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March 6, 2016

Budapest Not Female Friendly

Budapest Not Female Friendly

Written by Csaba Mezei and Ida Kiss

Budapest’s public amenities often neglect women’s needs, including a lack of public security and pedestrian ways that aren’t passable with baby strollers, according to research presented during SEiSMiC.

A study by Hungarian architect Ida Kiss, a partner of the OPAQ studio, surveyed more than 200 women living in Budapest with the aim of ascertaining their needs regarding public spaces, and the extent to which Budapest meets them. High on the list was a need for public safety as well as accessibility for those with small children.

Budapest was found wanting on both counts, and a lack of women in city leadership was believed a major reason, according to the research, which Kiss presented at the SEiSMiC Hungarian National Network workshop (Women and the City, March 9, 2015).

Budapest’s male-centrism starts at City Hall where not a single woman holds a top position, neither as mayor nor as one of several deputy mayors, according to 2010 figures. The City Assembly counts 66 men and only 13 women. Out of the city’s 15 commission leaders, just five were women. There was no dedicated position for gender issues in any of the municipal departments or offices.

The research defined the characteristics of a “sexist city” designed and developed mainly by men according to remits from the male-dominated administration. Examples included dimly lit spaces, pedestrian zones with rough surfaces, narrow passages and parking spaces, unfriendly colours and materials on the streets and a lack of parks and playgrounds. 

In her SEiSMiC presentation, Kiss talked about relevant policies of the United Nations and European Union, including the recently published Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019. Unfortunately, European gender policies are not always reflected in those of the member states, Hungary included.

Kiss noted that after becoming a mother, she grew more sensitive to Budapest’s male-centric urban planning. “Becoming a mother intensified my female perspective. Going out onto the street was like being in a different dimension, everything changed. Safety played a much bigger role; smells, colors and people were all different and a bit suspicious, as well. Using the city with a child in tow was a difficult task, although living here was also easy in a way, as everything is nearby and sustaining connections goes smoothly, too. It should only be a bit better by creating more accessible and greener spaces.”

Routine city travel is more complicated for women, especially those with families, Kiss’s research found. Therefore urban structures and public transport, for example, should be designed with a multidisciplinary approach, which is also in line with the principles of sustainability.

Women use and sense public space differently so planners need to consider how spaces will look from a female perspective. What colors, materials and plants should be used?

The research included a questionnaire targeting more than 200 women ages 20-46 living in Budapest. Results showed that most of the respondents had families with at least one child, and that they routinely used public transport or a car in the city. To the question of “How do you use the city differently than men?” some of the typical responses were: ‘I walk slower’, ‘I carry a baby’, ‘I avoid dark and insecure places’, ‘I do not use public toilets’, ‘I prefer green places’, and ‘I cannot orientate myself very easily without proper street signs’.

Furthermore the importance of involving different societal groups in urban planning was mentioned as essential for creating more livable cities where spaces satisfy the needs of every group, offering real community functions with lots of services (education, shopping, leisure, health, etc.).

Besides UN and EU policies on gender-sensitive urban planning, a few best practices from Europe were mentioned, including Vienna’s Frauen-Werk-Stadt residential area. Kiss mentioned good practices from Budapest as well, including a guerilla knitting group (women transforming urban objects into colourful art) and the ReHydrant project (in which female designers invented a special drinking appliance that can be installed on fire-hydrants so that they can also serve as public drinking-water fountains). 

Related video (Women and the city workshop):