International Women’s Day 2010



Examining the Right to the City from a Gender Perspective


The right to the city is a collective right for all people who inhabit, access, and use the city. It entails not only the right to use what already exists in urban spaces, but also to define and create what should exist in order to meet the human needs to live a decent life in urban environments (Harvey, 2003)[1]. Following this understanding, it includes the right to use what the city has to offer and to participate in the creation or re-creation of those elements which it lacks.


Of course, there exists no singular homogenous human prototype to use as a basis to define what all people’s needs are, and in turn how they must be fulfilled through articulating their respective rights. The process of defining a particular human need to live an adequate standard of living must consider the multitude of different and intersecting[2] identities which live in a particular environment and how their social identity shapes the way they experience and create their surroundings.


Gender represents only one category of difference in identity, but it is one that affects every person on the planet, albeit in different ways. Beyond some of the violations of the right to the city involving spatial displacement — for example driven by forced evictions, gentrification, and beautification of the city — violations of women’s collective rights to the city occur on a daily basis, through their everyday life experiences and encounters with the city (Fenster, 2006). These daily realities are the product of the socially constructed functions and roles which pertain to gender categorizations, and the discriminations and inequalities experienced within these social constructions as the result of patriarchal power relations. Likewise, space is created or produced through social practices, and is therefore a product of the social and power relations in society (Fenster, 1999; Koskela, 1999). 


If we understand that people are not neutral and have been socially constructed into categories of gender, and we understand that space is also socially produced and does not simply exist (Koskela, 1999), then we can acknowledge that space is not neutral (Fenster, 1999; Muxi Martinez, 2009) and therefore must be analyzed with consideration of the different actors and functions which participate in the creation of everyday life. This is the key to understanding the particularities of women’s right to the city. The everyday experiences of women in cities directly stem from the social constructions of gender and space. As such, it is absolutely vital to any debate surrounding human rights — and in this case the right to the city — to incorporate an analysis of gender in order to fully examine the inequalities which exist, and to identify and satisfy human needs and human rights.

Towards a Common Agenda

Similar to the challenges in articulating a global right to the city movement[3], the inclusion of a gender perspective in this debate has varied in the contributions made by the different local, national, and international bodies involved. While particular contexts have influenced the criteria for defining women’s right to the city, some overarching criteria may be drawn from these articulations and can serve as a general overview to the debate, as presented in this paper.  They are distinguished below into five points of consideration; however it is important to mention here that none of these points may be fully realized if the others are not incorporated simultaneously. Just as the right to the city is composed of a set of collective rights, the points mentioned below must also be considered as interconnected and essential to the full realization of women’s equal use and participation in exercising their right to the city.


1.       Safety in urban environments

Fear of violence and the use of public space is a major cross-cutting issue when considering women’s right to the city, and wide-ranging discussions of women’s everyday life in cities most often indicate their safety as being a key issue. Women’s experience with violence is directly related to patriarchal power relations of domination which prevail in societies all over the world. While a large part of this violence indeed occurs within the home or private sphere, urban spaces present dangers to the lives of many women. Furthermore, the fear of violence remains present and is perhaps heightened among women who experience violence within the home, as understandably a “feeling of fear or threat cannot be expected to be spatially separated” (Koskela, pp. 113).


In the urban sphere, the unrestricted use of public space can be both a luxury and a source of threat and fear of violence. Within the right to the city, fulfilling a neutral right to use public space does not account for the patriarchal relations of power and control which are produced in public spaces.   Women experience a much higher threat of sexual violence than men, and as a result, tend to avoid certain areas they deem to be dangerous. In doing so, Koskela notes that “by restricting their mobility because of fear, women unwittingly reproduce masculine domination over space” (pp. 113). Therefore, in order to challenge male domination and patriarchy in general, ensuring women’s safety in public space is of key consequence.


2.       Public infrastructure and transportation

Ensuring women’s safety in cities is intricately linked to public infrastructure and transportation, as the risk of violence usually increases at night when streets and parks are poorly lit and when transportation is not as readily available and frequent. It is through safe, affordable and extensive means for mobility that women may fully exercise their rights to a safe city. In urban planning, it is important to ensure: that buildings and parks are well-lit; the availability of public phones for emergency situations; the availability of appropriate signage indicating transportation routes, emergency services, and general maps of the city; that transportation routes connect women to public services and sources of income within the proximity of their homes; and that transportation services and public infrastructure are accessible to children and the elderly, for whom women are primary caregivers.


3.       Proximity between housing, services and employment


Location, location, location. This pervasively used selling slogan for real estate advertisements indicates the situation of housing as the most important aspect when considering habitat within the city. The issue of transportation must also be viewed in light of Yves Jouffe’s (2010) valuation of proximity above accessibility[4]. Women are primarily responsible for reproductive work — such as caring for children, the elderly, and the home — and are also largely involved in productive, income-earning labour. The services they need in their daily use of the city — the home, workplaces, and commercial centres — are all dispersed, creating difficulties for women’s mobility to access all of these services. Proximity to the quotidian uses of the city is most important for women, considering the greater variety of their needs and roles within the city.


4.       Breaking the dichotomy of public and private domains


The separation between public and private spheres must be examined in order to fully understand women’s particular needs in fulfilling their right to the city, as noted by Tovi Fenster (2006)[5]. This public/private divide may be better understood as domains where productive/reproductive work is realized, respectively. While productive work, including income-producing activities, is still regarded as primarily men’s work in many societies around the world, reproductive work, caring for families and the home, is considered to be traditionally women’s work. Urban spaces have been designed to value production and undervalue reproduction (Martinez, 2009), putting particular pressure on women considering their participation in both realms. This is not to say that women do not partake in productive work or vice versa for men. However, this sexual division of labour presents another blockade in the equal use of the city when the city is currently designed in favour of economically driven productive work, and can be very unfriendly to reproductive work activities, usually undertaken by women. Additionally, the reproductive work that women perform within as well as outside of the home must be viewed in light of its direct impact on the capacity for productive work in the public sphere. The reproductive work of caring for the home, children, the elderly and spouses or partners is a support to these individuals to be productive in their economic, academic, social and political endeavours outside of the home. This reproductive work is assigned no monetary value but is nevertheless innumerable and invaluable.


5.       Participation in decision making, governance and planning


Following the second central aspect of the right to the city — the right to participate in the city’s creation or re-creation — it is absolutely vital that women are involved in urban planning, local governance and decision-making processes related to their urban environments. This includes the equal participation of women in all levels of government, positions as architects and urban planners, and forming formal working relationships between feminist and women’s organizations and local governments. 

It is not only impossible to discuss the right to the city for all people while neglecting to consider the pluralities which encompass this idea of ‘all’, but it is also counter to what this right actually represents and strives for. Due to a naturalized gendered society, fulfilling particular human rights for men may actually lead to the violation of other particular human rights for women. This presents the debate of the right to the city for all with a contradiction. To continue in the struggles for the right to the city without consideration for gendered differences in everyday life, realizing the right to a neutral city may very well infringe upon women’s right to the city.

Some of the points listed above have indeed been included in the World Charter for the Right to the City; however they pertain more to the accessibility of services and less to women’s equal participation in the creation of urban spaces or to challenging persistent gender inequalities. Also, widespread discussions which include a gender perspective in the debates which have followed the creation of the Charter are still lacking. It is absolutely essential to understand that there exists no one identity in any given society and as such, difference must be included in the development of the right to the city so as to avoid the same hegemonic power dynamics which have contributed to the massive inequalities that exist in contemporary cities. Gender roles must be challenged so as to break down these power dynamics which relate directly to the social construction of space and have negative impacts on realizing women’s rights to the city. Further, women must be included in the participatory planning processes which shape debates around the right to the city, as they represent an overarching group of intersecting identities which experience the city in different ways. Although there are differences in the particularities of different groups of women’s needs and uses for the city, the commonalities as mentioned above need to be incorporated into all global debates surrounding the right to the city. 


Eurocultures, FOPA Dortmund, et. al.   “European Charter for Women in the City: Moving towards a Gender-Conscious City”. 1994.


Fenster, Tovi. “Gender and Human Rights: Implications for Planning and Development”. Gender, Human Rights and Planning, Tovi Fenster (ed.). Routledge. London; New York. 1999.


Fenster, Tovi. “The Right to the City and Gendered Everyday Life”. Makan, Adalah’s Journal for Land, Planning and Justice.  Vol. 1, pp. 40-50. 2006.

Harvey, David. “The Right to the City” in New Left Review.  vol. 53, pp. 23-40. September-October 2008.

Habitat International Coalition. “Proposal for a Charter on Women’s Right to the City”.   2005.


Jouffe, Yves. “Countering the Right to the Accessible City: The Perversity of a Consensual Demand”. Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences Towards the Right to the City. Ana Sugranyes and Charlotte Mathivet (eds.). 2010.

Koskela, Hille. “‘Gendered exclusions’: Women’s fear of violence and changing relations to space”. Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Human Georgraphy. Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 111-124. 1999.


Muxi Martinez, Zaida. “Space is not neutral: Some reflections on habitation and the city from a gender standpoint”. Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Bulletin on Housing Rights and the Right to the City in Latin America, vol. 1, no. 5, pp. 3-4. December 2008-January 2009.


UN-Habitat, Warsaw Office. “Women’s Safety Audits for a Safer Urban Design”. October 2007.


See Charlotte Mathivet, The Right to the City: Keys to Understanding the Proposal for ‘Another City is Possible’, in HIC publication “Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City”. 2010.


Intersecting identities, widely recognized in feminist literature, include a combination of social identities such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and physical ability, among others factors. All of these factors can contribute to a person’s experience with discrimination, inequality, and violence in intersecting ways, depending upon the systems of power and oppression which surround and affect them. This discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to note that the right to the city debate should include examinations of all of these identities which experience discrimination and violations of their human rights.


See Giuseppe Caruso, A New Alliance for the City? Opportunities and Challenges of a Global(izing) Right to the City movement, in HIC publication “Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City”. 2010.

[4] See Yves Jouffe, Countering the Right to the Accessible City: The Perversity of a Consensual Demand, in HIC publication “Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City”. 2010.

[5] See Tovi Fenster, “The Right to the City and Gendered Everyday Life”. Makan, Adalah’s Journal for Land, Planning and Justice. Vol. 1, pp. 40-50. 2006.