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Why gender mainstreaming in city planning is the cure to the street harassment epidemic

I will never forget the day that I was harassed and followed after taking the light rail in St. Paul. This was one of the scariest moments I have encountered in a public space. My story is, unfortunately, not unique. I have friends who have been followed, filmed, and kissed, among other forms of harassment, on public transportation. Many of my graduate university colleagues feel a need to carry pepper spray or tasers in order to protect themselves. Scientific studies show that the effect of harassment resembles the same physical reaction as in PTSD.

Transportation planners should be required to implement gender mainstreaming in all comprehensive plans created for the city. Gender mainstreaming is defined by UN Women as a way to make women’s and men’s experiences a key part of the design for policies and programs to equally benefit both men and women.

The planning profession’s focus on efficiency and physical space has neglected to focus on the social aspects of the systems created. This leads to spaces built for specific groups of people, leaving out the gendered perspective necessary to create an equitable space, which inevitably leads to inefficiency.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) shaped the way our public infrastructure accommodates those with disabilities through modifications like curb cutouts and buses lowering height. The ADA has increased accessibility to public transportation for millions of people, such as the elderly, and those who have strollers or grocery carts.

Ania McDonnell
Ania McDonnell
Gender mainstreaming will increase the collective understanding of street harassment and ameliorate it for three reasons. It will:

(1) Reduce vehicle congestion on highways because more women will use public transportation.

(2) Reduce the costs of police on public transportation.

(3) Allow for more targeted and efficient use of police time and energy to ensure safety on the light rail.

Similar to the ADA changes, gender mainstreaming in city planning could lead to increased bus stops closer to residential areas late at night, increase lighting at bus shelters, opportunities for safe ride programs for late shift workers, or better targeted harassment reporting mechanisms such as texting.

Thus, transportation planners should be required to implement gender mainstreaming in all comprehensive plans. Gender-based concerns will come to the fore by following a model of gender mainstreaming in all governmental actions, ahead of the harassment epidemic women experience on the light rail each day.

Ania McDonnell is a Master of Public Policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a Hamline University graduate. Her research focuses on gender policy and urban and regional planning.


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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/11/2019 - 09:29 am.

    All well and good, but does the author have any specific suggestions on what this would look like?

    • Submitted by Ania McDonnell on 10/11/2019 - 01:51 pm.

      Thanks for reading. A part of the gender mainstreaming process would bring diverse viewpoints and opinions forward during the planning process and to the table when decisions are being made. This can be during the design and architectural phase, planning routes, or any number of things. The locality needs to implement it in every thing they do, and we don’t know what suggestions will come forward for that specific project or locality. We don’t yet know what the needs are for women on specific routes or trains or streets.
      However, some places have already made some changes that have a gendered approach to them. In my article I write “gender mainstreaming in city planning could lead to increased bus stops closer to residential areas late at night, increase lighting at bus shelters, opportunities for safe ride programs for late shift workers, or better targeted harassment reporting mechanisms such as texting”

  2. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 10/11/2019 - 10:33 am.

    This is so important. Can you explain how it would reduce the cost of police on public transportation?

    • Submitted by Ania McDonnell on 10/11/2019 - 01:53 pm.

      Ideally, there will be less of a need for police enforcement of better behavior, because public infrastructure will be set up so women are not forced into dangerous situations(i.e. dark street, isolated bus stop, etc).
      I think increased arrests and police presence is not the solution to the problem of harassment, it’s a band aid. We can ensure that routes, streets, stops, and other planned areas have women in mind in the beginning, not at the end.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/11/2019 - 11:03 am.

    “Gender mainstreaming is defined by UN Women as a way to make women’s and men’s experiences a key part of the design for policies and programs to equally benefit both men and women.”

    For example? This is far too nebulous for me to understand what it might involve.

    • Submitted by Ania McDonnell on 10/14/2019 - 01:24 pm.

      Gender mainstreaming looks at each policy and asks what the gendered implications of the policy may be, whether or not they were intended. This may mean adding areas for strollers, grocery bags, more lighting, stops closer to peoples’ homes, etc.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/14/2019 - 08:25 pm.

      “women’s and men’s experiences”

      Given that gender is non-binary I’m afraid that this well intentioned concept is dead on arrival.

  4. Submitted by John Evans on 10/11/2019 - 11:55 am.

    My first reaction was, “what does she mean?” My second reaction was, “I can’t quite visualize this, but it seems important.”

    It looks like you’re talking about a whole, slightly different way of seeing the public environment that could make public areas noticeably different in the future. We’re probably going to need a lot more women making the decisions that shape public spaces.

    Anything you can do to articulate those design goals, and the difference it makes in people’s experience would be helpful.

  5. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/11/2019 - 01:48 pm.

    This piece has me flashing back to 35 years ago as a third year graduate student surveying that summer’s course offerings. Included was a course title and description that even after reading it 3 times I had no idea what it was about other than some vague idea. I remember thinking: “I’m 3 years into this and I can’t even get through the course catalog without being totally confused. That can’t be a good sign”

    Now, I am a self admitted left wing sympathizer, understanding of the diverse communities we live in, appreciative of the differences engendered by all of our diverse experiences; but, Ms McDonell is taking advantage of the higher education opportunities provided by the tax payers of Minnesota, she should be able to explain stuff so that all of us commoners know what she is trying to say…

  6. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 10/11/2019 - 03:23 pm.

    Well, gee… I know what Ania means at least generally: planners don’t think about things from the points of view of women when they’re thinking about public spaces. It’s not that hard to understand, as a woman who has been in public places for multiple decades. It’s a short overview of the concept – she wasn’t publishing her master’s thesis here.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/11/2019 - 03:51 pm.

      Would not a woman planner plan things from the point of view of a woman?

      The Google tells me urban planners are 51% male and 49% female…

  7. Submitted by Scott Walters on 10/13/2019 - 02:03 pm.

    I generally agree, and I suspect that one aspect in making spaces safer for women is having more women in spaces…some built environment encouragement may lead to more women, which would start a virtuous cycle. Similar to the impact of more cyclists on the road leading to the road being safer for cyclists.

    I could imagine focus on lighting (not just the space at hand, but the pathways in and out) multiple paths in and out of spaces (less likely to be cornered or trapped), safety call boxes, eliminating or minimizing hiding spaces. It’s basically like designing a psychiatric inpatient nursing unit, now that I look at the list.

  8. Submitted by Nathan Fuerst on 10/14/2019 - 10:16 am.

    The difference in gendered utilization of public transit is well documented. The Authors’ assertion that public spaces could be better designed to facilitate safety and comfort for all users is NOT HARD to understand. The solutions are also spelled out in the article – better lighting, safety call boxes, etc.

    Although this work will require additional costs, they would be very minor in the grand scheme of things when designing/building new transit lines, etc. These are tangible things we can do to create a better system for everyone who uses it.

  9. Submitted by Christa Moseng on 10/14/2019 - 11:44 am.

    Maybe in the future MinnPost can designate a representative guy to post the things that all the guys are going to say in the replies to a gender-related post, instead of letting them all say basically the same thing which, generally, is that they don’t get it and/or don’t think it’s quite important enough to care about. Point taken, gentlemen.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/14/2019 - 05:04 pm.

      I think the guys posting questions were asking in good faith and wanted to understand. Calling them sexist because they don’t isn’t going to accomplish anything.

      • Submitted by Christa Moseng on 10/17/2019 - 09:50 am.

        I don’t think you read what I wrote, and your characterization of it is inaccurate.

        Several repetitive comments from men “in good faith” saying they don’t understand and criticizing this extremely brief commentary for not being in depth enough for them… how much did the third or fourth such comment add to the conversation? It’s sealioning, an activity pioneered and widely recognized to be conducted by men in our society.

        This wasn’t a thesis, it was clearly an introduction to a concept. The people who want to learn more could go research the concept in more detail themselves, rather than expect the author to answer their good faith curiosity in the comments (and presumably write off the commentary if she doesn’t).

        Certain people can’t calibrate the value of their contributions to what has already been added. That’s not calling them sexist, it’s just recognizing a common, well-understood incapacity to engage in self reflection and productive conversation. This happens to usually afflict men, and the consequences include discouraging women from involving themselves in public discourse. Which leads to impoverished decision making in various domains, including, particularly, the one that the author is highlighting.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/16/2019 - 08:30 am.

      The idea that better lighting, improved physical access, improved access to emergency response, and all other efforts to make our public spaces safer and more accommodating is a gender issue is blatantly sexist: Every male is being stereotyped as a knuckle dragging, head knocker with no need for any of the previously listed items.

      Public safety is absolutely an accommodation to all: male/female, young/old, weak/strong, etc…

      That this has become the province of “gender policy” academics is “turf expansion” by an academic area of study. Which is not bad in many respects and something I witnessed several times in my years at the U of MN. Also, not always the best use of limited resources.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/16/2019 - 09:16 am.

        Planning and data collection in most areas tend to be male-centric. There is an assumption that the default person – the hypothetical typical person around whom we design – is male. This affects many things in many areas (the dosage for medicine, the placement of restraints in a car, even the body armor worn by soldiers). It has nothing to do with “turf expansion” or hating on men. It’s just a reorientation of thinking.

        Today’s reading recommendation is “Invisible Women,” by Caroline Criado Perez.

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/16/2019 - 11:08 am.

          I can certainly agree that traditional male dominated fields, and there were/are lots and lots of them, have resulted in male oriented/biased solutions. The cure for this is gender balance in those fields. And in some areas progress has been made and in others not so much.

          Again, urban planning sees a 49/51 balance. I assume that this gives us a desirable basis for going forward: problem solved!

          Unsolved are the historical issues. Hopefully the gender balance will correct this as time marches forward in redesigns and updates.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/17/2019 - 09:06 am.

            It’s not just gender bias in the make up of the people working in fields, it’s the gender bias that informs how planning and studies are done. A woman who is asked to design a transit stop using only male-based data is going to come up with something that looks a lot like what we have now.

  10. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 10/15/2019 - 07:35 am.

    Why are some in the comments assuming the results of gender-inclusive planning processes would be more expensive to build, maintain, and construct? If anything, our hypermasculinized planning regime, the one that went all-in on the untested Suburban Experiment over the past 75 years, is the creator of high-cost low-return infrastructure. We can’t afford *not* to consider new perspectives.

  11. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 10/17/2019 - 10:05 pm.

    Seriously…(and I really mean this), if you are THAT uneasy, perhaps you should consider a concealed carry permit. Solves a lot of problems at a fairly low cost.

    Also, this being MinnPost, I doubt this comment will see the light of day.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/18/2019 - 11:21 am.

      Guns are not the solution to every problem. How about considering safety in the initial design, rather than counting on someone needing to use deadly force to defend themselves?

  12. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/18/2019 - 09:41 am.

    I agree that this piece could have been written more straight forward and with less jargon. If you want to introduce the concept of “gender mainstreaming”, do it at the end of the piece and put the meat of the issue up front. But, if readers were to actually read the piece all the way through, you do get to the point and provide a concrete example.

    For those who think that this is just a numbers game, the problem isn’t that women don’t have a voice in the process of designing our public transportation, it’s that they have a smaller voice (the 49% that keeps getting mentioned isn’t very informative–women still have a hard time building influence), and the rules for designing were designed for accommodating men. So,we need to look at the issue both holistically and on a case-by-case basis. Yes, better lighting and locations might be a holistic approach, but not every route has the same challenges. Plus, we don’t even have the right tools (again, as mentioned above by Mr. Holbrook–the data is male centric and incomplete data makes for incomplete results) to address the problems.

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