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

If Africa’s cities were designed by women they would offer wider pavements and safer spaces. Picture: Clarke Sanders/Unsplash

If Africa’s cities were designed by women they would offer wider pavements and safer spaces. Picture: Clarke Sanders/Unsplash

Published Aug 30, 2021


South Africa's cities were not designed with women in mind. From insufficient pavements and safe walking spaces to scarce public toilets and family facilities, the country’s cities do not factor in the needs of the women and children who use them.

So, how would our cities differ if they were designed by women?

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We asked four professionals with strong influence in built urban environments what their city design would entail. These are their plans

Gugu Sithole-Ngobese, founding chairperson of Women in Planning SA (WiPSA).

Gugu Sithole-Ngobese, founding chairperson of Women in Planning SA. Picture: Supplied

The city I see my daughter living in is one where she has as many opportunities to be as successful as her brother – where her gender does not limit her, and she feels safe and supported by her neighbours and community. She should not have to think about the ways in which she is limited by the way her city is designed. She should see herself in her local policy makers, and she should know that they are making decisions on her behalf and in her best interests.

South Africa’s cities have not been built to suit the needs of women. 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 which 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.

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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. With more than half of the population of South Africa being female, our country’s cities need to be planned with women in mind. Women are the primary caregivers of our society, and studies have shown that by designing cities with women in mind, the entire city benefits.

Read more: Gugu Sithole-Ngobese is breaking new ground in the property world

So, following the frameworks provided by cities such as Trappes in France, Turku in Finland, and most notably Vienna in Austria, South Africa could benefit from the following improvements:

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•Providing public transport outside peak hours as women use public transport more often and make more trips on foot when compared to men. We also have more varied transport routes as we go between doctor’s appointments, fetch children from school, and go grocery shopping, while men are more likely to leave for work in the morning and return home in the evening without making additional trips during the day.

•Developing wider pavements and staircases with ramps to allow for prams and wheelchairs.

•Providing additional street lighting to make it safer for women to walk at night.

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•Increasing the number of public toilets, especially for women. By increasing the number of public restrooms, sexual assault could be reduced by 30%.

•There are baby-changing facilities in malls, shopping centres and restaurants, but we need more of these elsewhere. In places like taxi ranks, parents need to be able to change their children in safe and clean environments.

•Increase the number of affordable and accessible childcare centres throughout cities so that all parents – from domestic workers to businesspeople – have access. These should provide safe, qualified child minders to parents who are unable to watch over their children during the day.

•Designing parks with gender diversity in mind. Doing so would provide a space for children to play without the pressure of conforming to stereotypes. Some ways in which the parks could be re-designed include:

•Providing a range of spaces for a variety of sports to be played. This could include soccer fields and volleyball courts.

•Providing more benches for children who are not interested in sports, but who want to interact in a public space.

•Using a range of colours to show that certain areas are not reserved exclusively for boys nor for girls, such as using pink and blue throughout the park.

Zeenat Ghoor, director at Aspire Consulting Engineering

Zeenat Ghoor, director at Aspire Consulting Engineering. Picture: Supplied

South African cities have historically been designed based on apartheid principles. Our cities were designed around decentralised neighbourhoods and included incorporating infrastructure that would segregate and keep races apart and separate people with different levels of income.

Cities were designed to incorporate a car-based transport system. Post-apartheid planning has tried to incorporate transport modules from outside the city centres and has tried to decentralise city centres. Most public transport in South Africa is now the minibus taxi.

For women to feel safe and included the following elements need to be present:

•Access – using services and spaces in the public arena free of issues and concerns around safety.

•Mobility – moving around the city safely, easily, and affordably.

•Safety and freedom from violence – being free from danger in public and private spaces.

•Health and hygiene – living and working in healthy spaces.

•Climate resilience.

•Security – accessing and owning land and housing to live, work, and build wealth that is safe.

We need to consider how and where we work, play, exercise, go to school, and receive health services. These spaces need to be safe, clean and accessible.

These are the aspects I would incorporate in the design space:

•Public toilets: Women need more space in a bathroom for prams and children and to cater for the fact women sit down when using toilets. Bathrooms should be bigger and have changing tables for babies

•Inclusive spaces that allow for a variety of recreational activities like soccer, playgrounds and using benches to demarcate the space for playing.

•Cleaner cities by having more bins and sustainable paving.

•Women-only transit opportunities such as designated bus areas for women only, especially during off-peak hours.

•Designated spaces for women where they can go for help – like booths or emergency callboxes to make calls.

•Mobile apps showing locations of public transport so women don’t have to stand and wait for transport.

•Larger parking bays.

•More light, more cameras, and greater visibility.

Astrid Haas, policy director at the International Growth Centre

Astrid Haas, policy director at the International Growth Centre. Picture: Supplied

Women have always been central to urban life, and in African cities particularly, 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.

Today, much of this split in type of work remains: the limited number of formal sector jobs in African cities is usually undertaken by men while there is a predominance of women in the informal services sector.

In my city, Kampala in Uganda, an estimated 70% of single-person businesses in the informal sector are run by women. In addition, women bear most of the burden of the family domestic work, including child-care. Yet, in many African cities, this difference in role is not taken into account in their designs. 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.

Read more: World Cities Day: New 'smart' cities may not be the answer to Africa's rapid urbanisation

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 – which means pedestrians are competing with motorised transport for their space on the road. In terms of design features, pavements are critical to improving walkability, good for everyone but especially for women.

I would also conjecture that African cities designed by women would make larger provision for quality public spaces that encourage community use, ownership and ultimately citizens’ own investments in the city. This is not only an important feature for children but also for enabling interaction and innovation to take place, which is one of the powers of cities.

I would ensure that there are more benches around cities to allow women carrying goods to and from the market, women carrying children, or even children walking to be able to sit and take breaks. This is also important for those who are still breastfeeding, for example.

Street-lighting is a further design feature critical to everyone but especially women: work does not finish when the sun goes down, but security and safety often does.

Finally, an important but often overlooked design feature that I would advocate for are street names, monuments and other public edifices honouring, enshrining and celebrating female heroism and ingenuity. These are largely missing in cities across the world today but would inspire my daughter and other little girls for generations to come.

Lerato Peu, executive director of urban development and planning at Merafong Local City Municipality

Lerato Peu, executive director of urban development and planning at Merafong Local City Municipality. Picture: Supplied

The voice of women within the planning and engineering spaces is yet to be heard, especially within the private sector. A few individuals have made strides, but is nowhere near where we ought to be. I think this is important, given that women generally bear the brunt of poor planning.

If I were to design a city, it would be based on the core principles of structural resilience and social justice. From the onset, the design, and look and feel of the cities must be able to weather all sorts of pressures. The cases of New York, London, and to a large extent Cape Town, and how they have remained resilient and relevant over time, come to mind. There has to be a consistent and deliberate intention to continuously support and reengineer the cities, otherwise they become economic risks for investors and uncontrollable liabilities for the government.

In terms of social justice, women should never be intimidated when walking alone at night in any major city. This is the ideal city. I would want my daughters to be live in spaces (cities) that symbolise:

•National strength through equality between races, classes, and sexes through design.

•Economic empowerment where cities offer ample opportunities for all its people.

•Sustainable spaces where people work, live play and learn.

•On the lighter side, we want cities to have a sense of identity, to be able to offer cultural experiences through music and art.

Some of the major social ills facing South Africa today include poverty, unemployment and inequality, and cities should be responsive in dealing with these challenges as they affect women most. Even though all major cities predate democracy, 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.

Cities should not only be places of work but should promote mixed-use areas for various income groups. The cases of Johannesburg and Cape Town are a classic example of two cities that offer residence for two extreme ends of the income spectrum. While Johannesburg is affordable, most 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.

The layout of cities should be such as to expose criminal activity and offer high levels of public safety and interaction. Social amenities also play an important role in the functionality of cities. Given that families interact with cities on a daily basis, it is only common sense to have more parks, museums and restaurants spread across the entire city.