Designing for Urban Inclusivity

Chelina Odbert

A sidewalk is not just a sidewalk. What might be perceived by some as a safe space might for others perpetuate and even create injustice. How might design incorporate more community voices, particularly those of women, to create a more equitable urban environment?

Peace and Urbanism

From the moment it first emerged, COVID-19 has brought a wide set of systemic inequities into sharp focus. For those who are subject to them, these inequities were already a defining part of daily life. But for those at a more comfortable remove, the pandemic was a revelation, laying bare inequity in access to health care, to the technology needed to learn and work from home, to jobs that allow for flexibility, to childcare, to vaccines, and to governance structures that provide economic and health-related support.

Another of the inequities brought into collective focus was related to public space. As health advisories urged populations to avoid congregating indoors and to assemble instead in outdoor public spaces, many wondered: What public space? Access to safe public space is deeply unequal, and it is intertwined with the many factors that determine our experience of community life overall, including income, race, and, as I aim to demonstrate in this essay, gender.[1]

Public space is not part of the community experience for many women, since, for them, parks, plazas, sidewalks, and transportation systems tend to range from uninviting to potentially dangerous. This type of pervasive gender-based exclusion should raise the gravest of alarm. Not only does it demonstrate that women are overlooked or forced into uncomfortable circumstances in their very own neighborhoods, but it also signals a predisposition to broader cultures of violence. As Simone de Beauvoir stated in The Second Sex, “All oppression creates a state of war.”[2] Since the publication of that seminal book in 1949, her thesis has been borne out by reams of statistics drawn from a long roster of studies that all point to a consistent finding: the gender equity and the peacefulness of a society are directly—and measurably—related.[3] In other words, those states that prioritize gender equity—such as Austria and Sweden—create a foundation for sustainable peace. Social scientists, development experts, and others have demonstrated that gender equity is the top predictor of peace, coming in ahead of wealth, strength of democracy, and religious background.[4] It follows, then, that states in pursuit of peace ought to take a hard look at gender equity. The research also demonstrates that peace is less a stable noun than it is an active verb—something that takes deliberate focus and constant attention. As Martin Luther King Jr. knew, peace is built through a commitment to justice and equality.

This understanding of peace provides an important roadmap for those of us involved in designing and planning cities. Cities are rife with injustice. One of the foundational myths about cities is that they are a kind of springboard to opportunity—a place to unyoke from the social strictures and retrograde economics of smaller towns and rural landscapes. Going hand in hand with this myth is the dangerous assumption that opportunity is freely accessible to anyone with the drive and a dream. In reality, that springboard effect tends to work only for the narrowest demographic sliver, cut along the same lines—including gender—that regrettably carry so much weight in determining an individual’s access to opportunity in general.[5] That injustice imperils the prospect of sustaining peace. It takes more than a low crime rate to make a city a place of peace: it requires constant scrutiny and active measures geared toward achieving and expanding justice.

As cities around the world set out to address and correct long-standing social inequities, fingers are quickly pointed at social attitudes and institutional systems, giving a pass to the urban landscape as a kind of neutral backdrop. A sidewalk is a sidewalk, there to provide equal access to anyone who needs to stroll from point A to point B, or so the thinking goes. But a closer look at urban structures reveals a more pernicious fact: the urban planning and design professions have long suffered from gender inequality and because of this have created landscapes that perpetuate and sometimes even create injustice.[6] To establish peace as defined by King—which sociologists and others now call “positive peace”—cities must embody equality in three ways: in their attitudes, in their institutions, and in their structures. For this to happen, the disciplines involved with city making must fundamentally reconsider their current practices.

Equitable and Participatory Design in Mendoza, Argentina

With women occupying just 10 percent of leadership positions in the world’s principal architecture firms, and with women grossly underrepresented across all areas of the design and planning professions, it should come as no surprise that for much urban planning and design, men are the imagined end user.[7] As such, urban spaces—including streets, sidewalks, transportation networks, and parks—reflect the way men use cities. Women are an afterthought.

Take Plaza Aliar, a public space in the informal settlement of La Favorita in Mendoza, Argentina, for example. Constructed at considerable cost as part of the first phase of upgrading in this settlement just outside the city center, the plaza is the type of public space that local politicians can point to as evidence of government at work. Located squarely at the center of the barrio, the plaza is the only purpose-built open area in the district. Designed as a connective space, it links two parts of the neighborhood: the portion that has not yet been upgraded, to the south, and a district that has seen upgrades, to the north.

In 2018 my firm, Kounkuey Design Initiative, led a research and design project that focused on gender-inclusive urban planning and design in Mendoza. A collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the work was based in barrio La Favorita and involved a study of its landscape, interviews with its residents, the collection of a range of data sets, and the provision of a framework from which to redesign the languishing plaza in a way that foregrounded women’s needs and voices.

On one of our visits there, we walked with a group of women through the neighborhood. Although the half of the settlement we were traversing had been “upgraded” with paved streets, sidewalks, trash bins, and lighting, the women made their own way, using some of the streets that had yet to be improved, but to them, “felt safer”—even if that meant taking a longer route or avoiding areas altogether. Why didn’t they take the easiest, most direct route? For one simple reason: the sidewalks were too narrow, making them impractical for pushing strollers or carting groceries and, more concerningly, leaving women without enough space to avoid the doorways and gates that lined the sidewalks, thus making them vulnerable to violence and intimidation from men lurking in those close spaces.

Though this might seem to be an incidental, even honest, oversight by a civil engineer in a small district, that sidewalk measurement exemplifies a nearly universal problem: when urban landscapes are designed predominantly by men, and when men are the default client, women are left with an inefficient and often dangerous set of options. Although Plaza Aliar has been upgraded, it has floundered as a public space, never attracting the widespread use that makes for a successful public space. There is a simple reason for this: when urban spaces are designed without input from the communities expected to use them, the result—as seen in municipalities around the world—is underutilization.[8]

In the case of Plaza Aliar, men have taken to the park, using it for circulation, socializing, and recreation. But for women it is an entirely different story. Not only is the park inhospitable to most women (because it was not designed with them in mind), but it can also be a dangerous or threatening place, something I heard from many women. In barrio La Favorita, where gender roles are all too clearly defined, and where rates of genderbased violence and discrimination are all too high, the neighborhood’s landscape—even in the newly upgraded areas—is an obstacle to gender equality, and thus to positive peace.

One of the core tenets of positive peace is the existence of a feedback loop between structures, institutions, and attitudes.[9] When one becomes more equitable, the others tend to follow. For those involved in urban planning and design, the lesson is clear: to exclude women from the design and planning process is to contribute to the gender inequity of institutions and to perpetuate gender biases that have long plagued societies. But the inverse is just as true: prioritizing equity in urban space carries the real promise of changing perceptions of women’s role in cities. In other words, women are trapped in a cycle that perpetuates gender inequity, imprinting it, literally, into the fabric of cities. When women are excluded from urban design and planning, the spaces created by those processes exclude women, too. The absence of women in public spaces then tends to be misinterpreted as a lack of interest, and, based on that assumption, women are excluded from consideration in future projects.

To counter this cycle in Mendoza means confronting the defined gender roles that have long existed in the local social tradition. Currently, both women and men do not think of the plaza as a place for women. To overcome that impression, designs should take into account women’s existing social roles and include spaces geared toward their daily routines. This is an intermediate, stopgap measure meant to shift the discourse, supporting longer-term social transformation while integrating shorter-term changes meant to acknowledge the simple fact that women belong in public spaces. In Mendoza our design recommendations included adding to the park a washing facility, a place to deposit recyclable items, and a place amenable to watching children. Since these activities are an integral part of daily life for most women in the district, these changes will give them a reason to use the plaza. In the longer term, having women in the park and actively engaging in its life will begin to change societal attitudes about women in the public domain. If parks are the public squares of the community, and if the only people who gather in them are men, then a clear impression is created as to who is invited to participate in civic discourse (and who isn’t).

Designing Gender Equity around the World

For far too long, urban landscapes have been designed and assessed based on their physical forms and on technical criteria. In recent years, however, research has brought into greater focus the role of the urban design and planning professions in reinforcing unequal gender roles and responsibilities. Following our work in Mendoza, the World Bank commissioned KDI to author what became the Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning Design, published in 2020. Drawn from research and case studies from across the world, including Europe, the United States, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the Handbook addresses the relationship between gender inequity and the built environment. The survey makes abundantly clear the fundamentally global nature of the problem. Across diverse contexts with different geographies, cultures, economies, and politics, we encountered the same troubling fact: even where women and men have galvanized around the expansion of women’s rights, bad urban planning makes real change elusive.

In India, for example, lack of land ownership is directly correlated with physical violence directed toward women.[10] Ownership of property was found to provide women with enhanced physical security, self-esteem, and, importantly, the strength of a visible fallback position and a tangible escape route, and thus it is measurably impactful in mitigating intramarital violence. While 49 percent of women who did not own property reported some form of long-term physical violence, for women who owned land and a house, the number dropped to 7 percent.[11]

In Austria, researchers found that girls’ use of city parks declined rapidly once they reached nine years old.[12] After introducing recreation programming directed at girls and women, along with additional footpaths, benches, trees, and shade, the park system saw an increase of use from both women and girls. The city undertook a similar approach with its public transportation system, engaging women as active stakeholders in decision making and implementing a series of changes recommended by them, including better lighting, wider sidewalks, and ramps to improve access for people with strollers. Connecting gender-equity goals with gender-equitable spaces provides a pathway to peace. The recommendations in the Handbook provide cities with ways to do that.

Designing for Peace in Our Work

Since 2008 KDI has been carrying out urban design and planning in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. There, with sustained and engaged input from a diverse cohort of community members, we have planned and designed a network of public spaces. While these spaces provide a forum for activities typical to parks and open areas—walking, gathering, and recreating—they also work toward a wide range of objectives, including expanding access and opportunity for women. Based on input from women, the new public spaces incorporate tangible ways by which they may gain access to economic opportunity, giving them places to create goods, vehicles through which to bring those goods to market, access to savings and loans, and direct employment in designing and administering the construction and operations of the parks themselves. They also address a range of public health and environmental challenges that affect everyone in the community but that often disproportionately burden women. By demonstrating in real and immediate ways the valuable contributions that women offer in roles normally dominated by men—managing construction of an infrastructure upgrade, say—these gender-inclusive urban design and planning efforts have begun to tip the scale in terms of societal attitudes toward women. And in that process, these projects have created a foothold for positive peace.

As communities move toward gender equity, attention is often turned to social systems: representation in the workforce, relative income, and involvement in different areas of government. While these important standards deserve close scrutiny, so too do the spaces that comprise our cities. As we have found in our work, the acts of planning, designing, and building gender-equitable spaces expand equity across all facets of a city: positive change in urban structures is invariably linked with changes in attitudes and institutions.

Chelina Odbert

Chelina Odbert is the cofounder and executive director of Kounkuey Design Initiative. An urban planner by training, she focuses on equity in the built environment in her practice, writing, and teaching.

“Peace is not merely the absence of . . . tension, but the presence of justice.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Six dark-skinned women sit together outside talking and working with rope. Behind them are structures build with various unfinished materials.

Engaging women and girls in substantive and sustained ways, Kounkuey Design Initiative designed and built a network of equitable public spaces in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya’s largest informal settlement. Courtesy of Kounkuey Design Initiative.

In a vast open outdoor space, a cement platform with a red vertical pole is surrounded by green trees.

Plaza Aliar, the first purpose-built public space in La Favorita, suffered from underutilization because women’s perspectives were not incorporated into its planning and design, Mendoza, Argentina, 2018. Courtesy of Kounkuey Design Initiative.

In a classroom-like setting with people talking around tables and with papers affixed to the walls, a woman in a gray hoodie presented a collaged map, which features photographic imagery, illustration, and written notes.

Kounkuey Design Initiative and Harvard Graduate School of Design sought out and incorporated the voices and ideas of local women to reinvigorate Plaza Aliar, 2018. Courtesy of Kounkuey Design Initiative.

Gender-Inclusive Planning and Design is:
  • Participatory: Actively including the voices of women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities
  • Integrated: Adopting a holistic, crosscutting approach that centers gender throughout and promotes citizen-city relationship building
  • Universal: Meeting the needs of women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities of all ages and abilities
  • Knowledge building: Seeking out and sharing robust, meaningful new data on gender equity
  • Power building: Growing the capacity and influence of underrepresented groups in key decisions
  • Invested: Committing the necessary finances and expertise to follow through on intentional gender equity goals

Gender-Inclusive Planning and Design is Not:
  • Prescriptive: Designing and planning for women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities instead of with them
  • An add-on: Considering women separately from other beneficiaries and project goals; failing to connect the dots or the actors involved
  • Exclusive: Being concerned with the needs of able-bodied women or female persons alone
  • Uninformative: Operating in a vacuum without engaging with and contributing to broader knowledge on gender
  • Disempowering: Repeating or reinforcing historical imbalances in representation and agency
  • Uninvested: Assuming gender goals are achieved if women are among beneficiaries without investing the required time and resources to follow through


[1] Ming Wen et al., “Spatial Disparities in the Distribution of Parks and Green Spaces in the USA,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 45, no. 1 (February 2013): S18-27.

[2] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[3] Valerie M. Hudson et al., Sex and World Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[4] Hudson et al., Sex and World Peace.

[5] “Gender and Urban Planning: Issues and Trends” (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2012).

[6] Susan Fainstein and Lisa Servon, Gender and Planning: A Reader (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

[7] Marcus Fairs, “Survey of Top Architecture Firms Reveals ‘Quite Shocking’ Lack of Gender Diversity at Senior Levels,” Dezeen, November 16, 2007,

[8] Elin Andersdotter Fabre, Emelie Anneroth, and Caroline Wrangstein, “Urban Girls Catalogue: How Cities Planned for and by Girls Work for Everyone” (Stockholm: Global Utmaning, 2019).

[9] “Positive Peace Report 2018: Analysing the Factors that Sustain Peace” (Sydney: Institute for Economics and Peace, 2018),

[10] Bina Agarwal and Pradeep Panda, “Toward Freedom from Domestic Violence,” Journal of Human Development 8, no. 3 (November 2007): 359–88, doi: 10.1080/14649880701462171.

[11] Agarwal and Panda, “Toward Freedom.”

[12] “Handbook for Gender Mainstreaming in Urban Planning and Urban Development” (Vienna: Urban Development and Planning, 2013).