Designing cities that work for women: the value of inclusive design

Designing cities that work for women: the value of inclusive design

A project in Indonesia has shown the importance of including women in the planning of safe, sustainable cities.



•    city planning often neglects the needs, interests and routines of women and girls
•    in-depth user research can help design cities in a gender-inclusive way
•    inviting stakeholders to meet users is an effective way to encourage change

The problem

Despite a revolution in how we work and an increasingly diverse society, most cities are still designed by and for men.
For women, especially those who don’t work a 9-5 job, the urban environment can be frustrating, inconvenient or downright dangerous. For example, a recent survey in Indonesia reported that 60% of women had experienced sexual harassment travelling to and from work, a grim statistic echoed across the world. As a result, many women and girls do not enjoy the basic right to freedom of movement and miss out on opportunities to work, study or simply enjoy themselves.
In 2019, UN Women Indonesia and Pulse Lab Jakarta launched a project to explore the problem in 3 cities across Indonesia.
Many women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities around the world feel inconvenienced, ill-at-ease, and unsafe in the urban environment.

The approach

Research began by examining the existing literature on safety and mobility for women. It soon became clear that most studies had focused on middle-class office workers. Very little attention had been paid to women working at night, such as shopkeepers, call center workers or cleaners, who make up a significant part of Indonesia’s retail economy.
Equally, the recommendations proposed - from installing CCTV to better street lighting - concentrated on improving infrastructure, rather than the experience of women getting to and from work.

The researchers realized they needed to get to know the female ‘users’ of public transport in depth. To do this, 37 women from 3 cities across Indonesia were invited to take part in user research, including:
•    diary studies - in which women recorded their travel experiences over four days
•    face-to-face interviews - allowing the researchers to probe further into the thought process, emotions and underlying beliefs behind the diary entries
•    field studies - where researchers accompanied women on their journeys to and from work

Using this information, it was possible to create four ‘personas’, fictional characters that summarized the types of women met during the research. These ranged from ‘the anxious newcomer’, a migrant worker who found every part of the city intimidating, to ‘the female warrior’ a more confident and streetwise woman used to travel at night. While each persona used different strategies to travel safely, such as wearing plain clothes and face masks to avoid attention, a number of insights emerged from the research. For example:
•    women felt that bus stops were intimidating, dark and hard to access; this meant they would prefer to wait in shops or at busy intersections
•    street vendors and minibus (angkot) drivers were seen as a reassuring presence rather than a nuisance
•    none of the women were prepared to report incidents of sexual harassment, due to feeling ashamed or afraid that they would lose their jobs

The next step was to involve the people that could change things - government officials, transport operators, urban planners and community groups. This was done in a series of co-design workshops in which the results of the study could be shared, and solutions proposed.

The results

The workshops produced a range of hypothetical solutions including a street warden program, ID cards for bus drivers and a smartphone app for new arrivals. The challenge was to find a city prepared to implement some or any of them.
Enter Medan, a city of 2.2 million in northern Sumatra. As well as taking part in the workshops, city officials here were invited to meet female commuters and travel with them at night to gain a better insight into their experience.
In December 2019 the Medan City Government announced plans to adopt several recommendations from the project including:
•    designing better bus stops: for example, by adding transparent walls and better lighting to make them less intimidating
•    improving pedestrian access to bus stops, avoiding the need for women to walk down narrow alleyways
•    community engagement: including a poster campaign on how to safely help women who are experiencing street harassment

Next steps

As well as publicizing the research in Indonesia through events like the Global 16 Days Campaign, Pulse Lab Jakarta has continued to highlight the importance of good quality data in designing inclusive and sustainable cities. While mobility has been restricted globally due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of sexual harassment of women and sexual and gender minorities has not gone away.
The World Bank recently highlighted this in a handbook on gender-inclusive planning, showing how important safe and affordable transport is for women.

To read the full UN Women and Pulse Lab Jakarta report click here.

The article was originally published by UN Women