Gender & the City: this is how female-friendly Leuven is

Leuven vrouwenstad

A survey by Veto found that female students perceive Leuven as more unsafe than male students/their male counterparts. Although the public space also plays a role in that feeling, the dominant culture in particular seems to play a role in that feeling of insecurity.

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73% of female respondents in Veto's survey said they 'sometimes' or 'often' felt unsafe in Leuven. 26% reported having already experienced an unsafe situation. That percentage is higher among female than male students, which is in line with a broader trend: 'Although men experience more violent acts in public, they feel safer than women,' says Hilde Heynen, Professor of Architectural Theory. Urban planning can play a role in this.

For and by men

Historically, cities have been very masculine, Heynen explains. 'Buildings of power were built for men, while buildings for women were more so part of everyday life, so they are less well preserved.' The same applies to public transport: 'The male patterns of travel in the city are the default due to historical legacy.'

Cities were not only made for men but also by men. This has changed since. Heynen: 'Many women now work for urban administrations, but it is still important to develop a sensitivity to the gender aspect then.' Since the last century, this has been intensively considered in the field of urban studies.

Eyes and ears on the street

One of the concepts of feminist urbanism is the '15-minute city'. In such a 15-minute city, all daily stops from anywhere in the city can be reached on foot or by bike within 15 minutes. 'Leuven definitely meets that concept,' Heynen points out. So in that respect, the city is very user-friendly for both men and women.

Another concern journalist and activist Jane Jacobs introduced back in the 1950s was 'Eyes on the street'. A safe city neighbourhood is one with a variety of functions such as housing, work and recreation where there is always someone keeping an eye on things. Although some neighbourhoods still have 'WhatsApp brigades' peeking out the window, Jacobs' original idea lost value due to the new screen generation not keeping an eye on the outside world.

When you're walking home through sleeping neighbourhoods at night, the lack of social control can feel scary

Yet 'Eyes on the street' is still relevant today, Polina Medvedeva argues, feminist researcher at Bauhaus: 'I feel safer in the busy neighbourhood of a big city than in a small town without much social control from the people around me.' While Leuven benefits from a lively small centre, there are nevertheless sleepy neighbourhoods when you walk to your student flat in the evening. Then a lack of social control can sometimes feel scary too.

In Arenberg Park, there may be few eyes on the street at night, but there are ears. Blue SOS poles have been colouring the path through the park since the turn of the century. They came there in response to a murder, but the police in Leuven already indicated that they are still mostly abused by students. 'After that event there was panic and then it is reassuring to put those poles up. Meanwhile, we all have mobile phones and they are losing their value,' Heynen concludes.

The danger lurking in the bushes

Some activists also argue for more trees instead of bushes and hedges: that way visibility would be greater when danger lurks. But Heynen puts this into perspective: 'I think that is a step too far. In the city, we should dedicate every square metre to greenery.' She adds: 'That fits within the narrative that danger lurks behind bushes, which is much less the case these days.'

Polina Medvedeva researches women's safety and emotions in green public spaces. She puts her finger on the problem: 'Small interventions such as additional lighting may make life easier, but they do not take away the feelings of insecurity. The problem is complex and systematic.'

'When a park only has one entrance, it creates an enclosed and unsafe feeling experience.'

Polina Medvedeva, Bauhaus researcher

One small intervention Medvedeva does advocate is multiple entrances and exits at parks and squares. 'When there is only one entrance, it creates an enclosed and unsafe feeling experience.' Parks should become places where everyone can spend time.

Varied and crowded places like Sint-Donatuspark and Arenbergpark in Leuven meet these requirements, while smaller parks like Mariapark can still give a more enclosed feeling. The basketball court in the little green square on Hendrik Consciencestraat is another good example of a recreational opportunity in a space that is not enclosed.

Towards inclusiveness for all

In a feminist city, everyone has access. Hai-Chay Jiang, Department Head of Diversity and Equal Opportunities at the City of Leuven says: 'We work very closely with the city planning cell, especially with a view to physical accessibility for everyone in public spaces. That also means a gender-inclusive environment.'

'Both often go hand in hand,' adds Chanelle Delameillieure, Expert on Diversity and Equal Opportunities at the City of Leuven. For example, the benches on the Vaartkom are adjusted to accommodate both a wheelchair and a buggy.

'We talk a lot more fear into girls during parenting.'

Hilde Heynen, Professor of Architectural Theory

Not only students, but also children are included in the city tale. 'After research, it was found that girls between 12 and 14 were absent from playgrounds,' Jiang explains. 'That was remedied by the city planner of Leuven's playgrounds who is affiliated with the youth service. By shortening the distance between users and the city planner, widely accessible playgrounds were created.'

'Can I go to the toilet?

The female-friendliness of cities goes beyond a sense of safety: it is also about street names, statues and toilets. For example, although there are female statues in Leuven such as the Kotmadam or the Fiere Margriet, they often do not personify concrete, historical figures.

'Research showed that Leuven has one and a half times as many public men's toilets as women's toilets,' Heynen explains, 'and that while traffic jams are already longer at women's toilets anyway.' Yet thanks to KU Leuven, female students are hardly bothered by this. Although universities are historically male environments, they do provide accessible toilets everywhere in Leuven.

Inside the mind

While urbanism does come into play, it can hardly explain some female students' feeling of insecurity. Is it at all possible for a city to create an environment where all genders feel equally safe?

According to Heynen, the problem for Leuven lies elsewhere: the general culture. 'Uncomfortable sex is often on the verge of rape. This then happens not in the public space, but after people have gone home together,' she says. 'In addition, we also talk a lot more fear into girls during parenting.' The paradox is that men are more likely to come into contact with violence on the street, while for women it is more often sexual. 'Although there is not much violence against women in public, they are very fearful of it.'

City of Leuven calls to intervene in transphobia, homophobia, and gender discrimination

The City of Leuven is trying to help with the mental shift beyond gender. Projects such as 'Got Your Back' call for people to act or intervene in the face of transphobia, homophobia and gender discrimination in the city. 'The responsibility to respond lies with everyone, not just those who don't feel at home in the city.'

Recently, the courses have also been open to Leuven residents. Delameillieure is satisfied: 'The fact that the courses are full shows that there is broad interest among society.'

Care centres

The city of Leuven consults with various agencies such as the Rainbow House, the youth service and KU Leuven. Jiang: 'There is still a lot of work to do to raise further awareness and recognise the shortcomings. Although we are already consulting with various agencies, there is relatively little activism from young women.'

Heynen nurtures hope: 'There will be a care centre after sexual violence. That is very positive.' Now the official figures of women reporting rape are a tenth of actual rapes. 'If twice as many are already being helped, that's a good thing.'

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