In the past few years, there has been a surge of conferences on cities, planning and urban living in the architecture and building industry. Recently, a talk delivered at one such national conference in Bengaluru, organised by the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), really caught my attention. It was delivered by Neera Adarkar, a practising architect and urban researcher on a topic that has been the centre of focus globally and is gradually entering the Indian city planning discussions—the gendering of public spaces in a city.
‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’—the quote well differentiates between the gender personalities. The reactions and responses of both the genders, whether to routine things or to spaces is different. It is hence true that even the notion of a ‘public space’ is different for both the genders. In which case, one needs to ponder whether the public spaces in India are conducive to both men and women. Or, are these in fact, gendered spaces, where a man’s perspective is labelled as the basis for all planning, giving way to spaces which are then called ‘neutral’?
Times have changed, and safety and security have become bigger issues of concern today. Though they are applicable to both the genders, going by the unfortunate cases that one reads in the newspaper almost daily, it goes without saying that the safety of women is top priority in Indian cities today. Women might be outgoing and breaking the glass ceilings in all fields today, but the truth stands, that for women, everything outside their home is public domain, a fact that I completely agree with Neera.
No one is demanding a space that is completely women-centric, but everyone should root for a space, which is favourable for both the genders. Further, some relevant questions need to be asked—Are all public spaces in our country accessible today? Do they have the proper infrastructure and lighting and visibility which can make it safer for women to step into, once the sun goes down? Do people in our country feel safe to even take a stroll in the parks and garden once it is dark? Can cities by virtue of their intelligent designs (which don’t imply ONLY the use of technology) not contribute to anything in this regard? Where is the implementation of concepts like that of Jane Jacob’s ‘Eyes on the Street’ in our Indian cities today?
Seemingly, this issue of public spaces being gender-biased doesn’t end at parks and gardens only where high walls, lack of surveillance systems (technological or human) are points of concern. They are extended to transport infrastructure which not only need to understand a women’s travel patterns that are more varied than the menfolk but should also take into smaller design details into account. One of the simplest examples that is discussed is how the gap between a train and the platform is a point of consternation for women to board trains. These issues are extended to land-use zoning policies which separate residential areas from employment locations, thus making it unsafe for women to travel from their work place. The need for more mixed-use developments and which are efficiently managed should be the need of the hour.
One of the noteworthy examples of a city that has taken to gender-sensitive urban planning has been Vienna, where since the 1990s city planners have considered making laws and rules that consider both the genders. The city has improved upon public places in terms of its circulation
areas, lighting and access to public transit. There are ‘gender experts’ in the city’s urban planning group who take care of this. Even in places like Canada, Toronto, Germany and Seoul, a lot of importance is attached to gendering of spaces.
I Will Go Out, a nationwide march that was held in India in January this year, highlighted women’s right to safe public spaces. More recently in Detroit too, women have been emphatically voicing their opinions on how quality of life for the female gender can be improved from a planning perspective. While in India, as Neera mentioned, the thought of articulating gendering of spaces came with the National Housing Bank Act in 1987, there has been no rigorous implementation for the same. However, the development plan for Mumbai for 2014-34 which has taken the gendering of spaces for the city planning in consideration, is a ray of light.
The issue of gender-biased planning also connects itself to a very burning issue in architecture and urban planning that is being discussed globally, and that is the decreasing number of women in the architecture and built profession. Until the time we don’t have more number of women in these professions and who can assume leadership roles, what women want, might only stay under the lid.
Text: Ar. Apurva Bose Dutta
Ar. Apurva Bose Dutta is a Bengaluru-based architectural journalist (www.apurvabose.com) and is the Architecture & Design Content Partner at Saint-Gobain India Pvt Limited–Glass Business.