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Building an Inclusive City: Urban Public Space through the Female Gaze

“In the light of enormous and rapid shifts in theoretical, historical and critical debate, particularly with respect to feminism, understanding architecture in relation to gender demands an urgent contextualization.” (Gender Space Architecture, 2000)

Having experienced the architecture industry scene in Kuala Lumpur, I started to question the role of architects and planners that places a critical responsibility on them in shaping our urban public space. While there are initiatives proposed by local authorities and urban designers to include public participation in the design process, the system is still lacking in terms of engaging gender-sensitive aspects in urban design.

The term ‘female gaze’ is used to not just highlight the gendered inclusive view and its effects on the built environment, but also to put a note on femininity in the architectural language used that can somehow be ‘more sensed and relatable’ as Izaskun Chinchilla (2016) puts it. In order to understand how we can build an inclusive city, the role of women and the everyday narrative of gender roles in the built environment profession needs to be explored to reveal how both are able to contribute in achieving the objective.

Gender-Sensitive Views on Everyday Urban Transitional Spaces

Everyday life creates a definite pattern in social construction and the use of public spaces. It allows us to study and observe the sensitive aspects through public habits and activity based on their everyday schedule.

These transitional spaces that the public rarely views as a definite space in their everyday urban journey are actually constructing the urban fabric, collecting memories and experiences of the user which depends on the physical condition of each space.

Wanita (2015) by Aishah Mokhtar

Urban Mode of Transportation
The urban journey starts when the user steps out from point A to get to point B, depending on their everyday activity, whether to get to work, take their children to school, pick up morning groceries, and so on. The mode of transportation dictates the journey experience and informs the urban landscape design.

Women are usually associated with a more complex use of transit due to childcare drop off and pick up, grocery shopping, children’s extracurricular activities, and so on. In a physical sense, it is often difficult for mothers to use public transportation accompanied by small children or a mother traveling in rush-hour with no place to sit may confront many challenges (Women in The City, 2004).

Constructing Moments (2015) by Aishah Mokhtar

Urban Workplace
Apart from chasing career goals, the expensive living lifestyle in Kuala Lumpur is one of the major reasons why most women start to venture into the urban workplace in order to make ends meet for their family and domestic responsibilities. Taking the same concept as urban public spaces, the workplace is a definite focus of urban transitional space in the city where most of our scheduled time is accounted for and paid for by the hour. Putting workplace in a notion of an open space where gender from different backgrounds and social habits are constructed by daily basis, as the activities contributes a spatial dimension. Since our society is strongly shaped by the gender system, with the respect to the use, appropriation, and assessment of space, this means that women and men often have different demands when it comes to gender sensitivity in open spaces (Open Space and Gender, 2007).

Places of Worship
If the everyday scenarios women encounter in female prayer spaces were to be studied, various findings could be discovered that could be analyzed to inform the design criteria in detail. The type of events that are usually found in female prayer space are for example: women using the space as a resting place where they comfortably remove their scarf to cool down from outdoor heat. A group of children can also be seen running around while waiting for their mothers and may lead to a sense of discomfort for the mothers who worry about disturbing others.

It seems that the female prayer space functions as more than just a prayer space, but rather also a collective space for women. When designers fail to understand these basic habits, it then results in restricting movement in an already small space which then affects social mobility and transition from one place to another.

Urban Parlour (2015) by Aishah Mokhtar

Public Parks/Alleys/Streets
A public gathering in the city happens in the most unpredictable spaces depending on the type of shading device provided, current weather, and the type of public seating designed for the outdoors. Hence, most urban public interaction happens through alleyways, streets, and informal nooks in between urban blocks.

When imagining how a city for women looks, the space should enable women to saunter and loiter in an urban public space without feeling a sense of fear at any time of the day. When it comes to having a gender inclusive view on an urban public space, it is usually the matter of safety that becomes one of the main points rather than making the space more engaging and inclusive for  women (Feminist Disability Theory, 2016). The notion of designing urban space for women needs to go beyond safety issues to focus more on how to bring inclusivity into space.

The role of designers as decision-makers should always be challenged by the public to bring out a better way of living and to offer stable social mobility, especially for the minorities. To begin, we have to start at the very fundamental root, investigating the existing urban spaces and identifying elements that are missing and can be improved on so women will have a more inclusive experience in urban public spaces.

Whimsical City, (n/d) by Aishah Mokhtar

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