Bhubaneswar Needs More Women-Friendly Spaces To Become A Smart City

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In 1948, Bhubaneswar became the modern capital of Odisha, the first planned capital city of Independent India. The plan was drafted with the principle that every woman in the city must be able to walk to the nearest public health centre or market. Bhubaneswar was planned on the lines of a neighbourhood city with a lot of open spaces, women and children-centric.

But somehow, over the years, to address the challenges of urbanisation, Bhubaneswar lost its neighbourhood character, with urban problems being added to its kitty. Becoming a model for the country in integrating women-centric urban planning got lost in the process.

In a study of women’s role in cities, historian Elizabeth Wilson wrote, “Although women along with minorities, children and the poor are still not full citizens in the sense that they have never been granted full and free access to the streets, industrial life still drew them into public life and they have survived and flourished in the interstices of the city, negotiating the contradictions of the city in their own particular way.”

Seventy years passed and once again, modern city planners started advocating building cities that are more responsive towards women.

So, the big question is when the debate is on women’s safety and a smart city, can Bhubaneswar or any other city retrofit or build around women’s requirements, particularly safety. Thankfully, the answer is in the affirmative, as now many cities in the world have been planned as women-friendly.

Actually, building a women-centric city is not an expensive proposition. It just requires a bit of innovation. Making such a city, that is more inclusive, helps not only women but others too.

Like many other cities, Bhubaneswar also grew on production and consumption-based ideas and was designed keeping in the mind the ‘male worker’. This one-sided ideology behind urban planning led to more exclusions, lack of opportunities, infrastructure and services, which impact women’s access. For example, poor connectivity through public transport or wrongly-designed zebra crossing,s or poor access to public toilets are the everyday challenges that women and girls face in Bhubaneswar. It is only in the past few years that there has been an increased focus on safety in public spaces and cities.

It is time that urban planners understand the needs of women in the planning process.

Studies and city audits, both in Bhubaneswar and internationally, have consistently pointed out that well-designed, well-illuminated and inclusive public spaces are more likely to be used by all including children, youths, elders and women irrespective of their social status. On the flip side, a badly-designed public space with poor lighting is always a source of crime and a challenge for women.

There is an urgent need to reimagine cities beyond the traditional master plans. It is true that there are multiple stakeholders with self-interest in most of the public spaces in urban areas. Public spaces have to be reinvented within such constraints.

The argument that the absence of women leadership in imagining a city’s future is a major drawback does not hold true today as fifty per cent of people’s representatives in local democracy are represented by women. The challenge is how effectively these women representatives are able to push agendas that have bee ignored over the years where the male counterpart still influences policy-making as a proxy representative.

Over years, governments have spent a lot of money on building public infrastructure to bring the city into order. There have also been steps like reservation of seats for women in public transport etc but these are just ceremonial and not really aimed at empowering women.

A recent study on Pink Autos & Women Special buses revealed that many felt as if they were ignored by their own society. Such services do not benefit women who move around with a male (husband, father, friend or brother) since they cant’ use this service.

Urban planning must enable vibrant economic, social and political engagement for the largest number of people, keeping in mind the requirements of all in the society. Vienna in Austria is a brilliant example. Others, such as Stockholm, Bogota and New York etc. have what Bhubaneswar missed implementing sixty-six years ago – a city in which women can walk without fear.

Most of these cities added more neighbourhood parks with high perches for girls where they could see across the park; fences that had gaps in them, so they wouldn’t feel trapped; and different sports courts, so if one space was taken over by boys, they’d have other options to play. They widened the sidewalks and built huge ramps near the major intersections to make movement easier for people with strollers, wheelchairs or walkers. They added lighting to the streets to make women feel safer at night and moved bus stops to spots where women felt comfortable waiting. In these cities, every design decision takes into account the needs of girls and women as well as other often-overlooked groups, such as immigrants and the disabled. which they call “gender mainstreaming” or “fair-shared cities”.

Today, when decision-makers of Bhubaneswar are advocating a SMART world-class city, then it can’t ignore women, children, and the differently-abled. They have to take simple steps like ensuring adequate and functional public toilets, proper barrier-free zebra crossings, access to public spaces; utility services like public health centres, markets, schools within walking distance and efficient street lighting at night. Such steps could break significant ground in ensuring cities built around women, children, and the differently-abled etc. Separate women’s special buses, autos or police stations alone can’t solve the problems of our cities.

We need to build or retrofit our cities, looking at all the stakeholders. It is time to set an example. Hopefully, the mistakes of the past will be corrected while building Bhubaneswar into a SMART city.

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