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? We asked Astrid Haas, policy director at the International Growth Centre, what her city design would entail. These are her plans:
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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.
Furthermore, research has shown that not only is the highest modal share of trips in African cities undertaken by foot, but most of those who are walking are also 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.