Designing Gender Sensitive Public Spaces

Case Study of Public Spaces in Vienna

Introduction

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a prosperous and sustainable world (United Nations, 2018). UN Women defines gender equality as equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities for women and men (UN WOMEN, 2018). Providing equal access to education, public spaces, health care, decent work, and representation in decision-making processes ensures sustainable development (United Nations, 2018).

Gender-based violence in urban areas can be attributed to factors such as poverty, discrimination, exclusion and lack of gender mainstreaming in urban development leading to public spaces and structures not catering to all genders equally (Jagori, 2015).

Perceptions of gender equality differ between men and women, societies and countries of different developmental status. Globally, many countries have achieved important milestones towards gender parity, however developing countries like India still face women safety as the basic issue in gender equality. We have previously looked into gender mainstreaming in housing sector and women safety audits in India. This article talks about the importance of gender equality in planning and design of public spaces. The article focuses on case studies from Vienna describing the implementation of gender sensitive practises in their public spaces.

Gender equality in public spaces

Public spaces enable women, girls, elderly and other marginalised groups (transgenders, migrants, etc.) to participate in public life (UCLG, 2016). Though they are meant for everyone to use regardless of their gender or age, women use public parks and streets lesser than men (Harth, 2018). In India it is noticed that women tend to limit their participation in public sphere to day time in markets or parks in urban areas (Shukla, 2017). Reported cases of physical and psychological harassment in parks, streets and public transports have raised the levels of fear or vulnerability among them (Phadke, 2012). Studies show that women prefer active public spaces with characteristics of safer perimeter, cleanliness and safety (Gholamhosseini et al., 2018). They perceive lack of proper lighting, deserted roads, absence of street vendors and stores as unsafe situations. Public spaces that ensures comfort, accessibility and safety through features like clean toilets, proper lighting, etc. are preferred by women, elders and children (PUKAR, 2011).

Gender equality in public spaces can be achieved by accommodating features that improve women’s safety (UNIFEM, 2010). Planning and designing should put special focus on (UCLG, 2016; UNIFEM, 2010):

  • Proper lighting
  • Landscaping
  • Visibility
  • Clean toilets
  • Motorized and Pedestrian traffic
  • Signages
  • Security personnel
  • Proximity to other public spaces and emergency services
  • Access to public transportation
  • Mixed-land use
  • Women’s participation in decision making

Case study – Gender Equality in Public Spaces of Vienna

Vienna, the capital city of Austria functions as its economic, cultural and political centre. It has been focusing on gender mainstreaming while designing its public spaces, housing, mobility and infrastructure since 1990. The gender mainstreaming concept is being incorporated mainly in the design of streetscapes, public squares and public parks (Damyanovic, Reinwald and Weikmann, 2013).

Gender-sensitive public parks design: re-design of Einsiedler Park and St. Johann Park

A need to redesign Einsiedler Park and St. Johann Park was perceived by the City of Vienna when girls aged between 10 and 12 were found using parks lesser. By focusing on their interests, gender sensitive solutions were implemented to make them feel safer and better in these spaces (UCLG, 2016). The main objectives of the project were to (Policytransfer.metropolis.org, 2018):

  • motivate girls and young women to use the parks more often
  • improve safety perception in the parks
  • improve elements to attract elderly and parents with little children, and
  • have intense professional exchange of ideas during the planning phase.

The city of Vienna selected the design proposals of Tilia planning office and Koselika planning office for Einsiedler Park and St. Johann Park respectively through a design challenge. By 2001, detailed planning for re-structuring and re-designing the parks was done and renovation works were completed (Policytransfer.metropolis.org, 2018).

Image 1: Paved path, clear visibility and seating in Einsiedler Park. Source: wien.gv.at

Image 2: Platforms to sit and chat in St. Johann Park, Source: wien.gv.at

Gender-sensitive planning measures

The participating consultancies conducted meetings and workshops with residents, mothers, representatives of schools and kindergartens in the district, etc. to identify joint goals for the project. They paid attention to girls’ interests specifically to develop strategies for encouraging their involvement in public activities (Policytransfer.metropolis.org, 2018). Several gender–sensitive design elements were introduced in these parks, such as (Harth, 2018):

  • Football cages were converted for activities that accommodates both genders; in this case, badminton and volleyball courts
  • Hollows in the meadowland were converted to be used as arenas, for ball-games, gymnastics and sitting together
  • Multifunctional play areas
  • Efficient lighting was provided on the main paths
  • Park keepers ensured that the rules are followed
  • Good visibility and clear-cut organisation of footpaths
  • Well-maintained public toilets

Image 3: Hammocks, quick attraction elements at Einsiedler Park, Source: WPS Prague.com

Image 4: Platform at Einsiedler Park, Source: WPS Prague.com

Impacts

The projects witnessed considerable physical and social impacts over time. Physical transformations such as open common areas, gender-neutral activity field, places for group chatting, etc. motivated women and girls to spend more time in the park. Features like visibility in main avenues and proper lighting improved the safety aspects also (Policytransfer.metropolis.org, 2018). Noticeable presence of women of all age groups was found in St. Johann’s park (Harth, 2018).

Looking at the response, City of Vienna implemented pilot projects of gender sensitive re-design in other parks of the city. On similar concepts, gender sensitive design elements such as structured footpath network, efficient illumination, multifunctional plazas, multifunctional lawns, etc. were incorporated in Rudolph-Bednar Park (Damyanovic, Reinwald and Weikmann, 2013).

Gender-sensitive public square design: redesign of Christian Broda Platz

Public squares are another focus area for gender mainstreaming in the planning of public spaces in Vienna (Chalaby, 2017). On submitting the winning entry for a gender-sensitive architectural competition, architects Beitl and Wallmann redesigned the Christian-Broda-Platz in the 6th district of Vienna. The team designed the square by paying attention to direct walking routes, playing equipment, barrier free toilets, drinking fountains, etc. The pilot project resulted in a generous use of the public square by all genders among youth, children and senior citizens (Damyanovic, Reinwald and Weikmann, 2013). Similar measures were adopted in Liesinger Platz of the 23rd district also to achieve a gender-sensitive design.

Image 5: Seating arrangements in Chrisian Broda Platz, Source: wien.gv.at

In addition to these projects, gender mainstreaming is also incorporated in designing walkways. A survey conducted by City of Vienna in 1992 identified that females use public transit and pedestrian paths more than males. As a result, city planners adopted steps to improve pedestrian mobility and access to public transit (Foran, 2013). This includes 26 street lighting projects, widening of sidewalks and barrier free designs by the City of Vienna Women’s Office (Chalaby, 2017).

Conclusion

Over the years, re-designing several parks and public squares in Vienna has resulted in an inclusive city planning model. Certain design elements such as multifunctional play areas, raised platforms to sit and chat, etc. are easily transferable and can be installed in other places. Assuring safety through efficient lighting and multiple activities in any public space is an important factor in gender-sensitive planning. From the cases of gender mainstreaming in public spaces explained here, it is evident that through effective planning measures, public spaces can have equal utility and benefits for everyone.

In India’s diverse social setting, women’s safety and factors for comfort are often neglected while designing public spaces like parks, streets, markets, public transit, institutions, etc. However, several positive initiatives to improve the safety of public spaces are being taken by many Indian cities. Apps such as SafetiPin are useful for women safety audits. The data acquired is used by the police and PWD to augment facilities such as lighting in public spaces. Government missions like JNNURM seeks to promote planned urban development and equitable cities as an opportunity to build gender-fair and inclusive cities (Khosla, 2009). In patriarchal economies like India where women’s interests are conventionally under-represented, there is still a lot to achieve.