Public spaces should benefit men and women equally, but they often have different needs, priorities, challenges and vulnerabilities. More than men, women value comfort and safety over flexibility. Perceptions of lack of safety in public spaces can make women feel anxious and less likely to occupy these spaces

Spaces that are used by both men and women are not neutrally gendered.

Men and women's experience of the same place can be quite different. Debates on the status of women generally focus on private spheres, but constraints and inequality in using urban outdoor spaces are generally neglected.

Public spaces enable women, girls, elderly and other marginalised groups to participate in public life.

It is, thus, important to ensure that women and girls are safe and feel comfortable in public spaces.

As we move toward the goal of creating safer cities for women and girls, we must recognise the new realities women over the world are facing.

Public spaces are germane for sustainable living as they facilitate social interactions and help to develop local identities.

However, while designing such spaces, particularly in a patriarchal society like Nepal, the gender dimension is often overlooked.

Public spaces should benefit men and women equally, but they often have different needs, priorities, challenges and vulnerabilities.

For example, women are more likely than men to make multiple stops, to be carrying packages or child-related items, and to be accompanied by children and elderly. More than men, they value comfort and safety over flexibility.

Perceptions of lack of safety in public spaces can make women feel anxious and less likely to occupy these spaces. This means that women miss out on the positive effects of public space on their health and wellbeing.

For many women and girls in Kathmandu, just passing through a public space like a market, a crowded street or waiting at the bus stop is cause for anxiety.

The threat of sexual harassment can be terrifying and have lingering psychological impacts and consequences.

Unfortunately, patterns of sexual abuse in urban public spaces are often seen as an unavoidable part of urban life and not recognised as a problem.

Women feel insecure in public spaces due to multiple factors like poor design and infrastructure, society's behavioural pattern, gender stereotypes, shortcomings of the education system (towards gender relations, sexuality) and economic disparity.

Everyday public spaces in Kathmandu, especially the stops, streets and sidewalks are often chaotic, poorly planned and maintained places. Comfort and safety issues while using these public spaces remain a daily concern for many girls and women residing in Kathmandu.

When it comes to sexual harassment in public spaces, the issue of women's sexual right, psychological trauma and women empowerment dominate the discourse.

Such harassment experience not only makes women traumatic but also has a long-term effect on their access to socio-economic opportunity and their mobility pattern.

There are many women who choose to abandon well-paying evening shift jobs just because of safety concerns in the public spaces.

They tend to choose jobs located closer to their homes even if their wages are higher at a further location, to avoid a long commute.

The constant possibility of the so-called "undesirables" in the public places control several aspects of women's lives, including their timings of travel, choice of clothing, body language and behaviour in the public sphere.

Safe public spaces designed from a gender perspective are an essential component of safe cities for women and girls.

Bus stops, sidewalks and streets are everyday public places where diverse forms of gender-based violence against women occur on a daily basis, including sexual abuse, harassment, groping, use of vulgar language, catcalling, intimidation and assault.

For these reasons, safety is a precondition for women and girls' ability to exercise their right to freedom of movement and their right to use and enjoy the city and its public spaces.

When key destinations are clustered near everyday places, people's daily routines can become more pleasantly efficient. To make this a reality, we can encourage agencies and advocates to use, build upon and share a participatory framework.

In the long process of equitably and sustainably reshaping our cities, seamlessly integrating public spaces into the communities they serve is a critical step.

While designing public spaces, gender-specific study should be carried out.

Public space policy must include gender indicators.

Good design of such spaces could play a role in minimising probable circumstances of discomfort.

In order to understand how to create, plan and manage public spaces so that they are safe and inclusive for women and girls, those planning, managing or governing cities should understand women and girls' experiences and how they are able to use (or not use) public space. Women and girls must be consulted and made an integral part of urban planning and decision-making processes.

As designers, urban planners and architects, we have the responsibility to consider all members of a community regardless of age, sex, culture or abilities.

That is, to develop a truly inclusive design that considers the community's diverse needs.

Partnerships with architects, urban planners, transit authorities, landscape architects and planning agencies, and educating the design professions about ways to build projects from the outset that consider women's distinct needs as a key element of their design programme could set the stage for and induce the psycho-social, behavioural and cultural changes that need to take place before women are truly able to enjoy public spaces.

Thoughtful design can help to address the barriers to women's participation in public spaces, and assist in transforming a space into one that is used by women, girls and families.

Once transformed, public spaces can become anchors to safe, inclusive and thriving urban centres.

Mathema is an architect

A version of this article appears in the print on April 23, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.