Collaborative Cities

Cities don’t need to feel devoid of empathy. Crowd’s Olivia Anderson explores how safe and inclusive urban spaces begin with building for women

Urban mobility specialist Mónica Araya was recharging her electric car in a remote part of Norway when she had a thought: she wouldn’t have felt safe there without her husband. But while much thinking about the female experience of cities is rooted in functional-spatial concerns around safety, she acknowledged it can be taken so much further. 

“We will find that in the next 10-20 years more women will be running cities, which leads me to think; will this look macho or female and will it feel and look like a city that has new elements coming from women?

Mónica Araya 

While streetlights and street-facing windows can mitigate the problem of women’s safety, they aren’t completely solving it. We can consider what happens when you take values traditionally associated with femininity – kindness, sensitivity, co-operation – and use them to shape a city. How embedding a different value system could be the catalyst for impactful cultural shifts. And how to plan a city through the prism of the female experience can make space for values like inclusivity and empathy.

For example, cities can take into account a more modular mode of living with decentralised hubs and flexible, multi-functional spaces that make it easier for women to access all parts of the city. In 2020, mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo led on this with her hyper-local vision for the 15-minute city: urban planning so that people live, work and have access to all the services they need — whether that’s shops, schools, theatres or medical care — within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. 

The drive to prioritise accessibility in urban design can also be seen in the creation of inclusive spaces; Geneva uses female figures in road signs, and Vienna features LGBT couples in traffic lights. These simple acts legitimise the presence of women, and other marginalised groups. And here we see how attitudinal shifts can often follow these concrete planning initiatives – in this case, tolerance.

Meanwhile, ensuring diverse representation in urban planning at the different stages of development is a way to also avoid oversights that make cities inaccessible for women; for example, planners in Barcelona identified that the public restrooms couldn’t accommodate prams. In Amsterdam, there was a public outcry around the lack of sanitary facilities for women. Conversely, Edmonton in Canada supplies free period products in every public restroom. This kind of provision has the power to drive inclusion. 

Most persuasive for a collaborative city is knowing that if you get gender right, it can build empathy and emotional intelligence into the DNA of a city – making space for those to whom cities have historically been inhospitable. Improvements like more rest areas for people with disabilities, or better lighting, and facilitating access to all the things a city has to offer signifies that the city is for everyone. 

The social implications of empathic infrastructure have the potential to be far-reaching and to effect a more equitable urban environment. After all, our spaces define us as much as we define them. 

To read more about spotlighting safety measures for women our City Limits: Solutions here.