Safe cities for women: What we can learn from Vienna

Gender mainstreaming of public space and urban planning has made Vienna's open spaces and public transit systems more accessible to women

Kavitha Iyer September 23, 2013 15:18:40 IST
Safe cities for women: What we can learn from Vienna

It was planner and architectural designer Jeff Speck who pointed out in an interview last year that whether it's Friends, Sex And The City or Seinfield, these shows' "car-less" characters give viewers the chance to see what he called a walkable city.

Speck is author of WalkableCity: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time. While Speck's focus was purely on walking as a proactive choice that has a symbiotic relationship with sustainable urban planing, the last few years have seen an increasing number of professionals in architecture, urban planning and amenities development to look at safe and sustainable interventions to urban environments.

Safe cities for women What we can learn from Vienna

Women demand safety in public spaces during a protest in Delhi. AP

It was on similar lines, and perhaps even more relevant to us in India, that the city administration of Vienna, back in 1999, began a gender mainstreaming of the city. It all started with a survey asking residents about their use of public transport.

The women’s responses were hugely revealing, says this article in The Atlantic.

Women were using the network of sidewalks, bus routes, subway lines and streetcars more frequently, making more trips on foot, splitting time between work and family commitments requiring more use of public space and public transit.

“Additional lighting was added to make walking at night safer for women. Sidewalks were widened so pedestrians could navigate narrow streets. And a massive staircase with a ramp running through the middle was installed near a major intersection to make crossing easier for people with strollers and individuals using a walker or a wheelchair,” the article says.

Over a decade after the initiative began, the results are better and more equitable access for men and women to the city’s resources, not even including the gender mainstreaming efforts in other facets of city administration such as education and healthcare.

Over 60 urban planning projects were carried out to gender mainstream public space.

“As the size and scale of these projects increase, gender mainstreaming has become a force that is literally reshaping the city,” according to The Atlantic.

These projects include a Women-Work-City, a township designed by and for women, with houses surrounded by courtyards, an on-site nursery school, doctor’s clinic and with easy access to public transit routes. Another project was to make parks more accessible to girls, by simply adding footpaths, landscaping to divide open areas into semi-enclosed pockets where different groups could use the park without conflict.

Mumbai and Delhi, and indeed other metros in India, could do with some gender mainstreaming in public spaces. One survey, by NGO Akshara, found recently that women in Mumbai feel unsafe in all public spaces -- railway platforms, subways, skywalks, inside buses, at bus stops, in the market place, open grounds and even on the beach. According to this report, it was not only social factors but also the physical space that led to fear of violence in the city.

Several other surveys on women in India and including in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai have found public spaces to be unsafe for women.

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