Sex, gender, and sexuality exist in a non-binary spectrum, a continuum of expressions and identities. Image by Molly Coulter, a graduate landscape architect at OCULUS and AILA Fresh Co-Chair.

Beyond female reproductive health, Western medicine has traditionally recognised the male body as the universal model for anatomical studies. Until relatively recently for clinical trials, “medication doses [were] typically adjusted for patient size with women considered 'small men'”. Despite women, girls, and sexual and gender diverse people making up over 50% of the world’s population, it seems Western planning, like medicine, has had a similarly blinkered view of men as the locus for the universal model [1].

Goal Number 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls, and the UN Special Rapporteur, Karima Bennoune, acknowledges public spaces play a critical role in the enjoyment of human rights. So, if we are to meaningfully contribute to this goal, then we must collectively challenge the tradition of Western city planning, which, according to Inés Sánchez de Madariaga, relies on a division between industry and domestic work, the “productive and reproductive spheres" - the workplace and the home - two independent domains that must remain spatially separate, where men sacrificed family life and women professional life [2].

A continuum

Sex, gender, and sexuality exist in a non-binary spectrum, a continuum of expressions and identities. Rather than holding a place between two oppositional points along a linear scale, there is instead the capacity to exist on multiple points that may change over time. Gender in the context of this discussion emphasises social rather than biological differences [3]. Gender equality is when people of all genders have equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities. While gender inequality impacts people of all ages and backgrounds looking at the person specifically, not typically, is paramount because people experience public spaces differently based on their gender, sex and sexuality and in an intersectional way through overlapping identities of age, race, culture, gender, location and religion which in turn can increase inequity, vulnerability and discrimination [4]. Therefore, averaging in the context of how we design the city is unhelpful. The median and the mode seek to centre, to normalise and to typify representations of a group. To get meaningful results from averaging those groups would require them to be linked or related to each other in some way, which often they are not. The 'meanness' of the mean is that it negates diversity, the presence of exceptions to the typical, creating over-simplifications and rationalisations that make averages unreliable [5].

Designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, “Swing Time” delivered the kind of fun, physical outdoor experience with room for face-to-face conversation that many teen girls are looking for.

Tools and methods - what's in a word?

Knowledge is inextricably linked to language which is always an exercise in power, particularly regarding gender where individual-determination is key. So it is critical to understand key social concepts or social development concepts when engaging in gender sensitive design, as well as understanding who we are designing with and for.

Gender mainstreaming

In July 1997, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) defined the concept of gender mainstreaming as the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in any area and at all levels. It is a strategy for making the concerns and experiences of women, as well as of men, an integral part of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres. The goal of gender mainstreaming is to achieve gender equality so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated [6].

Gender sensitivity

Gender sensitivity focuses on outcome transferability - translating awareness and insight into action. The approach acknowledges the importance and specificity of the site and the groups’ needs. The needs of men and women are different, as are their different life realities and life phases. Needs can include both services and amenities; public space can be measured by its usefulness to humans (and for the more than human). That value is then further increased for people who spend a lot of time in immediate or close vicinity of their home.

Gender inclusivity

Gender inclusive design is not for but with women, girls and sexual and gender diverse people. The World Bank Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design describes a gender-inclusive approach as:

  • Participatory - including voices of women, girls, and sexual and gender communities
  • Integrated - holistic, centred on gender throughout, promoting citizen-city relationship building
  • Universal - including all ages and abilities, knowledge building, seeking out, sharing, robust meaningful new data on gender equity
  • Power building - growing the capacity and influence of under-represented groups in key decisions
  • Invested in - committing the necessary finances and expertise to follow through on intentional gender equity goals.

Who are we designing with?

At any one time we might be designing with and for local residents, visitors, tourists, marginalised people, children, adolescents, young adults, middle aged persons or the elderly. Supporting and enabling their trips for work, education, shopping, leisure, excursions and visits. The City of Vienna has for many years researched and applied gender planning and correlates the use of public space with the relationship between gender/mobility specific differences and age. They identified that the very young and elderly are more locally orientated, with an intensification of gender specific differences in the 6-12 years age category. They also identified an increased activity radius for the 13-17 years age category, with fear of harassment and sexual assault leading to this subgroup withdrawing from public space [7].

Tools and methods - all scales matter

For the successful implementation of gender-sensitive planning and design, all scales matter. Gender sensitive design must not be limited to detailed designs. Instead the gender lens can, and must, be applied to regional/metropolitan development plans, urban design and master planning, mobility and transport plans, site-planning, neighbourhood upgrades and small-scale adaptations, public space planning and city climate action plans and disaster risk management plans [7].

For the successful implementation of gender-sensitive planning and design, all scales matter. Image by Molly Coulter, a graduate landscape architect at OCULUS and AILA Fresh Co-Chair.

Proximity, mobility and speed

Central to gender sensitive urban design is consideration of the distance between places where activities are carried out. Women, for example, are more likely to chain together trips (grouping activities into one trip instead of returning home in between), as well as making more trips and shorter trips, and in a more limited geographical area, typically in closer proximity to home. Covering these distances in shorter times, and in an affordable manner, is therefore critical [2]. The much-lauded compact, multi-functional city, with a decentralised distribution of facilities, not only reduces traffic volumes and unnecessary car journeys but, with the right mix of density can support efficient combinations of paid work, family chores, caregiving, shopping, and service use, and can take less time to navigate.

The City of Vienna’s Manual for Gender Mainstreaming in Urban Planning and Urban Development identifies design opportunities that we can all collectively aim to prioritise:

  • Local centres with easy access to shops and services, combining social infrastructure healthcare, education, culture, sports leisure facilities, nursing homes, kindergartens and schools, with high quality public space for everyday appropriation and utilisation.
  • Pedestrian and cycle access to local centres, public space and public transport should be equitable, via tight-knit routes, along continuous green network of streets designed as places to spend time in, not just move through, with diverse exercise and movement options, places of encounter, pleasant lingering, and communication, incorporating benches, toilets, and bike parking.
  • Streets should be barrier free with adequate widths and allowances for different walking speeds, enabling diverse user groups to enjoy the city, facilitating the lives of persons with caregiving and family tasks (carrying shopping bags, pushing prams, accompanying other people).
  • Developments should provide places for social interaction that help to generate strong neighbourhood attachment like walkable safe streets, playgrounds or common courtyard spaces that can be shared by residents of a small number of dwellings, or by residents on a single apartment floor, or by residents in a whole building or development. Contact between the home and opportunities to view open/green public spaces should be supported by appropriate building heights and visual links to ensure children can stay and play outdoors.

At any one time we might be designing with and for local-residents, visitors, tourists, marginalised people, children, adolescents, young adults, middle aged persons or the elderly. Image by Molly Coulter, a graduate landscape architect at OCULUS and AILA Fresh Co-Chair.

The safe city

Safety in public space is a key priority for gender-sensitive design because the perception of safety is inextricably linked to use, mobility and participation. Scientific studies in Vienna found that girls can withdraw entirely from parks and public open spaces starting as early as age 10 to 13 because of stressful situations or harassment [7]. Safety in public space and the perception of safety facilitate social behaviour that improves people’s experiences and perceptions of safety in public spaces which “can increase willingness to fully participate in community life and their perceptions of public spaces”. Designing in the perception of safety is critical to prevent a withdrawal from the activities of public life whether schools, jobs, recreation or health care [4].

Safety and security are a central concern and combine physical attributes (visibility and spatial organisation), social attributes (presence of different user groups), and personal factors (personal experience), including the subjective feeling of the perception of safety in public space - seeing and being seen. Designs should seek to avoid anxiety inducing experiences by emphasising street orientation, free movement, visibility (no blind spots/corners, dead facades), provide effective guidance and signage, efficient illumination of streets and footpaths (note that CCTV can make people more apprehensive, similarly very bright over lit spaces do not correlate with young women’s perceptions of urban safety). Places of communication like face-to-face outdoor dining, spaces for strollers and prams, safe spaces for breastfeeding, more inclusive play opportunities and places for noisy and exuberant behaviour should be provided. Places of undisturbed or girls only retreat spaces, calm zones for socialisation, should be provided as well as programs to make more traditionally male-dominated spaces like skate parks more accessible [4].

Engage, empower and elevate

Outlined below are some methodologies, activities, and good practices for incorporating and elevating the voices of women, girls, and sexual and gender diverse communities through participatory planning and design processes [1] [2]. Engagement should of course always be tailored from place to place, community to community, and over an individual’s life course, with specific effort made to seek out the voices of diverse and marginalised women and gender diverse communities. The timing of workshops should be carefully considered as well as opportunities to create networks between individuals/and their representative groups through the process.

Gender sensitisation

Promoting buy-in

Walk audit (data gathering)

Day in the life

Public space gender auditing

Digital mapping platforms

Challenge and Solution

Design Your Own

An evidence-based design approach - the feedback loop

Structural and systemic gendered inequalities are at the heart of gender equity. If we are to transform our cities from mean to meaningful, our gender sensitive design approaches must be part of a cyclical process of awareness-raising, planning and design, implementation, and evaluation. Ongoing evaluation of GSUD policies and programs works to expand the evidence base informing methodological innovations and evolutions through the development of new tools and methods including development and planning mandates, incentives and prohibitions, appropriate gender budgeting, and equitable resource distribution. By prioritising lived experience participation, addressing underrepresentation in decision-making processes, and challenging the professions (structures) many of us are part of, we can dismantle patriarchal planning once and for all.

Claire Martin

Claire is a landscape architect and Associate Director of OCULUS’ Melbourne studio where she has led the successful delivery of a range of education, health, cultural, infrastructure and public landscape projects. Claire is passionate about design advocacy, education and communication and is a Fellow and National President of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects. OCULUS has commenced a collaboration with PLACE Laboratory, Communication Link and Place Inhabit, on the development of Gender-Sensitive Urban Design Guidelines and an Implementation Toolkit for the ACT Government