Planning Cities as if Women Matter

As in other parts of the world, India’s urban population is registering an inexorable rise. Saugata Roy, the minister of state for urban development, plotted this graph in Parliament recently. The number of urban Indians, he said, is projected to increase from 286 million in 2001, to 320 million in 2011 and 530 million by 2021. This means that the nature of the country’s towns and cities, and the way they grow, will be crucial in determining the future well-being and ways of life of a little less than half the country’s population in the near future. 

For women specifically – who constitute half the urban population – the nature of the urban environment is of even greater concern since it involves their personal safety and mobility. A recent study, ‘Safe City Free of Violence Against Women and Girls’ – a joint action research initiative by Jagori, UNIFEM, UN Habitat along with the Delhi government – underlined the omnipresent and persistent nature of the threat. It revealed that women in the Capital face all kinds of harassment at all times in all manner of public urban spaces. While Delhi was the focus of this particular study and is arguably India’s most dangerous metro for women, no Indian city or town can claim to be free of such crime. 

“Attacks on women in public spaces point to the serious gender inequalities and biases marking the use and design of our cities,” remarks A.G.K. Menon, architect and convenor of the Delhi Chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage). INTACH is a non-profit organisation involved in protecting and conserving India’s vast natural, built and cultural heritage. 

One woman who is working to change the scenario is Romi Roy, Senior Urban Designer and Planner. She is currently a senior consultant at Unified Traffic & Transportation Infrastructure (Planning and Engineering) Centre (UTTIPEC), Delhi Development Authority. Roy feels Mumbai and Kolkata are much safer than Delhi, “For me as a designer, what strikes me about a city like Delhi – and this is precisely what makes it unsafe for women – is the fact that it has been designed in a very American way. That is to say that everything is oriented to accommodate the car.” 

Cities need to cater to the rights of everyone living in it. Shipra Narang Suri, a Delhi-based urban planner, observes, “Different people have different needs. The poor are routinely overlooked by city planners, although they constitute the majority of a city’s residents. We also need to remember that 50 per cent of city-dwellers are women, many of them moving for work or leisure, using public amenities and transport.” 

But Indian cities, according to Gautam Bhatia, well-known architect and the author of several books, including ‘Punjabi Baroque and Other Memories Of Architecture’, seem to lack a larger vision. “Tragically, developers have come to define urban lifestyles in India today,” states Bhatia.

Given that planning for cities in India has been generally blind to the needs of the people who live in them, especially women, what can we do to change the scenario? Menon believes the times demand out-of-the-box thinking. “Today, the realisation is growing that a city’s architecture is man-made and that we need to stop seeing the world as an environment for the adult male. The time has come in urban India to retrofit our urban spaces to conform to the principles of equity,” he says.

One of the ways to do this is to encourage mixed use of urban land, so that the spread-out, low density, unsafe areas are eliminated and the non-sexist cities of ordinary people can emerge. “Our zoning regulations ensure to keep people apart. We create our own city blocks, so that where one shops is very far from where one lives. We don’t plan keeping these factors in mind, we don’t plan keeping Indian conditions in mind,” rues Bhatia. 

Roy points out how after dark no part of Lutyens’ Delhi is safe for women, although in the crowded areas of the Old City things are far more secure, “Any area that caters only for single use and which has big boundary walls makes you feel totally unsafe.”  

She also talks about how most of Delhi’s shopping areas – even the new malls – don’t rise from the streets like they do in many European cities. Says Roy, “In cities where you have shops rising from the footpath or pavement, you have a feeling of safety because you feel there is activity on the edge. Delhi’s shopping areas are designed with the presumption that people will be driven to the shopping area. In actual fact, of course, only 15 per cent of Delhi’s population drive vehicles, 85 per cent of people walk. In fact, when foot activity increases, so does safety.”  

There are a lot of guidelines on how a city can be made safer. According to Roy, one of the most basic and fundamental principles, is to ensure eyes on the street. “But this can only happen if you have mixed use of land, when all city activity is interlinked in some manner,” says Roy.

It is an argument that Suri concurs with, “The safest parks are those which involves activities in which the whole neighbourhood is involved in, which have swings, walking paths, areas for games. Those beautifully landscaped green areas which no one visits can soon deteriorate into becoming sites of criminal activity.”  

A feeling of security is also linked with something as basic as locating civic amenities. One of the issues that emerged very strongly in the Jagori study was that women felt insecure when men’s toilets opened straight on to street. They also felt safer when there was commercial activity on the street. Menon, who is advising the Delhi government on how to plan the area around the new 28-storey Civic Centre that has come up in the heart of the Capital, points out that the Jagori study suggested that women felt much safer in areas where there was commercial activity, “So one of the suggestions we made as to the Delhi authorities was to have more kiosks in areas where people wait for their transportation, for instance, in order to ensure ‘eyes on the street’,” says Menon.

The problem, according to Menon, is that it is difficult to change the mindsets of officialdom. City administrators typically dislike kiosks and vendors because they feel they create chaos and dirt. Safety of women is not really a priority for them. As Menon puts it, “They don’t realise the import of what we are trying to say: That a city’s design can play an important role in creating a safe working and living environment.”  

For far too long, women have had to accommodate themselves to the dangers that confront them when they go out of their homes. They have had to constantly restrict themselves: They hunch in a public bus or avoid walking on a narrow pavement for fear of being groped. They are always having to think of the safety implications of where they go and what they wear. “We need to democratise public space and for this safety has to become a priority for both opinion makers, politicians and ordinary citizens,” reasons Suri.

The battle for safe public spaces has a long history. It was in the early seventies that the slogan “Women Unite, Take Back The Night” first reverberated on the streets of Los Angeles and New York (USA). These words continue to be relevant in India today. But women need to take back not just the night, but the day as well – going by the number of daylight attacks. And it is not a women’s issue alone. Security for women translates into security for everyone in the city.    


More by :  Pamela Philipose

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