Spatial Justice through Gender Sensitive City Planning
Spatial Justice through Gender Sensitive City Planning

text: Divya Gunnam,
urbanism student at Technische Universiteit Delft

graphics: Kuba Kozaczenko
architecture student at Wrocław University of Technology

consultation: Birgit Hausleitner

reading time: around 10 min

India’s female labour force participation has fallen from 36.7 per cent in 2005 to 26 per cent in 2018. 1 Lack of access to quality education, social and cultural perspectives and a lack of safe urban spaces for women have attributed to this decline. Since the public realm has always been considered a man’s region, there is a need to redefine the parameters that go into the urban design making it more inclusive of women and their needs. In the quest towards growth and economic prosperity, equal participation of all genders and races is of utmost importance. Hence, it becomes imperative that city planning is not looked at as a gender-neutral discipline rather as an inclusive and participatory field that adapts itself to the new changes that are prevalent in recent decades. It also looks at similar situations that have been persistent elsewhere and their successful interventions that yielded positive and safer environments to women. Once the patterns are recognised, then it can be understood as to how to suitable adapt these solutions to widely different contexts. The essay tries to identify catalysts for change and how they can be translated into the design discipline. The scope of this paper is limited to literature study, design based analysis and does not extend to policymaking and law and order initiatives. It explores spatial justice through gender-sensitive city planning. By reading the cities through the lens of men and women differently, one can identify the systematic ignorance that has led to today’s disparity. It atteempts to reedefine a sustainable city, by imagining gender equalities as the central ingredients.

1. Pti. (2019, March 8). Female labour force participation in India fell to 26% in 2018: Report. Retrieved from https://www.

2. Ibid.

3. Thomson Reuters Foundation. (n.d.). The world’s five most dangerous countries for women 2018. Retrieved from http://poll2018.

4. The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, 2016

5. Economic Times, August 2019

6. Massey, D. B. (1994). Space, place, and gender. Minneapolis (Minessota, Estados Unidos): University of Minnesota Press.


India’s female labour force participation has fallen from 36.7 per cent in 2005 to 26 per cent in 2018. 2 India is named as one of the most dangerous countries for women and the crime rates in India have been on a steady increase with the onset of urbanisation. 3

These facts reflect in the use of India’s public spaces as well. While in principle, public spaces are to cater to every person’s needs, in practice, the lack of safe public spaces are a prime reason for women dropping out of the workforce. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) 5 and 11, as well as the New Urban Agenda, under the Habitat III of the United Nations Conference, emphasise on safe, resilient and inclusive cities. 4 This implies imagining a city that promises equal opportunities for people of all races, cultures, gender and sexual orientation, economic backgrounds etc.

By looking at the transforming working population, it becomes evident that more women are needed for growth and economic prosperity of any nation. 5 It then becomes imperative to address the hesitance of women to continue working and understand the limitations of urban places.

Studies have been carried out by researchers like Doreen Massey, Jo Beall, Marion Roberts in developed nations over the past 3 decades to understand spatial relations with gender norms when women entered the workforce. This urgency is felt in the developing nations of the urban south today as the disparity between the rights of men and women over urban spaces becomes very evident. The root cause of this disparity depends on several underlying reasons and is influenced by the socio-cultural, economic conditions and lifestyle. 6

The disparity can also be understood by exploring the traditional norms of space and gender, changing perceptions of space and their usage by different categories of people. Keeping India as the background, it is imperative to study the deep-rooted systemic limitations that exacerbate this divide further. This paper attempts to understand the different methodologies undertaken elsewhere and identify interventions that could be applied to the Indian context.

While education and a societal shift in attitudes are the primary catalysts for change, urban planners need to create short term goals and design spaces that are inclusive of gender sensitivities and are truly ‘public’ in nature.

7. Lips, H. (2015). Gender: The basics. London: Routledge.

8. Economic Times, August, 2019

9. Fortuijn, J., Horn, A., & Ostendorf, W. (2004). Gendered spaces’ in urban and rural contexts: An introduction. GeoJournal, 61(3), 215217. Retrieved from stable/41147935

10. Moser, C. O. N. (1994). Gender planning and development: theory, practice and training. London: Routledge.

11. Massey, D. B. (1994). Space, place, and gender. Minneapolis (Minessota, Estados Unidos): University of Minnesota Press.

Existing trends

Gender refers to“ culturally-mediated expectations and roles associated with masculinity and femininity”. 7 Worldwide, today, there is a shift in the perception of these norms associated with gender. India seems to be telling a rather different story. Indian women are choosing to stay at home rather than working. Amitabh Kant, NITI Aayog CEO suggest that India only has about 27 per cent women in the workforce and it needs to reach the world average of 48 per cent which will add about 700 billion USD to India’s economy. 8 With stakes that high, there is a need to encourage women to step out and join the workforce in India. However, we need to address the key issues that are preventing women to do so first.

Gender stereotypes

India is a patriarchal society where spatial segregation has always been highly genderspecific. Gender roles are often influenced by the economic, social and cultural norms and play a significant part in constructing unequal urban realities and gendered spaces. 9 Traditionally, the public realm was considered a man’s region where the domestic realm was claimed by women. 10 But with women joining the workforce and entering the man’s region, there is contention to the claims of public spaces. Doreen Massey states:

Metropolitan life itself seemed to throw up such a threat to patriarchal control. In general terms, what is clear is that spatial control, whether enforced through the power of convention or symbolism, or the straight- forward threat of violence, can be a fundamental element in the constitution of gender in its (highly varied) forms.

The entry of women into the workforce has not been readily accepted as it challenged the traditional norms of masculinity and femininity. Since women were not identifying themselves purely based on family and husband, there was an invariable threat to the patriarchal order of society. 11

12. Phadke, S. (2005). You can be lonely in a crowd: The production of safety in Mumbai. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 12(1), 41–62.

13. Roberts, M. (1998). Urban design, gender and the future of cities, Journal of Urban Design, 3:2, 133-135

14. Vishwanath, K., & Mehrotra, S. T. (2008). Safe in the city? Retrieved from http://www.indiaseminar. com/2008/583/583_kalpana_and_ surabhi.htm

15. Vishwanath, K., & Mehrotra, S. T. (2007). 'shall we go out?’ Women’s safety in public spaces in Delhi. Economic and Political Weekly, April, 1542–1548.

16. Phadke, S. (2007). Dangerous liaisons—Women and men: Risk and reputation in Mumbai. Economic and Political Weekly, April, 1512.

17. Hill, R. (1996) Women and transport, in: C. Booth, J. Darke & S. Yeandle (Eds), Changing Places: Women’s Lives in the City (London, Paul Chapman).

Perceptions of Space

One of the main ways of retaliation to this contention is the prevailing treatment of women as the illegitimate users of public spaces. 12 Women, to a large extent, are only seen moving from one point to another for work. They are always in transit. They do not share the same ownership as men. Women’s presence in a public space needs to be justified by a purpose. The act of loitering or claiming public space for themselves is not readily accepted. As Roberts argues:

From the symbolic meaning of spaces/places and the gendered messages which they transmit to straightforward exclusion by violence, spaces and places are not only themselves gendered but, in their being so, they both reflect and affect how gender is constructed and understood. The limitation of women’s mobility, in terms both of identity and space, has been in some cultural contexts a crucial means of subordination. 13

Where we can find groups of men or a single man sitting by themselves in a park or hanging out by the bus stop, women are usually accompanied by kids or men to manufacture legitimacy. 14 This makes the experience of women largely different than that of men in public spaces.

Safety, an impediment

Since women’s rights to a public place are rooted in the idea of safety, these rights are also often questioned or withdrawn on the rationale that the outdoors is unsafe for women. The idea that women have to take the onus of their safety from perpetrators invariably puts the burden back on them to monitor their movements and behaviour in the streets. 15

Phadke argues:

The insistence on sexual safety actively contributes to not just reducing women’s access to public space but also to compromise their safety when they do access public space, by focusing more on women’s capacity to produce respectability rather than on their safety. The discourse of safety then does not keep women safe in public; it effectively bars them from it. 16

Having to produce legitimacy forces women to curtail their movements in public spaces or be there only when necessary creating an imbalance in the physical characteristics of urban spaces. This ignores the realities of many working-class and middle-class women who have to navigate through different kinds of public spaces through the day, including roads, buses, parks and other spaces like the school, the workplace and the hospital. 17

18. UNHABITAT, Women in Cities International, SIDA, Huairou Commission, & CISCSA. (2008). The global assessment on women’s safety. Nairobi: UNHABITAT. Retrieved from files/13380_7380832AssesmentFinal1.pdf

19. Ibid.

20. Beall, J. (1996). Participation in the city: where do women fit in? Gender and Development, 4(1), 9–16.

21. Massey, D. B. (1994). Space, place, and gender. Minneapolis (Minessota, Estados Unidos): University of Minnesota Press.

Inclusive Spaces

It is important to address these issues in urban planning because “spaces that cause fear, restricts movements and thus the community’s use of space. Lack of movement and comfort is a form of social exclusion”. 18 It further includes:

Strategies, practices, and policies which aim to reduce gender-based violence (or VAW), include women’s fear of crime and freedom from poverty. This includes safe access to water, the existence and security of communal toilet facilities in informal settlements, slum upgrades, gendersensitive street and city design, safe car parks, shopping, and public transportation. 19

The goal here is to facilitate the same rights over a space for a woman that are traditionally reserved for a man. By not addressing the issue of lack of belonging or lack of ownership, we tend to design places that are not inclusive in nature, not opportunistic to everybody and does not represent the diverse values that public space should portray. 20

Gender and geography

Before we look at successful interventions undertaken in different parts of the world to understand the scope of urban planning as a means of providing spatial justice for women, it is important to realise that the initiatives are largely dependent on the local context.

This is due to the connections, as identified by Doreen Massey which give us an insight into gender relations and also how they are influenced by space and place. The intricacies of gender relations are shaped by real-world geographies as well as the cultural specificity of definitions of gender. She further argues:

Geography matters to the construction of gender, and the fact of geographical variation in gender relations, for instance, is a significant element in the production and reproduction of both imaginative geographies and uneven development. 21

This argument implies that conceptualisation of space anywhere needs to account for the construction of gender relations of that place. The definition of masculinity is not the same in the Netherlands as it is in India. This geographical variation, which is in-fact socially constructed needs to be analysed to question the traditional norms of a space that is usually underlined by what is ‘natural’ to men and women. Identifying this layer is key to understanding the different contexts and developing systematic interventions.

22. Roberts, M. (1998). Urban design, gender and the future of cities, Journal of Urban Design, 3:2, 133-135

23. Soria, L. (2019). Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls Global Flagship Initiative: International compendium of practices. Retrieved from en/digital-library/publications/2019/01/safecities-and-safe-public-spaces-internationalcompendium-of-practices#view.

24. ActionAid International. (2013). Women and the City II: Combating violence against women and girls in urban public spaces: The role of public services. Johannesburg: ActionAid International.


Gender violence is also an important catalyst for relooking at public space design and most urban planners are finally trying to address this issue. As predicted by Marion Roberts, these findings have had a significant impact on public policy, to the extent that making the streets safer has become an important component. 22

Succesful Intervations

The UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Initiative has collaborated with multiple cities across the developing nations to formulate a framework that invests in safety and economic viability of public spaces. 23

Torreon, Mexico: Mobility regulation helps to address women’s safety

As a part of the initiative, the local authorities analysed ten municipal ordinances concerning safe public transportation by looking across sectors: urban planning, policing, public safety, mobility, and public transport amongst others. Based on this mapping a series of recommendations were made to improve the quality of public spaces like the areas between the public transport amenities and residential streets. Improving the quality of infrastructure and the creation of safe routes will also be implemented as a part of the holistic approach.

Guatemala City, Guatemala: Designing inclusive interventions with diverse communities

Data collection is an important tool in identifying problems of an area and providing solutions, however, it fails to accommodate gender and cultural sensitivity. This research is based on inclusion and representation of experiences of all women and girls, including women who may be at a higher risk of violence due to their intersecting identities.

This approach does not look at urban planning as a gender-neutral discipline, rather creating ‘safe spaces’ with groups of women that are subject to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, elevating their voice and supporting their inclusion throughout all stages of the initiative. 24 This is fundamental in implementing the leave no one behind the agenda of sustainable development goals. This reinforces their claim over the public spaces and legitimises them as important users.

25. Mahadevia, 2019

26. Moser, C. O. N. (1994). Gender planning and development: theory, practice and training. London: Routledge.

27. Roberts, M. (1998). Urban design, gender and the future of cities, Journal of Urban Design, 3:2, 133-135

28. Mahadevia, 2019

29. Ibid.

30. Dhar, S. (2013). Mixed city spaces are safe city spaces. New Delhi: Women’s Feature Service. Fainstein, S. S. (2011). The just city. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

31. Jacobs, J. (1992). The death and life of great American cities. New York: Vintage Books.

32. Jagori. (2010). Understanding women safety: Towards a gender inclusive city. Delhi: Jagori.

33. Dhar, S. (2013). Mixed city spaces are safe city spaces. New Delhi: Women’s Feature Service. Fainstein, S. S. (2011). The just city. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

34. UNHABITAT, Department of Women and Child Develop- ment, Government of NCT of Delhi, Jagori, & UN Women. (2010). A draft strategic framework for women’s safety in Delhi, 2010. New Delhi: Jagori.

Visions for the future

This paper is mainly looking at the Indian context, aware of the rich and continuously advancing voice and position of women in its course of development. The efforts to mainstream the existence and comfort of women in public spaces need to be appealed to the ethos of the society. The issue has to be supported by large scale policy changes, strengthening legal actions and changing the socio-cultural norms of society through education and awareness. 25 Better surveillance in the city, patrolling of police in the streets after dark, closed-circuit television make up the formal forms of protection for women. But these are often considered intrusions of personal space. And these forms of interventions are very important but are always dependent on women being in the right place at the right time.

We are focusing on the strategies for urban planning and built environment. Borrowing from Moser 26, gender-sensitive planning and development are essential. This approach, based on the Indian context, results in multiscale interventions.

Infrastructural Intervetions

Land use strategies such as mixed land use, so that there are no parts of the city are deserted at any time of the day. 27 As women enter the workforce, the need to work longer hours and travel after dark adds to the anxiety and perception of fear. The metropolitan cities are slowly reaching the point of the ‘city never sleeps’. By rezoning the busy areas around the cities in such a way that the connections are lit up at night, we can reduce the risk of assault for women.

Public transport strategies such as the provision of frequent and well connected public transport as well as a station and stops that are safe at all times of the day. 28 The metro stations, railway stations are usually functioning throughout the night. However, the parking lots, the transition areas between public and private are usually not very safe for women. Better infrastructural connections are required to influence women’s perception of safety.

Designing public spaces that feel safe. 29 Women feel vulnerable in places that have poor infrastructure like abandoned buildings and areas of visual and hearing isolation. Dhar 30 states that women feel safer with ‘eyes on the street’, a concept explored by Jane Jacobs 31 in the context of American neighbourhood planning. Having familiar street vendors, rickshaw walas, presence of other women, families can help change the characteristics of a public space drastically. 32

Visibility is an important aspect of women’s safety. Women tend to take longer routes to avoid dark, poorly lit alleys and deserted streets. 33 Urban spaces are used differently during the day and after dark. The familiar walk from the bus stop to home feels very risky after it turns dark. Oversight in public spaces is another essential tool in ensuring safety.

“Together for women’s safety” 34 articulates the three major concerns of women in public spaces very well: to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, and to get away and get help. Women tend to prefer being in familiar spaces where they can make a quick getaway when in danger.

These are some local-level interventions that can change the characteristics of public spaces to make them more inclusive, diverse and sensitive to women’s needs. Once the perception of public spaces being unsafe can be changed, women can find more ways to claim it for themselves as well.

35. Fainstein, S. S. (2011). The just city. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

36. Roberts, M. (1998). Urban design, gender and the future of cities, Journal of Urban Design, 3:2, 133-135


Urban spaces are fundamentally heterogeneous in nature. Just urban spaces represent people of various classes, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and lifestyles. 35 However, in reality, this doesn’t paint a true picture. Unequal access to public space is an indicator of bad social quality of life. The limitation of women’s mobility and identity in the public spaces of the developing nations poses greater problems to the economy, gender relations and quality of urban spaces.

Gender mainstreaming in the discipline of urban policy has come to the forefront only in recent years. The literature available on this issue is predominantly based on urban north where the factors influencing the interdependencies are different from those of the urban south. So it is important to adapt the studies accordingly to the widely diverse urban conditions and provide suitable solutions.

With the increase in the debates regarding the future of the urban cities, it is very important to include gender relations, equal opportunities to diversify the public realm. 36

Women in India have accepted that harassment is a part of the way they experience the public spaces and this reality limits their associations with the public realm. By being very conscious of this divide in the current research and future design interventions, we can ensure spatial justice for women and legitimize their position as users of public space.