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Are you scared to walk in your city? Is there space for your pram? And other reasons local cities ignore women’s needs

Picture: Luke White/Unsplash

Picture: Luke White/Unsplash

Published Aug 31, 2021


South Africa’s cities were never designed with women in mind; and in failing to consider the needs of these crucial societal and economic role-players, the decision makers have ultimately failed all who use public urban spaces.

From insufficient pavements and safe walking spaces to scarce public toilets and family facilities, the country’s cities are not inclusive – and they never will be unless women are given some influence in the built environments around them.

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Sadly, this will not be fixed by an increase of women in engineering, construction, and architectural roles alone but more opportunities for women to gain political leadership.

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Women have always been central to urban life, and in African cities particularly, Astrid Haas, policy director at the International Growth Centre, says the roles they play have roots in colonial times when men were able to find work in the mining and construction sectors and women were excluded from these jobs.

Therefore to earn their livelihoods and support their families, they started commercialising their domestic skills.

READ MORE: What a city would look like if it was designed by and for women - African experts reveal their designs

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“In the present day, much of this split in type of work remains: the limited number of formal sector jobs in African cities is usually undertaken by men whilst there is a predominance of women in the informal services sector.”

Using her own city, Kampala in Uganda, as an example, Haas says an estimated 70% of single-person businesses in the informal sector are run by women.

Kampala in Uganda. Picture: Graham Hobster/Pixabay

In addition, women bear the majority of the burden of uncommercialised domestic work, including child-care. Yet, in many African cities, this difference in role is not taken into account in their designs.

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“For example, movement to and from a wage job may require an average of two trips a day but moving between an informal job – such as in a market place, child care (if it exists), and home can require many smaller trips.

“Furthermore, research has shown that not only is the highest modal share of trips in African cities undertaken by foot, most of those who are walking are women. Yet many cities simply lack sufficient pavements – rendering pedestrians to compete with motorised transport for their space on the road.”

It is no different in South Africa.

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“South Africa’s cities have not been built to suit the needs of women,” says Gugu Sithole-Ngobese, founding chairperson of Women in Planning SA (WiPSA). And one of the key areas in which planning and urban design has failed, particularly in this country, is in the area of “gender mainstreaming”.

Cape Town’s City Bowl with Table Mountain in the background. Picture: Aldk/Pixabay

“Gender mainstreaming is the practice of ensuring that all genders, particularly women, are accounted for equally in policy, legislation and resource allocation in all areas and at all levels. In spatial planning – both urban and rural, it is about considering how different gender groups use public spaces.”

City planning needs to consider who is using the space, the number of people, how they use it, why they use it, and where most uses take place, she says, adding: “With more than half of the population of South Africa being female, our country’s cities need to be planned with women in mind.”

Explaining further, Zeenat Ghoor, director at Aspire Consulting Engineering, says the country’s cities were designed based on apartheid principals – decentralised neighbourhoods, and incorporate infrastructure to segregate by keeping different races and people of different income levels apart.

For women to feel safe and included in their city she says they need to be able to use services and spaces in the public arena without any concerns for their safety, and move around easily and affordably.

Johannesburg is affordable and the majority of the residents are lower income groups, says Lerato Peu, executive director of urban development and planning at Merafong Local City Municipality. Picture: Jacques Nel/Unsplash

Some of the major social ills facing South Africa today include poverty, unemployment and inequality, and Lerato Peu, executive director of urban development and planning at Merafong Local City Municipality says cities should be responsive in dealing with these challenges as they affect women the most.

Even though all major cities predate democracy, she says it is “imperative” that authorities prioritise the continuous modelling of cities to suit current trends and social needs.

“Our cities should be accessible to accommodate various means of transport within a systematically friendly hierarchy of arterials for both the pedestrian and the motorist. The design should support economic and social integration between the motorist and pedestrian. The case today is that most cities are designed for the motorist, not so much the street vendor, the cyclist and pedestrian.”

Peu states that cities should not only be places of work but should promote mixed-use for various income groups. The case of Johannesburg and Cape Town is a classic example of two cities that offer residence for two extreme ends of the income spectrum.

“While Johannesburg is affordable, the majority of the residents are lower income groups and illegal occupants of buildings with zero-little tenure/ownership. Cape Town on the other hand is unattainable to the average local.”

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She adds that the layout of cities should be able to expose criminal activity and offer high levels of public safety and interaction.

“Social amenities also play an important role towards the functionality of cities. Given that families interact with cities on a daily basis, it is only common sense to have more parks, museums restaurants spread across the entire city.”

Haas says the solution to making African cities more inclusive is based on ever-growing evidence that when women serve as political leaders, governments are not only more inclusive but also better at delivering public services.

“Importantly, this is not only the case for women but for everyone. Therefore, if our goal is to design our cities better suited to everyone, then our focus should really be to ensure the agency and progression of women in local government leadership overall.”