeping all the stakeholders in mind. Today, if you are male, young and able, chances are you will not even know what the fuss is all about. But for the 75% of the population including all women, children, differently abled and senior citizens, life in the Indian city in an obstacle course. These are unspeakable inequalities since no one discusses them and worse, everyone has come to accept it as part of everyday life. It does not enter mainstream debates on basic human rights.

Good design is not panacea that will address the ills of society that stem from various historical inequalities. However, urban living the world over is a leveler, where merit and talent can minimize differences created by background, caste, economic status and gender. If the comfort level of the average women to feel like the city is their home rather than a place to rush through while protecting themselves can be overcome, then it is one less struggle to go through.

Imagine a young woman, just out of college living in the city on her own, with a job. Every decision she makes throughout the day has to take into account how she will get to her destination, who she will travel with, how she will get home. She has to mentally prepare for battle before heading out. One has to wonder – what is the quality of life, if getting from one place to another involves so much mental energy? Not just women, for any citizen safe mobility is the most critical aspect that contributes to their experience of city life.

For those who have no choice but to battle it out every day in public spaces, the inequality is stark.  If one observes how street spaces are used at different time of the day, it will point to how they are dominated by men. They can just hang around anywhere, particularly around tea and food stalls. These establishments, with their sense of impermanence, makes it difficult for women to approach and use.

Even on a well constructed footpath a woman may choose to walk in the middle of the road if there is inadequate lighting. Being visible puts her in a position of seeing and being seen. The fact that one might be hit by a moving vehicle becomes secondary. That is the choice one has to make – in many cases the risk of being to be hit by a car seems better than being groped by a stranger.

From a planning perspective the most critical aspect to safety in the street is the design of the edge, which may be defined as the line where the public space meets the private domain. Tall, long compound walls signal that there will be no activity on the edge and therefore no eyes on the road. Commercial areas, small shops, lots of houses – people moving in an out of the road are all very positive from a safety and planning perspective. The local ironing cart or a coconut vendor, may be “illegally” occupying space, but offers a set of eyes to the public domain and their contribution to the space is not small. If a street is devoid of the familiar neighbourhood support it would feel that much more unsafe. Having said that, it goes without saying that the spaces should be reassigned with adequate area for walking and pockets for some activity as well.

Current trends in urban development in metropolitan areas which may be viewed as desirable signs of “moving towards faster development” are unfortunately not in the best interest of city design. A city block with a large mall in the centre with only parking in the periphery inherently creates a bad edge condition. Likewise a ‘gated community’ offers a ‘secure’ environment only within the premises. What happens when you step outside to connect with the rest of the city? The blank compound wall, albeit designed beautifully with the finest of finishes, with no store fronts, commercial activities, well planned informal activity spaces, is not a signal of safety to the footpath outside.

The best streets and public places have a lot of interest at street level, with a variety of activities at different times of day in addition to attention to basic aspects like walkability and light. These are even more important in places for recreation such as parks, waterfront areas and markets.

Lack of mobility within the city affects every citizen. Safety in public transportation should be guaranteed by the state. One of the solutions has been to segregate within transportation systems. So there are separate buses for women. Trains have “ladies only” coaches. The infrequency of these services may not make it a practical solution for the majority. Often, waiting for the bus or train is a big nuisance. Being stared at by men and having comments made by total strangers is very common. In fact our movie industry ratifies this type of behaviour by equating stalking a girl in public transportation with being in love. Even if we were to assume that a “ladies special” bus were available at frequent intervals it is still only one part of the journey.  At some point we interact with the rest of the city. So when you get off the bus and walk towards your destination what is the surrounding urban environment like? More often than not you will find a wall being used as a public urinal, garbage strewn around and unwalkable footpaths. This makes the last steps towards a destination quite torturous.

The sad news is the level of tolerance we have for accepting the status quo. The Indian women would turn away embarrassed, or assume this is as good as it can get, rather than demand equal status in the right to be comfortable on the road.

So, what does it take to feel comfortable on the road? The key features would be the design of the edges. If there are eyes on the road, some commercial activities, store fronts, verandahs and entrances to buildings, the street automatically feels safer. The next important aspect would be adequate lighting on foot paths. The width should be comfortable for two or three people walking so that they may cross without contact. The footpath should be smooth, without interruptions and able to support a woman with a child in a stroller and a toddler holding one hand.

If every street in every neighbourhood is looked at through the eyes of women we might have different parameters which are used to design. In Indian cities, our design for roads is only to move automobiles and provide access to private properties. But actually, the street is what carries the image of the city. The sensitivity shown towards its design tells us who and what we value as a society.

*****

Architect Kavitha Selvaraj is the Director of CRN, and has worked extensively on building safe and accessible public spaces in Chennai. An alumnus of Anna University, Kavitha also has a Masters in Design from Harvard University, Cambridge and has studied Urban Design at the University of Texas, Austin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: