Building Women-Inclusive City Spaces: Why local urban governance matters

By Neha Mahal (CDHR)

LogoUrbanization and the question of women’s safety go hand in hand. Constant concern for safety from harassment is the major reason for women’s exclusion and thus inaccessibility to public spaces. This link between the dominant model of urbanization and exclusion of women from public spaces has been recognized as an area of intervention in post 2015 sustainable development goals under the urban SDG1. Mainstreaming of gender in urban development emphasizes women’s right to city by creating safer public spaces that allows them freedom of mobility.

In India, the 12th five year plan states the importance of including gender sensitivity in urban development2. Although the broader urban policy highlights the need for gender inclusive cities, its realization on the ground depends on institutionalizing this concern in everyday or local urban governance, a linkage which is missing in Indian cities.

Role of participatory local governance

Building gender inclusive public spaces in cities begin with urban local bodies (ULBs) or municipalities which are entrusted with maintenance of urban infrastructure3. Public spaces such as parks, street lights, pavements, interior roads, public toilets, bus stops- sites which significantly structure women’s mobility and thus lives in cities- are maintained by ULBs. While participation by women in management of public spaces at their immediate level of governance is most effective to enable gender mainstreaming in public spaces, it is a least explored strategy due to the failure to broadly invigorate local democracy in Indian cities.

The Community participation law, enacted in 1994 as part of decentralization in urban governance, aimed to institutionalize citizens’ participation in planning at the local level by forming area sabhas for regular consultation process among residents, municipal executives and elected counselors4. However this reform never took off. A research by the Hazard Centre5 concluded that lack of awareness and vision regarding planning in ULBs has led to very few consultation processes with citizens. And, wherever they took place, no effort was made to include groups representing women’s needs and rights as stakeholders, thus subverting the opportunity to engage them with urban management and planning.

Lack of empowerment and avenue for participation at grassroots level closes channels for gender-specific perspectives to reach higher levels of planning in an institutionalized manner. As a result, gender-blind practices consolidates in planning, which in reality leads to gender biased public spaces6. Social audits carried out in Mumbai and Delhi7 by Jagori have evaluated the gender-segregated impact of urban planning and management.

They highlighted that the growing trend to construct public spaces in ways which keep certain sections of people such as poor, roadside vendors consciously away lead to the absence of heterogeneous crowd and activity on streets and footpaths, aggravating the risk for women. Street lighting provided for roads than sidewalks and pavements, compartmentalization of residential and commercial areas, vertically planned residential buildings also inhibits sense of safety in women by removing social activities of residents from streets and ground.

Class based urbanization: challenging women’s right to city

Marginalization of women’s right to the city because of lack of participatory and gender-sensitive urban governance has taken an added class dimension with the emergence of world class city paradigm as the guiding vision of urban development8. Slum and informal workplace demolitions in main city areas and their relocation to urban peripheries for urban development such as building luxury hotels, residential apartments and malls, curbing air pollution is radically restructuring urban spaces.

In several resettlement areas such as Bawana, Khaddar and Sundar Nagar, located on the outskirts of Delhi, the already limited access of public spaces for poor women has further weakened compromising even their basic standard of life and safety9. Harassment of women in public spaces worsens here in comparison to main city areas because of secluded locations and lack of proper physical infrastructure such as street lighting, bus stops and suitably located public toilets for women.

To conclude

Access to public spaces for women as a part of the urban SDG makes it an important constituent of sustainable urban development. To achieve its aims, the urban SDG is focusing on invigorating local urban authorities as a foremost tool. Incorporation of agenda 2110 in the SDGs, which speaks of localization of sustainable development by strengthening the Role of womenNGOs, and especially local authorities in cities, further consolidates the efforts to improve city level governance. As the present efforts by civil society in Indian cities towards building inclusive cities for women are falling short due to lack of empowerment and participation in the last mile of intervention, the urban SDG can help to fill in the this gap by creating higher visibility of their role in realizing the larger vision.


  5. Quoted in Interview conducted with Ranjan Mehta, a researcher with Hazard Centre, an organization working for community and labour issues in Delhi.
  8. Ibid

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