Infrastructure investment, design and gender-based violence

By Dr. Anu Ramaswami | February 9, 2017

The Democrats, Republicans, and the White House are in the midst of hashing out a large scale infrastructure bill in the coming weeks and months. Aside from addressing the maintenance needs of much of the United States, infrastructure spending is billed as a way to boost jobs, and stimulate the economy. President Trump has also called cities dangerous war zones throughout the campaign and since taking office – a claim that has been challenged.  While he has not focused in his statements on violence against women within urban areas, it is possible that his proposed new infrastructure spending could be an opportunity to address gender-based violence and some of its affects.

In a 2016 interview, Dr. Anu Ramaswami, Director of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network and a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota pointed out that cities are not gender neutral, and that very little is known about how safe women feel or best practices for incorporating safety from gender-based violence in public infrastructure projects.

‘So far, much of the study of women’s safety has focused on topics such as domestic violence, and relatively little is known about dangers to women in public spaces,’ said Anu Ramaswami. Now, efforts are increasing to figure out what makes certain areas feel insecure. For example, women will cross the street if one side has certain types of shops or businesses – from liquor stores to more off-putting establishments. ‘Cities are not gender-neutral,’ Ramaswami said. ‘We should think about how planners can help from a gender perspective and make sure that social services – the police, the judiciary, hospitals – are engineered while taking gender issues into account.’ Building Safer and More Inclusive Cities

Some consequences of women feeling unsafe in urban spaces include decreased employment and educational opportunities and more driving/less public transportation (both of which disproportionately affect low income women).  These conditions can be alleviated through thoughtful design in infrastructure planning, such as lighting, wait times, etc.   For example, Yingling Fan, Associate Professor in the Urban and Regional Planning area at the Humphrey School, found the “basic amenities including benches and shelters significantly reduce perceived waiting times. Women waiting for more than 10 minutes in surroundings perceived to be insecure, report waits as dramatically longer than they really are, and longer than do men in the same situation.”  Perceptions of longer wait times can decrease use of public transportation.

However, according to the World Bank the consideration of gender-based violence in infrastructure projects is growing.  “GBV [gender based violence] is increasingly brought into the design and implementation of large-scale projects, particularly in the transport, infrastructure, and urban development sectors. Incidents of GBV span the map of women’s daily movements—so a broad focus is needed in developing safe environments.”  The World Bank highlights two projects they funded – one in Brazil and another in Ecuador, where major transportation infrastructure projects were designed with safety for female users at the center.

What if US infrastructure projects included a similar requirement?  Given an administration that seeks to reduce regulations, this may be unlikely.  However, there may be other ways to work with the state and local governments implementing infrastructure projects to adopt a similar approach.  With a possible trillion dollar investment forthcoming, perhaps now is the time to figure those strategies out.

Dr. Anu Ramaswami, Director of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network and a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota