The most fashionable figure of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century is that of a ‘flâneur’. First named and introduced by the writer Charles Baudelaire, ‘flâneur’ is the French word that translates into ‘stroller’ or ‘loafer’. Simply said, a flâneur is somebody who roams the city and the buzz and the hum of the urban space stimulates and agitates them. However, the ‘flâneur’ is a celebrated and romanticised male figure. This excludes all other genders except heterosexual men from the urban cities.
Also Read: Muziris: A City Lost To Time
Here, I explore how men and women wander cities.
Before we talk about how men and women participate in cities, we need to acknowledge that we live in a predetermined, gendered space. Historically, men designed cities for men, but all genders inhabit it.
For a woman to become a flâneur, she needs to be a walker. She should know the city as she knows herself. When we think of a successful well-established woman, the first image that we come across is that of a woman, probably in a business casual outfit, walking confidently down the streets of a city, almost as though she owns it. However, the truth is that women do not fit into this box of ‘relatively free, street dwellers’. They are also the ones who are victims of multiple hate crimes.
As a woman, I am constantly vigilant on the streets. I have to look behind me, ahead of me and beside me, while I walk the city. I can never be a female flâneur because as a woman, it is impossible to be one with the city. For Gorges Perec, the city space is not gender-neutral, “I have to constantly mark it, designate it; it’s never mine, never given to me. I have to conquer it.” Modern cities are the greatest relics of man’s freedom and power. But, they come with invisible boundaries that demarcate who goes where. Some neighbourhoods, bars, restaurants and spaces are not for everybody.
The Indian cities are the pride and joy of our nation, representing the diversity of our culture. It is the space where people from all walks of life meet, participate and integrate with each other. From Delhi to Mumbai to Pune to Chennai to Kochi, we have so many cities, but not a single one of them is safe for women.
Ultimately, the problem lies in urban planning.
Firstly, the number of women involved in planning cities is the bare minimum. Secondly, Indian cities work under the principle of cramped streets for maximum utilisation. We have an abundant number of narrow alleyways and street corners, and not enough open, well-lit spaces.
Let me offer you an example.
Two very common city spaces in Kochi are Broadway and Panampilly Nagar. Consider the designs of the two spaces. Sure, the former is more inclusive and cozy, filled with small, local shops and cheap products. It spreads out almost like a labyrinth. You enter from somewhere and you exit elsewhere. The latter is a wider street, mostly a straight road with large footpaths and big shops (which are still diverse in their own way). If you were to walk along one of them at night, which one would feel safer? This is called the principle of ‘eyes on the street’.
Journalist Jane Jacobs developed the concept. It claims that people feel much safer in open, attractive streets rather than cramped, lonely spaces. Thirdly, the public transportation system in India is designed to benefit and profit the authorities rather than the passengers. A lot of the railway stations and bus stops are located in desolate areas, often streets without street lights. Popular media hints at this, as most of the violence against women on the screen occurs in dark alleyways, bus stops or railways stations.
That said, Indian cities, unlike Western cities, are possibly the liveliest spaces in the nation. With street hawkers, a high population density, multiple travelling options and tourists, it is a space that can become safer for everybody if the urban planning is adjusted appropriately.
Aspern (a city in Vienna) might be the first of the world’s cities to name all their streets after women. There is a deliberately planned, proper political agenda behind the action, to make the city inclusive for women and their needs. A team of women carefully planned and executed the city with not simply architects, but with feedback from professors, photographers, writers and common women on the streets or the existing ‘female Flâneur, aiming to create what Kail (one of the designers) called “a little bit of a feminist utopia”.
A neat example of the same is the ‘Frauen-Werk-Stadt’ (Women-Work-City), a 357-unit complex designed by women completed in 1997, characterised by a woman’s perspective at every level. There is pram storage at every level with wide staircases, and flexible and simple flat layouts. The height of the building was adjusted to maintain the ‘eyes on the street’ principle for the pedestrians (mainly women).
However, it is necessary to acknowledge that the discussion above highlights a privileged standpoint, Flaneur is the act of the privileged and designs of this sort benefit the privileged. Indian cities, being a conglomerate of all kinds of people, it necessary to build an equal, equitable city. But it must be done so within the constraints of our population density. This requires planning and strategising from our policymakers, consistent criticism and pressure from all members of the society to build a truly inclusive, safe and almost utopian city.