Q&A: Is there room for gender in urban planning?

7 March 2022

Gender cannot be an afterthought if we want liveable, inclusive cities, says Catherine Grant, gender equality and social inclusion expert at Ramboll.

Image of Baguio City in the Philippines

Image of Baguio City in the Philippines

Catherine Grant

Senior Consultant
T: +61 450 140 043

Baguio City is a popular tourist destination known for its pleasant weather and stunning nature, giving the city its nickname ‘the summer capital of the Philippines.’ 

But Baguio – like the rest of the Philippines – is also prone to threats from earthquakes, cyclones, floods, drought, and landslides. When the city was hit by typhoons in 2009, more than 3,000 people were affected by flooding. 

During floods, vulnerable and marginalised groups often fail to receive adequate warning. To meet this challenge head-on, city leaders in Baguio are adopting a gender transformative approach to developing flood early warning systems (FEWS). 

Catherine Grant, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) lead for Ramboll in the program that supported Baguio explains what we miss when gender is overlooked in urban planning: 

Why is gender an important consideration in urban planning?

“There is rapid urbanisation happening across Asia, which presents enormous challenges. Women and marginalised groups are being left behind and afforded fewer opportunities. Their behaviour and movement are constricted by a range of factors that impact on their livelihoods and wellbeing and curtails their potential contributions to economies and societies.

"Often, what we see in GESI programming is an approach where you add gender, stir, and hope for the best."

“This is also embedded in how cities are governed: Women have fewer opportunities to hold positions of power and participate in decision-making. That has a knock-off effect on how cities work, and who they work for and against. This, in turn, has real impact on liveability and the ability of cities to be places where everyone can thrive.”

How can you ensure gender perspectives are successfully integrated into city planning? 

“In Baguio, we had a clear expression of interest from the city’s mayor. He had heard about the gender transformative approach pioneered by our partners on the project, Practical Action Consulting (PAC). This sort of high-level commitment was integral to bringing City agencies together on the project and setting it up for longer term realisation.

At an agency level, we had government actors assigned to the project who were really invested and interested in learning about how they could better understand and design a flood early warning system that meets the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised. 

“So, leadership buy-in is key. Often, what we see in GESI programming is an approach where you add gender, stir, and hope for the best. Instead, key to our work in the wider program Baguio is part of is approaching all our activities with a gender, equality and social inclusion lens. We hope to ensure that GESI is never just an add-on but rather something that is ingrained and therefore more likely to be sustainable.

“As consultants, it is tempting to go into a project and say, ’you should do this, this, and this.’ But that falls apart quite quickly once the project is complete and has been handed over, because there isn’t any ownership, and those charged with managing or implementing it may not feel any connection to what has been developed.”

How did Baguio City embed gender in their disaster planning?

“In Baguio, we helped the City develop their own roadmap towards a gender transformative flood early warning system, with actions written by those city actors charged with implementing them, and, importantly, using their own words. By being directly behind the actions and commitments, we’ve seen a real sense of empowerment emerge among stakeholders—as they have realised the actions they can take within their role and remit to advance GESI in a meaningful way.

"I am a social practitioner, so my work is about making development work for as many people as possible in both a socially and environmentally responsible way.”

“As consultants we need to ensure we specifically include a GESI lens in our projects, from identifying how we will consider GESI in our project proposals, to budgeting for GESI, as well as providing project teams that demonstrate Ramboll’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.

How does gender fit into the wider conversation about climate change and sustainability?

“Everyone has their own take on sustainability, but for me it is all about people – the actions we take for a sustainable future need to be based on equity, responsibility and empathy. I am a social practitioner, so my work is about making development work for as many people as possible in both a socially and environmentally responsible way.”

To learn more about the actions Baguio City took to integrate gender in their approach to FEWS, read the project summary here. You can also read the full background study that catalysed the project here.   

Fact box: How did Baguio City incorporate gender into flood early warning?

Since 1990, natural disasters have affected an estimated minimum of 186 million people in the Philippines. 

In Baguio, a Ramboll and Practical Action Consulting (PAC) research team found that single parents evacuated under unsafe circumstances due to the challenges of evacuating with children. In some cases, parents wanted to evacuate earlier but found evacuation centres had not yet opened. These are just two examples from the research on vulnerability in FEWS in Baguio. In response, City agencies are ramping up their communication to vulnerable groups on social media, in addition to other measures.

This project is part of the ASEAN Australia Smart Cities Trust Fund, for which Ramboll is the implementing organisation. It is a six-year program supported by the Australian Government and the Asian Development Bank to catalyse people-centric smart city transformation in Southeast Asia.   

To contact the editor of this article, please email Anders Brønd Christensen.

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