Taylor Burrell Barnett

A (feminist) City, for everyone


Monique Thompson
Senior Consultant

03 Apr 2023

By including and considering the needs of women within the design process, we can shape spaces for everyone.

In this article, Monique explores gender sensitive design and gender mainstreaming, including a case study analysis of Sweden and Austria. With curiosity, she questions how some of these strategies might be applied in Perth.

I read once: ‘our public spaces are not designed for women’. I questioned this statement at first. But then, suddenly in my daily commute to work, to the local coffee shop and to the park down the end of the street, I saw it: places designed for the “default male”.

While cities are beginning to be shaped by twenty-first century beliefs, they have traditionally been shaped by the people that design them. So, typically: men. Because of this, we have (inadvertently) omitted the needs of half of humanity; women. This article does not intend to discount the needs of other marginalised groups (e.g., Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the elderly, the disabled, migrant populations etc.), who need to have more consideration in urban design, but for today, this article is focusing on women.

After reading and listening to activists like Caroline Criado Perez (Invisible Women, 2019), Leslie Kern (Feminist City, 2019), Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961) and Melissa and Chris Bruntlett (Curbing Traffic, 2022), I was astounded by the realisation of how many persistent inequalities can be found in the fabric of our urban spaces. It’s everywhere. It’s in statues, public bathrooms, public transport, open spaces, and even pedestrian/cycle paths.

What is remarkable to me is that: by considering the needs of women, that is; the needs of the other half of the population, we can shape places where communities, and the people within them, truly prosper and thrive.

By including and considering the needs of women (and other marginalised groups) within the design process, we can shape spaces for everyone.

What is gender sensitive design?

Gender sensitive design aims to eliminate various patterns of discrimination that exist in our urban fabric and governance structures. These discriminations surround us daily, and can include:

  • the lighting on the journey between the office and the bus stop, or lack thereof;
  • the distribution of funds to local sporting clubs, instead of facilities that may better support teenage girls; and
  • the bus routes that don’t operate as frequent after 9:00am (i.e., after the school drop-off).

Underlying gender sensitivity is the recognition and acknowledgement that different genders have different needs, and so occupy spaces differently. By considering the needs of women, we can achieve benefits like:

  • the improved safety of women travelling on public transport can foster travel patterns that align better with climate and sustainability goals.
  • improving the accessibility of public transport for women can duly assist mothers re-enter the workforce and contribute to local economies and employment self-sufficiency.
  • creating public spaces for teenage girls can improve mental health and well-being of teenage girls and reduce burdens within justice and health care systems.

Many of the projects TBB work on include shaping spaces for new and/or existing communities, and the make up of those communities is at the core of this. In our role, as urban designers and planners, we are cognisant of the prevalence of unconscious bias and actively look for ways to ensure the needs of the entire community are entwined into the urban fabric in which they are to reside.

As a part of this, I have been exploring some international examples to understand more about gender sensitive design. Unsurprisingly, I found that the most impactful projects have been delivered in countries in which gender mainstreaming has been legislated. Below I have shared some brief case studies in Sweden and Austria.

Case Study: Station Tunnel Umeå, Sweden

Having to walk through any pedestrian tunnel often fills me, and many other women (and men) I’m sure, with a sense of dread. Yet, by incorporating gender sensitive design principles, the Umea Municipality in Sweden has facilitated the redevelopment of a pedestrian and cyclist tunnel which safely connects people between the train station and the Haga district. The image below highlights key design principles which have been incorporated to improve the perceived and real safety of women (and men), travelling through this area.

This redevelopment would have followed a gender impact assessment to improve the design and the planning of the project and to prevent a negative impact on and to strengthen gender equality. As part of a gender impact assessment, proponents are prompted to consider and account for the differences between the conditions, situations and needs of women and men.

With key infrastructure projects underway or emerging in our own city (i.e., METRONET), perhaps there are lessons to be learned and applied here in Perth?

Case Study: Vienna, Austria

Recently, a colleague recounted an experience of when she was separated by large crowds from her husband during new years eve celebrations in Vienna, Austria. Despite being in a foreign place with foreign street names, smells and a crowd of people, when she looked around for her husband, she distinctly remembers feeling safe; a feeling that is not often felt by women in urban spaces.

We later discovered that Vienna was purposefully designed for women in that it was designed and planned with explicit consideration for the needs of women. Because of this, the city is safer and more convenient, for everyone.

Since the 1990’s, the government investigated how women use spaces differently from men. This included analysing pedestrian movements and access to public parks. Unsurprisingly, the analysis concluded that men and women use spaces differently. For example:

  • Cars and bikes were more often used by men, whereas most women used public transport or walked.
  • A typical route for a man was from home to work, whereas a womans was more varied (i.e., to schools, doctors, shops and to older family members).

The strategy Vienna uses to achieve its aim of being an inclusive and gender-neutral destination is called "gender mainstreaming". The head of the Department for Gender Mainstreaming, Ursula Bauer, describes it as a tool to achieve gender equality in society based on equal structures, settings and conditions for both women and men.

Vienna’s government legislated the requirement for gender differentiated analysis as a necessary part of planning and designing new infrastructure. For example large-scale tenders (i.e., for social housing) are considered with due regard for their gender impact, in addition to functionality, amenity and sustainability. Similar governance structures have also been adopted in at least 23 countries in the European Union.

As a result, in 2022, Austria scored 68.8 (out of 100) in the EU’s Gender Equality Index (a tool, created by the EIGE, which measure the progress of gender equality in the EU). This put Austria amongst the top-10 highest scoring countries in the EU, and 0.2 points above the EU’s score. Notably, Sweden scored 83.9, the highest scoring country in the EU, and 15.3 points above the EU.

What can we learn?

The opportunities to begin implementing gender sensitive design in Perth are endless. With various METRONET projects and exciting precincts under development across the Perth metropolitan region, the property and development industry has a chance, and a shared responsibility with government, to create spaces that accurately reflect the needs of both women and men equally.

These projects represent a unique opportunity to redesign and redevelop spaces which do more than deliver increased infill housing and improved connectivity. Perhaps this is a "Part 2" article that is asking to be researched and written?

They are an opportunity to evaluate and implement design initiatives that consider the identified needs of men and women equally.

So as we embark on new projects our challenge to all in our industry is to, in keeping with the International Women’s Day 2023 campaign, #EmbraceEquity by aspiring to create a more equitable and shared city – to accommodate everyone.

Resources and further reading

Monique's promised Part 2 article: Unstitching prejudice: unconscious bias in the urban fabric

Chalaby, O (2017). How Vienna designed a city for women.

Chau, R. (n.d.). A city for women (not just the ‘default male’) - Arup

Criado Perez, C (2019). Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.

European Institute for Gender Equality (2015). Gender mainstreaming: EU Member States.

European Institute for Gender Equality (n.d.). Gender Equality Index.

Kern, L (2019). Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World.

Moore, T. and Kalms, N. (2021). Exploring Gender Sensitive Design. - ArchitectureAU

Smart City Sweden North (2020). Umeå builds for everyone and attracts gender equality tourism.

visitumea.se. (n.d.). Discover equality in Umeå | Visit Umeå.


Monique Thompson
Senior Consultant