There are hundreds of incidents in the developed and developing world when women face some kind of violence in the public space. This, we are talking on an everyday basis. It’s unfortunate, that while I am writing, and you are reading, somewhere in the world, not one but many women are getting harassed. Smart cities are no exception.
Gender discrimination is one of the biggest factors that do not allow a woman to use public space comfortably and confidently. It affects their sense of freedom. The existing data in smart cities is gender-biased and also underestimates the scale of street-based crimes on women. This is as per Dr. Leao, from the UNSW City Futures Research Centre and Smart Cities Research Cluster at the UNSW Built Environment.
She adds that a number of factors may prevent women from accessing the city. These include street lighting at night, visibility of the area, proximity to public transport, surveillance, and the presence of people. An international study from North Africa and the Middle East reveals that 40-60% of women have experienced street-based sexual harassment.
And it is not surprising, that from parks to markets, women across the globe are coming forward – demanding safety and respect in public spaces. They are making it happen with their own efforts. For example, UN Women is on a worldwide mission to help women claim their space in the public place. The rest of the story continues ahead.
From Park To Market
Samah Al-Nahal, Dalia Osama and Nihal Zourob are female architects who transformed the community space in their Al-Shoka community of Gaza, Palestine. They believe that by including women in designing public space, it is easy to meet their needs per their perspective. And as female architects, they were able to make better decisions to address the community needs of women.
Hence, they worked together to create an outline of the public garden. This happened with the joint effort of 30 young people from the area, as part of an initiative of UN Women and UN-Habitat. The project was funded by the government of the Kingdom of Belgium. Many factors were considered per the needs of women. For instance, originally, bathrooms were always built on the left side of the park entrance. But they decided to put them on the right side. Because that direction received more light, making the bathrooms safer.
Enough lighting, open design that prevents the feeling of entrapment, smarter infrastructure play a huge role in improving safety in the park. These were incorporated. Finally, in March 2018, the women of Al-Shoka had a 2600 square-meter garden designed for them. They could now freely enjoy the fresh air and feel safe.
Likewise, women market vendors in Fiji and Tanzania came together to change their workplace culture. The need for change was sensed by Varanisese Maisamoa, who joined the Rakiraki market of Fiji in 2007. She realized that women vendors were suffering from abuse in silence. And that over two decades nobody was there to listen to their appeal.
However, along with the help from a local organization ‘Equality for Growth’, a grantee of the UN Trust Fund, a positive change is witnessed. UN Women along with the local ladies are supporting awareness sessions on the prevention of sexual harassment and economic violence.
Safetipin For All-Inclusive Public Areas
India-based social startup Safetipin along with Smart Cities Research Cluster and its research team is promoting ‘gender equality.’ Dr. Leao is also working on this project funded by the Australia-Korea Foundation. Their idea is to address gender discrimination present in the design of urban spaces. The aim is to identify the conditions that make women feel unsafe and address these blind spots.
To achieve the goal, the team is employing crowdsourced data from cities of South America and South Asia. The crowdsourced data will be analyzed to understand safety perceptions. At present, the team is working with the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India. They are studying and attempting to improve urban safety in areas across the Manipal region. Hopefully, the approach will then be extended to cities in Australia.
Keeping the importance of data in mind, the Safetipin startup has launched its mobile app. This app provides an opportunity for users of public space to spot the areas that they feel need attention. It could be the lighting, visibility level, transportation-related safety, etc. As users feed these locations of concern on the app, a map is developed. This map shows which design elements of the city are a disadvantage for women in what manners.
The team is applying a ground-up approach while treating the public space users as experts. As they are the ones giving the understanding of why the place is unsafe or inaccessible by experiencing firsthand.
Safetipin has already applied the technology to transform the way safety is addressed in thirty cities across the globe. For example, 8000 inadequately lit public places in Delhi were identified using crowdsourced data on Safetipin. Later, the issue was solved by the local government. Other improvements included identifying strategic locations for CCTV cameras and new footpaths for better accessibility. As AI and data together have the ability to optimize safety and security in smart cities.
Urban Girls Movement
The Urban Girls Movement says, “Plan a city for girls, and it will work for everyone.” The movement is an initiative of UN-Habitat that is working for women’s safety. The initiative intends to explore young girls’ perspectives on the places that they usually access. The main focus is on public places that are specifically dominated by boys.
Providing girls with the opportunity to redesign the city on their terms will also give rise to ‘an inclusive’ urban space. In fact, its benefits are expected to go way beyond public space design, in the long run. Gathering women to solve such problems which they face strengthens their knowledge and confidence.
One of the projects undertaken by the Urban Girls Movement is a public space in Botkyrka, Sweden. They are helping with innovative solutions for an ‘all-inclusive’ design. A series of innovation labs have been set up to support the project. Initially, the labs were developed to enable knowledge sharing between different regions in the world through digital tools.
Hence, as part of this initiative, the first phase began with research. This involved visiting Fittja, an area of Botkyrka, to understand the young women’s perspectives on local public places. Later, workshops were held to determine and explain the fundamental needs and opportunity areas. Which places need to be improved in terms of safety? How is the local culture of the public places? Answers to such questions were explored.
As a result, key areas were identified for improvement. These included public space around the square, the metro station, the mall, and one alley. The next phase began with a number of sessions on designing and building a blueprint for these public places – collaboratively.
Women in different areas of smart cities are emerging as role players. One of the key areas is improving the public place for women. This year, International Women’s Day was celebrated with the campaign ‘EachForEqual.’ It delivered the message that “an equal world is an enabled world and that gender equality is not a women’s issue”. It is for the better good of entire economies and the entire communities. If every one of us does our bit, ‘gender equality’ is not a faraway dream.