Gender sensitive planning and urban design for cities to respond to GBVF

The National Strategic Plan (NSP) to address Gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) aims to create an enabling environment in which women can feel safe. Absent from the NSP is the role of city planning towards this goal. This article will illustrate how gender-sensitive planning and urban design (GSP&UD) together with the implementation of the development principle of ‘spatial justice’, in the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act 16 of 2013 (SPLUMA), may serve as a mechanism for the improved safety of women.

Women’s right to freedom of security in the City 

Women are disproportionately affected by poverty and violence. Women, living in sprawling informal settlements, are subjected to poor transportation, lighting, electricity, and gaps in basic services such as water and sanitation. They live in constant fear of violence. For example, in Diepsloot women have notoriously been raped and murdered on public roads.

The inaction of cities exacerbates the problem. The Safe and Inclusive Cities program confirms that a lack of responsive planning, among other things, deepens the insecurities and tensions already experienced by women. It is well known that city planning remains class, race and gender-neutral. As a consequence, this increases  marginalisation of vulnerable groups in society. It is for this reason that as far back as 1968, concepts of and struggles for social inclusion in urban planning emerged. ‘The Right to the City’ developed in  New York to ensure that marginalised groups have equal access to the city. It presents a “renewed access to urban life,” one that empowers city dwellers to shape the city as they see fit through rights to participation and active civil engagement. Based on these underpinnings global movements such as the GSP&UD movement gained momentum. During the seventies, women planners advocated for the recognition and involvement of women in city planning and design, thus, integrating feminist theory and planning theory. International organisations such as the World Bank, promote the implementation of GSP&UD in response to urbanisation in which women compete for scarce resources.  

The development principle of ‘spatial justice’ and GSP&UD 

SPLUMA is a national framework legislation which came into operation on 1 July 2015. SPLUMA’s primary aim is to provide a uniform framework relating to the establishment of policies and systems for planning and land use management across the country. The Act creates a normative framework comprising five development principles that apply throughout the Act. The role of the development principles is to interpret planning concepts within a developmental context. They apply to the cities’ spatial development frameworks (SDFs), land-use management systems (LUMS) and development practices. This article focuses on the development principle of ‘spatial justice’ in the context of GSP&UD and GBVF. The discussion is organised along five themes.

First: improved localised data on GBVF

SPLUMA’s emphasis on redress for previously disadvantaged groups forces cities to confront past patterns of development. Women suffering from GBVF qualify as a disadvantaged group. Therefore, special measures need to be adopted to ensure the SDFs, LUMS and development practices focus on women’s safety. These planning instruments must positively promote women’s participation in planning and decision making. To achieve this, cities need to collect local data from women, to better understand their circumstances and unique needs. This type of data is essential to inform GSP&UD.

Second: tackle the places that facilitate crime against women and girls

Research indicates that the spatial layout of South Africa’s informal settlements and the design of informal housing endanger women’s safety. Insufficient public street lighting leaves women vulnerable in dark areas where they are at risk to physical and sexual assault. When toilets are located far from their homes women face even greater chances of being attacked. Women living in townships lament how walking past shebeens threatens their safety. Cities, need to employ a GSP&UD approach to overcome these barriers, namely, through the development of improved spatial layouts. GSP&UD must guide cities’ planning to appropriately zone shebeens.

GSP&UD promotes public places as a means to empower and capacitate women. International practice demonstrates examples of how public spaces can be used to stimulate social interaction, and connection, improved physical and mental health, environmental benefits, and in some cases economic value. Furthermore, the 2016 UN-Habitat Conference, HABITAT III, adopted what it called The New Urban Agenda, which focused on public space as a promoter of sustainable cities that facilitate ‘inclusive, connected, safe and accessible' cities. Mindful of these ideals it is argued that the deliberate use of public spaces can be used to address social inequalities and may serve as a measure for the empowerment of women. One of the hallmarks of GBVF is the feeling of isolation and being disconnected from opportunities for help. The stated measures will stimulate social cohesion, making women feel connected and enable GBVF survivors to actively develop agency. This is especially true when women’s self-belief and value is enhanced so they feel a sense of belonging and security.

Third: greater access to land  

GSP&UD aims to reshape the spaces where urban women live, work, and socialise. GBVF research indicates that women often remain in abusive relations when they lack secure tenure. Prior to SPLUMA the value of property was one of the determinents whether land was earmarked for ‘affordable’ housing. This principle no longer applies in SPLUMA. In contrast, SPLUMA instructs a Municipal Planning Tribunal not to be ‘restricted or impeded’ by the value of property when considering development applications. SPLUMA, thus establishes a ‘social land function’ i.e. placing the social value of land over the monetary value of the land. Adopting a GSP&UD approach would promote the use of land for mixed-use developments where residential areas, office parks, shops, schools and other public services are close together. This must include the creation of various housing options, including rental accommodation, which is accessible to women, particularly vulnerable women.

Fourth: flexible land-use management

SPLUMA instructs cities to adopt flexible and appropriate LUMS for townships. The principle of spatial justice aims to generate a nuanced LUMS and facilitate informal local economy. Research confirms that economically empowered women are more likely to leave abusive relationships. A GSP&UD approach advocates for extensive consultation with women in the development of planning instruments to ensure their unique needs are accommodated. SPLUMA makes public consultation on the LUMS mandatory so in a sense this serves as an active platform for collaboration between the city planners and affected women to create local markets and special economic zones for example to foster women’s economic empowerment. 

Fifth: proper planning for improved infrastructure

SPLUMA demands that cities’ SDFs and policies apply throughout the city. Previously, cities failed to govern certain areas falling within their planning schemes - particularly if they were considered to be illegal and ‘troublesome’ areas like informal settlements. This is no longer the case as all land within the cities’ jurisdiction must be governed. Therefore, all land is now subject to city planning.  The SDFs may thus be used to better plan infrastructure and investment. Quality infrastructure from transport, energy and water to public parks and museums creates inclusive growth and supports sustainable development. GSP&UD promotes infrastructural plans that directly respond to women’s needs which include, gender mobility, emergency responses on transport, and improved pathways which women frequent by brighter lighting and pedestrian crossing. Research confirms that infrastructural assets could improve women’s living conditions. Therefore, GSP&UD encourages cities to explore issues such as women’s needs in accessing water points, types, location of facilities; as well as their privacy and safety for water and sanitation facilities. If cities fail to put measures in place to address these issues they are sure to be confronted by social rights groups. For example, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute have instituted legal proceedings against municipalities that fail to provide adequate access to water and sanitation. This is an indication that cities will be held to account if they neglect to take into account the safety of women. 


Cities can and must use their planning powers to positively alleviate GBVF. It cannot be the sole responsibility of anyone sphere of government. The principle of ‘spatial justice’ underscores women’s ‘right to the city’ through promoting GSP&UD. However, the progressive realisation of this right in practice is not guaranteed. Only with strong commitment from political leadership and city bureaucrats can this be achieved. Moreover, unless it is firmly entrenched in all policies and programming we will lose the fight against GBVF.

by Shehaam Johnstone, Post-doctoral Researcher

© Dullah Omar Institute
Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions

| DOI Constitution

© 2021 Dullah Omar Institute

CMS Website by Juizi