Urban Inclusion

Safaa Charafi

Risktakers Fellowship - The image depicts a greyed black-and-white photograph of Safaa Charafi, one of the Risktaker fellows, on a background that

What will you be working on during the fellowship?

During the fellowship, I will be working on developing and implementing digital education programs for undocumented migrant women in urban areas. This will involve researching best practices in digital literacy education, designing and delivering training modules, and collaborating with local community organizations to promote access and participation. My goal is to empower these women with the digital skills they need to connect with others in their community and to participate more fully in the digital economy, ultimately contributing to more inclusive and equitable urban settings.

To what future do you aspire?

I aspire to a future where urban spaces are designed and developed with a focus on promoting social inclusion, equity, and sustainability. I envision a future where cities are more walkable, bikeable, and accessible, with thriving public spaces that foster community and civic engagement. In this future, all residents, regardless of their background or socioeconomic status, have access to high-quality education, healthcare, affordable housing, and economic opportunities. I believe that by working towards this vision, we can build more resilient, thriving, and equitable urban communities that benefit everyone.

What does being a risktaker mean to you?

Being a risktaker means challenging the status quo and pursuing innovative approaches for positive change. It requires leaving familiar paths, taking calculated risks and testing new ideas. As an urbanist and gender expert, I aim to create more inclusive and sustainable cities, especially for marginalized groups. Risk-taking is essential to create a better future.

The interview

1. What is the question we should definitely ask you (and how would you answer it)?

You should ask “What drives your passion for gender and urbanism?”. And my answer would probably be that I’ve always been fascinated by how cities impact people’s lives, and I’m particularly passionate about making them more inclusive for everyone, regardless of gender. I’m a strong feminist and social justice warrior. I’m actively involved in creating positive change through my work, including founding a company focused on accessibility and inclusion in cities.

2. As an urbanist architect dedicated to the creation of inclusive and diverse public spaces, can you pinpoint a specific moment in your journey when you realised that spaces, often perceived as neutral, possess inherent biases?

Certainly, my “aha” moment as an urbanist architect came during my master’s studies in urban studies. I had the incredible opportunity to study in six European universities in four different cities over two years, and one of those cities was Vienna. While in Vienna, I had the privilege of interviewing prominent figures in gender mainstreaming in urban planning, Eva Kail and Ursula Bauer. They were instrumental in shaping Vienna into what is now recognized as the most feminist city in the world.

My master’s thesis focused on policies of gender mainstreaming and intersectionality within the city. As I delved into this research, I started to see something fascinating (and sometimes troubling). Even though we often think of cities as neutral spaces, they can actually have biases against minority groups. It was a real eye-opener for me, and it’s been a driving force in my mission to create more inclusive and diverse public spaces.

3. When discussing the design of public spaces and architecture, an intersectional approach seems essential. Could you elaborate on why this approach is indispensable in achieving truly inclusive and accommodating spaces?

Imagine a city as a patchwork of its diverse inhabitants, each one with their unique experiences, needs, and identities. I mean a city is made of people. Without its residents, it means nothing, it would have no life. When we design public spaces without considering this diversity, we inadvertently exclude certain groups, it’s like taking that life out of the city. That’s where intersectionality comes in. 

Intersectionality recognizes that people have overlapping identities, such as gender, race, age, ability, and more. These intersections create unique perspectives and experiences. By taking an intersectional approach, we acknowledge that public spaces should accommodate everyone, regardless of their intersecting identities.

For example, a park with benches and pathways may seem inclusive, but it might not consider the needs of a mother with a stroller, an elderly person with mobility issues, or someone with sensory sensitivities. An intersectional approach means designing spaces that are flexible, accessible, and welcoming to all these experiences.

In essence, it’s about breaking down the barriers that exclude people and making sure that public spaces serve as a platform for inclusivity and diversity, where everyone feels not just accommodated but truly welcomed – the whole debate around diversity vs. inclusion. It’s a holistic way of designing that celebrates the richness of human experiences and ensures that no one is left behind.

4. Safaa, would you mind sharing some insights into your current projects? It would be great to get a better understanding of the initiatives you’re currently engaged in.

Right now, I’m deeply involved in several initiatives that align with my expertise in urbanism, inclusion, and social entrepreneurship.

One notable project focuses on student housing in Rwanda, with the AFD (French Agency of Development) from a gender perspective. We’re striving to create safe and affordable housing options for students in urban areas. This endeavour is all about fostering inclusivity and sustainability in housing solutions, with an emphasis on collaboration with local stakeholders like universities and the city government.

Additionally, I continue to work on gender equality initiatives, applying for grants and consulting for international development organizations. This involves crafting proposals, conducting research, and managing projects aimed at promoting gender equality and inclusion.

Lastly, I’m actively engaged in developing an app that collects data on accessibility and inclusion in cities. This project entails aspects such as business planning, marketing strategies, and overseeing the app’s technical development.

In my role as a think tank fellow, I leverage my expertise to guide these projects and contribute to making urban environments more inclusive and equitable.

5. In your role as a gender and urban consultant, you analyze the gender implications of urban policies and planning, aiming to identify and rectify any shortcomings. Can you recall a specific instance where you encountered a gap or unexpected challenge that even with your expertise, managed to surprise you?

Certainly, one particular instance stands out in my work as a gender and urban consultant. I was analyzing urban policies and planning in a major city, and despite my expertise, I encountered a surprising challenge.

While reviewing the city’s public transportation system, I expected to find gender disparities in terms of safety and accessibility. What I didn’t anticipate was the extent to which these disparities extended beyond the transportation itself.

What surprised me was the lack of proper lighting and safe pathways leading to public transit hubs. This posed significant safety concerns, especially for women and vulnerable populations during evening hours. Despite the city’s progressive policies, this basic aspect of urban planning had been overlooked.

The experience reinforced the idea that even with expertise in gender and urban issues, it’s essential to approach each case with fresh eyes and a thorough examination. Sometimes, the most unexpected gaps can be hidden in plain sight, highlighting the need for continuous scrutiny and improvement in urban policies and planning.

6. Considering the complexity of managing diverse viewpoints and interests, particularly in the context of public spaces, could you share of a project where the endeavor to integrate various perspectives proved exceptionally successful?

A while back, I had this experience working as a gender consultant for the GIZ in rural Morocco. The project’s focus was women’s economic empowerment, which, as you can imagine, wasn’t without its challenges.

I found myself in small, close-knit villages, sitting down with local stakeholders and rural women. The task at hand was to convince them of the benefits of a new program aimed at boosting their economic prospects. Now, these women had been following traditional practices for generations, and the concept of change was met with scepticism.

So, what did I do? I decided to take it slow and steady. We began with modest, well-thought-out initiatives that directly catered to their unique needs. For instance, we introduced improved farming techniques that promised higher crop yields and provided training in small-scale businesses they were passionate about. The key here was not to impose change but to let it emerge organically from their aspirations.

The turning point was when some of the initially sceptical women started sharing success stories. They began to see tangible improvements in their income and, by extension, in the well-being of their families. It was heartwarming to witness this transformation, and it reaffirmed the power of patient engagement and trust-building.

By the end of the project, we not only achieved our goal of economically empowering these women but also left behind a sense of confidence and self-belief within the community. It was a rewarding experience, and it taught me that fostering positive change in diverse communities requires a deep understanding of the local context, a hefty dose of patience, and a genuine commitment to building trust.

This journey in rural Morocco stands as a testament to the enduring impact of such projects when approached with sensitivity and care.

7. Envisioning a future characterized by ideal urban architecture and living, how would you describe your vision? What elements and features would define this vision, showcasing your perspective on an inclusive and diverse urban landscape?

In my vision of an ideal urban landscape, the city is a place where every resident feels a deep sense of belonging, regardless of their background. It’s built upon inclusivity as its core principle, ensuring that no one is left behind (and I mean truly no one).

Accessibility is at the forefront; the urban environment is designed to be accessible for everyone, regardless of their mobility needs. Green spaces are abundant, with parks, gardens, and community farms throughout the city, offering places for relaxation and connection with nature, but also urban gardening – people don’t know how their food grows anymore.

Mixed-use neighbourhoods are the norm, allowing people to live, work, and play in close proximity, which would foster a strong sense of community and reduce long commutes – think of the 15-minute city concept. Affordable housing options are available for individuals and families of all income levels, reducing socioeconomic disparities and making urban living accessible to all; a world where people come before profit.

In this case, inclusivity would be more than a buzzword; it would be deeply integrated into the city’s design. Public spaces and buildings are crafted to be inclusive, featuring ramps, sensory-friendly areas, and gender-neutral facilities as standard – it doesn’t cost more to accommodate everyone’s needs.

Cultural diversity is celebrated through vibrant neighbourhoods representing various cultures, encouraging cross-cultural exchanges and mutual understanding. Public art on buildings, parks, and streets, reflects the city’s creativity and diversity while showcasing different perspectives and stories.

Active transportation is a priority, with dedicated lanes and safe pathways for biking and walking, reducing reliance on cars – many examples of this such as Singapore, and the Netherlands… The city embraces advanced technology for energy efficiency, waste reduction, and sustainable practices, making it smart, eco-friendly and HEALTHIER.

Community engagement is highly encouraged, with residents actively participating in shaping the city’s development; they have a sense of belonging, pride and agency in their cities. Decision-making processes are transparent and inclusive, ensuring that everyone has a voice (think participatory design processes, deliberative democracy, etc.).

In this vision, the city becomes a place where diversity is celebrated, and the built environment reflects the richness of human experiences. Urban living is not only accessible (it is hardly so in many parts of the world) but also enjoyable and enriching for all residents.