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International take on gender-inclusive spaces: Bengaluru City, India

Happy International Women's Day! At HerCollective, we aim to start new conversations with both professionals and the public to build a consensus for change. Being a collective, we are always keen to hear about new ideas and perceptions to facilitate further research and understanding surrounding the subject of safety in public spaces and inclusive design. So, in light of International Women's Day - we would like to introduce our first guest blog by Varshini Gorjala!

Varshini is currently working as a Graduate Planner for Scott Hobbs Planning in Edinburgh. Since completing her Bachelors in Architecture from Siddaganga Institute of Technology in India, Varshini has been a keen observer of urban spaces that are not easily accessible for her as a woman. She has further explored sustainable and inclusive urban design in her Masters in Spatial Planning and Sustainable Urban Design from the University of Dundee, which led her to reflect on similar issues she faced back home in India.

Have you heard anyone say that 'this city isn't for you', either in your own city or somewhere you visited? When I told my male friends that I was writing an article about how the option of using some public spaces, services and facilities is not always a choice for other genders, they seemed to have no idea what I was saying. This is why it is essential to learn about feminist geographic thinking, in order to understand urban space and our use of it for all. Damaris Rose, Honorary Professor of Social Geography and Urban Studies at the National Institute of Scientific Research, says that the tensions between the city-as-barrier and city-as-possibility continue to infuse so many of women's daily urban experiences and need to be explored. This blogpost reflects on this by taking one of the busiest and most densely populated cities in the world as an example, to explore how some public spaces are not at all gender friendly, let alone ‘free spaces’. A free space can be defined as an urban space that is free from violence, harassment and fear. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in the current social urban scenario where women and girl’s experience of the city is often defined by such factors.

An Indian city with ever increasing traffic and gentrification is Bengaluru. This warm welcoming city, also my hometown, accommodates job seekers migrating from other parts of India. This is achieved through provision of sufficient public infrastructure and attractive urban realm. But is this warm and welcoming urban realm really inclusive? The two places in the images below are both in Bengaluru, located within a 20-minute walk from each other.

Figure 1: Residential area located within Bengaluru City Centre

The land use of the Bengaluru has been zoned into separate residential, commercial and industrial areas. The area shown in Figure 1 is mainly residential in character, and the area shown in Figure 2 is one of the crowded commercial streets with an active nightlife. While this zoning is arguably essential to regulate rapid development, the narrow dark alleys create safety and security concerns, and fear of violence. Walking along streets like these, I have often found myself holding keys in my hand, finger on the emergency call button on my phone or, in some cases, even avoiding going out alone during night time altogether. Walking alone results in a constant ‘fight or flight’ mode and individuals need to consider coping strategies to avoid harassment.

Figure 2: Commercial area located within Bengaluru City Centre

How can we create free space:

  • From a design perspective, spaces like these can be improved by incorporating improved design and lighting along the streets. Improved design includes pedestrian friendly streets with wider pavements incorporating landscaping, seating areas; and user friendly bus stops.

  • Enhancing visibility on the street by removing design elements that create visual clutter. This can make it easier to navigate and feel safe at night.

  • Improve boundary treatments by avoiding blank high walls and enhancing natural surveillance.

  • Promote mixed-use development with retail/commercial on ground floor which activates street frontages at all times of the day and night.

Public transport has also been identified as an unsafe place for women to travel, especially in crowded buses and trains. With cramped conditions, and often awkward stares, women feel the need to be constantly attentive in these crowded places. For example, I have found myself wearing headphones in such public spaces/transport to feel a sense of personal space. Such behaviour is particularly common amongst young girls.

Bengaluru Namma Metro (Photo credit: Yirmiyan Arthur/AP)

One of the most notable examples of gender-inclusive initiatives in Bengaluru transportation is in the Bengaluru Namma Metro (inner city trains). The metro has designated coaches solely for women, monitored by security personnel to ensure the safety of female passengers. Additionally, the metro has also introduced gender-neutral restrooms, a step towards creating an inclusive environment for all passengers.

People in Bengaluru protest against the atrocities faced by women in the city. (IBTimes: Anu James, 2017).

There have also been initiatives to create women-only parks. These public spaces have been designed to cater to the specific needs of women, providing them with a safe and comfortable environment to relax, exercise, and socialise. These parks are equipped with facilities such as CCTV cameras, lighting, seating, and clean washrooms, making them accessible to women of all ages and backgrounds. Undeniably, there is definitely an urgent need for more awareness and education around gender inclusivity to help break down stereotypes and prejudices that exist in Indian society.

Inclusivity should not just be about people of different sexes; other factors come into play including safety in pregnancy, pushing prams, feeling comfortable within your peer group and access for disabled etc. These needs seem to have been met in cities like Bogotá whose bus rapid transit system included designated seats for women and children, with separate entry doors for pregnant women and other vulnerable riders. Efforts to avoid harassment through segregation of spaces for women is hardly a tactical solution. In the long term we as planners and designers should be focussing on creating safe and inclusive public spaces during early design and planning development stages, which should ultimately be driven by inclusive planning policy.

Varshini Gorjala

If you, or someone you know, may be interested in getting involved with HerCollective or you have any questions, please get in touch.

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