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Here’s How Sustainable Cities Can Boost Gender Equality

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Since the ancient civilizations started to build cities, urban landscapes evolved parallel to the gender roles, associating public spaces with men, and the private sphere with women. However, in the late 20th century, as the global urban population continued to boom, spatial researchers began to emphasize the importance of a gender-sensitive approach to urban planning. Their growing body of studies shows that gender-blind city designs not only strain women’s day-to-day life but also limit economic and social progress.

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By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world will reside in cities, compared to 55 percent today. Hence, it’s no coincidence that sustainable and inclusive cities are a top priority for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, alongside achieving universal gender equality. There’s overwhelming evidence that sustainable infrastructure helps women to fulfill their potential.

Working towards an equitable future, the link between sustainable urban design and gender equality is no longer an afterthought. The following elements in city life are crucial details to create an inclusive urban ecosystem to boost women’s status and unleash tremendous potential everywhere.

Smart Public Lighting

According to a worldwide survey, women feel significantly less safe than men in public places, including in advanced economies of Europe and North America. Inadequate urban lighting and dark footpaths pose security risks and restrain mobility — not just for women, but also for marginalized or vulnerable people.

Following the economic crisis of 2008, when local governments in the United States reduced the amount of street lighting to cut costs, many cities saw a shocking surge in public gender-based violence.

However, thanks to high-tech public lighting solutions installed in sustainable cities of the future, walking alone at night won’t be something to fear.

A new generation of energy-efficient street lights taps into smart sensors to switch on or off based on pedestrian movement. This way, areas with low pedestrian density can cut costs without compromising security.

Safe Public Transport

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Transportation is the lynchpin of all physical exchanges in cities. Safe and efficient public transport facilitates access to the labor market, education, and healthcare services. They also dramatically cut carbon emissions thanks to reduced car dependency.

Especially as women tend to balance economic activities with care-giving roles, research shows they’re more dependent on public transportation than men. Furthermore, in some countries, women might not be able to ride a motorbike or drive a car due to cultural norms. In the meantime, overcrowded, or dimly-lit public transport might also accelerate security risks and hamper women’s mobility.

Thus, achieving the target of sustainable and gender-sensitive urban transport would literally pave the way for gender equality, economic, and social progress.

Secure Buildings & Access

According to criminology scholars, women feel more vulnerable to violent crimes and “stranger danger”. Whether their worries materialize or not, the constant state of fear and anxiety might take a toll on women’s mental and physical health. It’s not uncommon for those who experience intense fear of violent crimes to show patterns of avoidant behavior and organize their daily lives around fear.

While crimes against women and sexual minorities are complex phenomena, secure buildings and entrance systems can reduce the risk of assaults. In particular, dependable doors form a fundamental part of physical security.

In contrast, dilapidated infrastructure and flimsy entrances make buildings an easier target for intruders. According to the UK Police Department, most criminals break into buildings by forcing or kicking the lock. Hence, homes with no security measures in place are five times more likely to be burgled than those with simple security measures. Even the sight of excellent locks and entrance systems discourage intruders against criminal behavior.

Access to Clean Energy & Water

Women and girls around the world tend to perform most of the water and energy-intensive tasks like cooking and cleaning. However, the lack of reliable access to clean energy and water resources has dire consequences.

As of 2019, 13 percent of the world’s population didn’t have access to electricity. This energy poverty disproportionately victimizes women. Relying on wood, charcoal, or animal waste for basic energy needs requires grueling hours looking for these materials. Women and girls also inhale toxic fumes while cooking, which might bring devastating health consequences.

Likewise, according to UNICEF, women and girls worldwide spend 200 million hours a day to collect water for their households. Sustainable cities with reliable access to clean energy and water can gift this precious time back to communities to help to shift gender roles gradually. In return, women and girls can use this time to further themselves educationally, professionally, and economically, while also leading healthier lives.

Intersectional Approach to Tackle Global Challenges

Solving the complex issue of global gender inequality requires disruptive approaches that are as nuanced as this problem itself. One might not immediately associate smart lights, good public transport, secure buildings, or energy and water access with gender equality. However, sustainable cities comprise parts of the ecosystems to boost women’s status and add incalculable value to all societies. Thanks to shifting paradigms, an increasing number of cities are responding to the idea that women belong everywhere.

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“[T]he role of the city is to make the lives of the people as easy and pleasant as possible,” said former Helsinki