Sexist public space: making cities inclusive, is it possible?

Men and women do not experience the city in the same way: under the yoke of street harassment, the public space sometimes limits women’s freedom. Often designed by and for the male gender, urban layout is now being questioned by researchers and architects who propose solutions to make cities more spacious.

“Anyway miss you have such a beautiful ass!” That’s what Youssra learned one night in August when she refused the advances of an intoxicated man leaving a Parisian café. “The guy started freaking out when my friend and I told him we weren’t interested.” delivers the young mother. A situation that Jade, a student in Saint-Nazaire, tries to avoid, despite having to go to her summer job when the sun has barely risen: “At 4am it’s still dark… I’m really not reassured.”

In the public sphere, this kind of invective, as abrupt as it is, is unfortunately common. According toRealizeAlmost 20% of French women aged 18 to 29 claim to be insulted there at least once a year.

Do women feel safe in the cities? “Absolutely not”, according to Line, a student in Caen, who “always the lump in the stomach when [elle] walking through certain neighborhoods alone”. The young woman tells with the tone of bad memories: “Once on the tram, a guy followed me, I also changed seats… I had to ask some friends to join me.” A case far from being isolated, among the countless testimonies pouring in as tongues are loosened. The High Council for Equality between Women and Men already supported this observation in a 2015 reportwhich indicates that 100% of users had experienced – according to themselves – gender-based and sexual violence at least once in their life in public transport.

And yet the notion of public space – by definition – looks like one common place, “that every individual must be able to engage in various activities, alone or with others”, explains Rébecca Cardelli, researcher at the University of Liège. It is by and thanks to him that it is possible “[participer] to the political, cultural, social and economic life of the city.which, through its function as a transit area, ensures “access to public and collective services”, continue the sociologists Irène Zeilinger and Laura Chaumont.

The degenerating architecture

The experience of the city nevertheless translates into two different approachesshaped by gender. “Places for leisure, rest or to pass the time are places designed by and for men” says Apolline Vrancken, founder of The degenerating architecture. In short: when some women would perceive their movements upstream, in a kind of eternal negotiation for the right to be present in the urban space, the male gender would perceive it more as a place of freedom and letting go. “Going outside has become a pain”, laments Mona, a 22-year-old Cherbourgeoisie.

“I always have this fear when I see a man pass… We track the women on the street. There are guys, you don’t really know what they’re doing, they hang around”, gushes Julie, a student in Brest. The sporty young woman now thinks twice before going out to train: “When I was on roller skates right next to my house and a man started following me, I felt super vulnerable, I didn’t dare go inside. You start going up in your head by imagining lots of scenarios, it cuts off all desire.

A situation that partly stems from a sexist perception of space, to which are added entrenched gender stereotypes. For women, most of the time trips to school or to the doctor – so-called parenting tasks, which they take care of with 65% according toRealize – or even grocery shoppingwhich they do in more than 6 cases out of 10. Consequently, their experience of the city too often tends to be limited to utility, with too little space for strolling or leisure: these trips, when ‘they are orchestrated by these bonds , form a kind“spatial expression of their mental load”, writing Corinne Luxembourg, lecturer.

Stereotypes that can lead to “invisibility, discomfort, insecurity for women”, as explained by Hélène Bidard, assistant to the Paris City Hall in charge of equality in her reference guide Gender and the public spaceuntil you bring to “a form of symbolic exclusion […] for more than 50% of the population”.

Very young, the girls integrate that the outside, especially at night, is a space that can be hostile to them. consequences? Some of them adapt their behavior, their appearance, their way of life. Since Jade never goes out without wondering about the clothes she wears, Mila, newly arrived in Lyon, does not “Never wear lipstick when [elle] start work early”. Avoidance strategies that Maellis, 19, summarizes in a nutshell “hypervigilance”.

Towards a more spacious urban planning

There is no shortage of solutions to make cities a welcoming place for everyone… Some have even proven their worth for forty years. This is the case in Toronto, where a task force on public violence against women and children was established in 1982 – run by the municipality – to formulate recommendations and build a reform program.

Metroen’s Action Committee for Public Violence against Women (METRAC), a research and legal advisory group supported by the urban community government, was thus established to carry out the said recommendations. In a few years there have been changes in the architecture, with a plan to secure the parks or even set up lights for pedestrians. Enough to meet the expectations expressed by Torontonians during the survey.

That flagship city But in terms of feminist urban planning, there is still Vienna, Austria, where gender is at the center of urban development considerations. 25 years ago was built “Frauen Werk Stadt” (women, work, city»), a set of almost 360 housing social apartments designed by four committed female architects. The goal? Make everyday life easier for the fair sex with, for example, the installation of a public nursery and a doctor’s office in the complex itself.

But the Austrian capital did not stop there since 2006, a gender budget – says gender mainstreaming – makes it possible to take women’s needs into account in the development of public policies. Almost 50 more inclusive urban development projects have thus been initiated, including the installation of more efficient lighting in underground car parks or an information campaign “Vienna sees things differently” to educate residents.

“The city ends up becoming a person”, said Victor Hugo. Provided that she is therefore both male and female.

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