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Feminism

Street harassment and feminist cities

Are cities built for women?

In the past few years, we have been talking much more about street harassment. Because of many new cases and women’s saying enough is enough, we learnt what street harassment was and that we should not be flattered by random catcalling. And although we have realized what it is, we are still not quite sure how to deal with street harassment.

When we speak about street harassment, we tend to think about the two or more people that were involved, a victim and aggressor. We also tend to look for the accountable ones and find them in the way our society works, lack of sexual education, etc.

However, what about the way the streets and cities are thought and organized? Does architecture influence the way women feel on streets? I wondered, is it possible to build cities that will be gender friendly, that will allow women to feel safe and eradicate street harassment? Can urbanization and architecture be a part of systematic changes for our safety?

how to deal with street harassment

Omnipresent patriarchy

When you think about the system we live in, the main problem is that patriarchy is implemented in absolutely everything. History is written about men – his story, women are not much included. Contraceptive pill, that can have serious side effects, is thought for women, even though men are fertile… well, every day, unlike women. That is also what happened with cities and the way they were constructed.

We, humans, naturally, without thinking any further, create things that will suit us. Women for their needs, men for theirs.

The building industry is predominantly occupied by men. If there are mainly men in the designing of cities, it is normal that they will make cities respond their demands and necessities. That is why, once again, there should be more women working in every single field.

In order to figure out if there is a solution to this problem, I sought out for help. I came across very interesting statistics and a BBC documentary How to build a city for women.

sexual assault

Most of the half of the world population lives in cities

Urban places have become very important in our cultures. People go to cities to seek work, to get education, expand their horizons, meet new friends, look for life partners, explore. But did you know that more than the half of the world population lives in cities today? 3 million people are moving to cities every single week!

By 2050 we will have 70% of people on Earth living in cities. And by the end of the century, 90% of global population will live in the urban areas.

This being said, we will have to expand existing cities. Many small ones will become big. Planning will be the key for the functional urban spaces. We have the resources and the technology, the knowledge of professionals, so that cities are finally thought for the people that use them today. Not the ones that used them centuries ago.

We will need to be more intelligent when planning urban spaces and we have to, just HAVE TO, include women in this planning. Because here is the thing, that might sound shocking. Streets are equally used by men and women. Oh, maybe even more by women which we will talk more closely about.

The decisions that we make about the inclusivity of our public spaces right now will affect the quality of life of most people on the planet by the end of this century.

Ellie Cosgrave says in her Ted talk

The way we think about cities is outdated

And here is another problem. Cities have been thought and constructed long time ago, mainly when a huge industrialization took place and when mainly men worked. Spaces were clearly separated, factories were on one end of the city, workers’ houses on the other. How we move around the city, where the important facilities and institutions are, was thought in relation to the premises of our work. The infrastructure, the roads, the position of certain buildings, all of that is still in many cities thought based on one big city’s factory, where traditionally predominantly men are working.

However, today women work much more. They fought for that right during the Second wave of feminism. Many still work part time and as we know, the majority is in charge of the household and children’s education. Therefore, most of women’s work is in their house, around it, close to it. Children’s schools are very often close. This could make us think that the proximity of things that women use could make them feel safer. However, the statistics show that most of women experience sexual harassment close to their house.

Street harassment close to home

Studies show that 60% of outdoor rapes happen within 2km from victims’ residence and more than half of cases happen within 1 km. Vania Ceccato, a professor at Housing and Safety Research Group at Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden, says in her Ted Talk that how we put windows and stairs in public places can be crucial to the safety of women. Both give certain visibility and will make the aggressor think twice before the sexual violence on the streets. Also, organizing outdoor activities, happenings on the streets for all habitants could leave us a perception that the place is safe. Public places, where there is a lot going on, are generally safer. Not always, and they do not guarantee a complete absence of street harassment, but women do tend to feel safer if there are more people around. On top of that, public activities are also an occasion for many more women to leave their homes, gather on the streets and simply, by their presence, claim the space that is also theirs.

street harassment near home

Elderly

There is also another population that we need to take into consideration: the retired and elderly. The way we thought cities was not at all adapted to an older population, simply because life expectancy was not that long as it is today. We live much longer in the XXI century. And on top of that, statistics show that women live longer than men and they are more independent than men when they are older. The reason why they need certain facilities within the city that will make their life easier and also that would keep them for a longer period of time independent.

Do we use public space differently?

How to deal with street harassment? Firstly, by thinking about the public space, what it is, how we can construct and organize it differently, so that it fits the needs of everyone that uses it. Public spaces are parks, public transportation, public bathrooms, playgrounds, corners, spaces in front of stores where sometimes people tend to gather, streets. But how are they gender colored?

Transportation

Women predominantly use public transportation, men tend to use rather a car. Which tells us also that women’s habits are eco-friendlier, which in a way, without their open consciousness about it, makes them ecofeminists.

Now that we know that women use much more public transportation, can’t we do something more about their safety? We know that a lot of street harassment happens in buses, bus stops, metro.

In addition, people, and mainly women spend much more money on taxis because of its safety. This means that the infrastructure of cities fails to give us, citizens, what we need. Safety in the first place. Even though there have been also sexual harassments in taxis, women still tend to feel safer this way than by waiting for a bus on the street in the middle of the night.

’The women should not have to choose between moving freely and the right to feel safe.

Vania Ceccato

danger in public transportation for women

Cycling

Cycling is predominantly male activity in most parts of the world. A study shows that in London and San Francisco about 70% of the people that cycle are men. But that is not the case everywhere. Statistics show us that there are mostly women cycling in Denmark. This shows us that women are interested in cycling, but their questions in concerns to the safety need to be answered. Also, we need to stop showing sports as something that is for men.

Parks

Women are less likely to sit with no purpose on a bench, simply resting in a public space without a specific reason. Because they believe that they might experience easier sexual assault and street harassment.

In Vienna, Austria, the city’s authorities observed who used the public parks. They came to a very interesting conclusion. After the age of 9 girls go to parks much less. Their solution was to create segregated areas for different activities. After separating clearly spaces, putting different activities that might interest girls and on the other side boys, they had many more girls going to parks.

It reminded me of a metro in Mexico where you have separate subway parts reserved only for women.

But this idea seems off to me. By separating the spaces like that, aren’t we creating an even larger gap between sexes by emphasizing that boys and girls like different activities and that they cannot play together? By this, we are actually imposing a belief that certain things ARE and ARE NOT for boys and girls.

I guess it depends on the type of activities proposed in parks. If those are not within the well-known stereotypes around gender, then I guess that the idea is not so bad. However, I do not see how you can separate spaces and activities by gender and not be within prejudice…

This could be a solution if more girls and women started using and enjoying the space that they are equally entitled to. However, this ‘’trick’’ should not be taken as a final solution for bringing back girls to parks and public spaces, but rather as a tool among others that will allow gender equality.

We need to learn how to live together, not separately.

safety for women

Public toilets

We, women, go to bathroom more often, not only because our bladder is small, but also because of the menstruation and changing menstrual pads. Women use toilets 3 times more on an average than men. Shouldn’t this mean that there should be many more toilets for women?

In a previously mentioned BBC documentary, the journalist speaks to few different feminist organizations from Barcelona that think about the public space. They notice that women cannot use the public toilet with a baby, for example.

The same group has visited the police station in Barcelona and saw that there are more locker rooms for men than for women. They explained in the police station that was because there were more men in the police force. When going to a company that is predominantly female, there are no more toilets for women. Or anywhere, really.

His story, not our history

Cities are filled with images that celebrate achievements of men. Statues, names of the streets, names on buildings make us believe that women did nothing throughout hisotry. There has been a study that showed that 7 biggest cities in the world have only 27,5% of their streets named by a woman.

A city that is pushing a feminist politics is Barcelona. With their last female mayor, Ada Colau, their main goal is to put gender equality in the middle of all policies. One of the first things she did, was to change the names of the streets. Now half of the streets in Barcelona are named by women, but she wants to push this further and make it 60%.

When she is asked for the BBC documentary if she thinks that women do politics differently, Ada Colau said:

I don’t think we are naturally different, I think it’s a cultural construct, but the reality is that we have a different experience. And we have to bring this experience to improve politics, ‘’feminizing politics’’.

how to avoid street harassment

Street harassment must end

So, how can we end street harassment? By thinking differently our cities. Obviously that will not be enough, many other aspects of our lives need to be included in the fight for gender equality. But how we think our space also plays a very important role. Cities are getting bigger and we will be forced to expand them, why not plan in advance, include more women in that planning and organize them more intelligently so that they respond the needs of everyone.

Architects cannot influence the domestic violence, but they certainly can the sexual harassment on the streets with projects well thought that include women.

Thinking space for women is actually thinking space for our children and for the future generations. Because, it is not only up to women to bring up their children, it takes the whole village. That is why cities need to be designed in a way that everyone has enough space to fulfill their need and feel safe at the same time.

feminist cities

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