Sustainable cities: Are women’s needs being ignored?

What a sustainable city should be is different depending on who you ask. However, Dr Karen Horwood, senior lecturer in planning and geography, believes sustainable cities won’t work effectively at all until the sector directly addresses the needs of women. Her mission is to help the next generation of planners make decisions that take concerns around gender and climate change into account.


Karen Horwood

At Leeds Beckett, we’re creating the female leaders the planning industry desperately needs to build sustainable cities.

Karen explains that one model helping to shape the planning and development of sustainable cities is the ‘15-minute neighbourhood’, “The idea is that people should have everything they need within a 15 minute journey from their homes; their workplace, the doctors, schools, a grocery shop. Most importantly, they should be able to get there by walking or cycling.”

By reducing the need to travel far to get to the places they need, people don’t have to rely on cars. In theory, it sounds like a great idea, but Karen believes these models will only succeed if we consider everyone in the community.

The 15 minute Neighbourhood Dr Karen Horwood, senior lecturer in planning and geography at Leeds Beckett University, talks through her mission to help the next generation of planners make decisions that take concerns around gender and climate change into account when planning and developing cities.

We Empower. with Karen Horwood, 'Sustainable cities: are women's needs being ignored?'

Gender issues in planning

So, what are the issues we need to address? Karen’s perspective is that we need to think about gender, “Feminist planners have highlighted that women’s journey patterns are different to men’s. Traditionally, there was a focus on the commute. Men travelled from the outskirts into the city. This meant all the transport routes focused on this journey.”

Today women’s journeys still tend to be different – and more complicated. “This means women are often left in the situation where their needs aren’t catered for, but they’re being villainised for using cars,” Karen says.

Whose 15-minute neighbourhood is it? The male, abled-bodied man going to work? The women transporting children around? Or the person with disabilities who is trying to navigate the city and find dropped curbs for their wheelchair?

Safety fears for women

After the murder of Sarah Everard in London, women across the country voiced their fears about their safety while walking the streets of our cities alone. Our society teaches women to stay vigilant, to not walk alone after dark, to carry keys in case they’re needed as a defence.

City at night timelapse

"These messages aren’t necessarily proportionate to the risk we face. In fact, the statistics say men are far more likely to be the subject of attack. But that’s not all that matters, the fear is real, and women don’t feel safe in our cities."

How do we create cities that feel safe for women? Karen looks at different approaches planners consider, “Imagine a street where all the shops are closed for the day and there’s no presence, it’s scary. But when we make sure there are active frontages – a 24/7 supermarket, cafe, even sometimes a pub – there are people out and about which can make it feel safer.”

Women in planning

When it comes to students on planning courses, the split between women and men isn’t noticeable. But, when it comes to women in leadership positions at planning firms, the numbers are low.


A survey found that in England, only 17% of planning leadership roles in private practice were held by women.

Women in Planning

Young women should consider a career in planning as it’s an exciting profession to be part of. You apply what you know about areas like geography, sociology and politics into practice.

Of course, many industries face this a lack of female representation in leadership roles. However, Karen believes it’s particularly important for planning, “We not only need to address this to empower women in this area, but we need women in planning to make sure leaders are representative of the communities we’re planning for.”

Preparing you for industry

We make sure your degree gives you the skills employers want, developing your professional skills and networks through live projects, guest speakers, observing local planning meetings and teaming up with students on other courses such as landscape architecture to work on collaborative activities. Our planning courses are accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

No matter what you’re working on we’ll encourage you to consider the needs of different groups of society. Gender is one important factor, but there are many others that students need to be able to address if sustainable cities are to be a success.

Modules with sustainability in mind

Sustainability is embedded throughout modules on our planning courses. However, some modules specifically explore the concerns around climate change. We organise a field trip to a European city to see how sustainable urbanism practices have been adopted.

You’ll also look at sites locally. For example, we’ll show you public spaces where the council has focused on accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists, instead of cars.

planning leaders of the future

Karen’s teaching ensures her students will graduate with the skillset and knowledge they need to make a difference. In particular, she knows a new generation of female, and male planners will leave LBU with the confidence to lead and communicate women’s needs when it comes to creating sustainable cities. To find out more, take a look at our planning, housing and geography courses.

Dr Karen Horwood

Senior Lecturer / School Of Built Environment, Engineering And Computing

Karen is a senior lecturer in planning and human geography. Her research focuses on women and planning. She is an associate member of the RTPI, and the gender mainstreaming lead for Women in Planning.

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