MOST Clearing House Best Practices This Best Practice is one of the
Best Practices for Human Settlements
presented in the MOST Clearing House
Best Practices Database.

Women And Accessibility In Town Centres : Open Sesame Project
United Kingdom

Keyword: Women & Gender equality


Open Sesame Project is a joint project specifically aimed to address the needs of women through the town planning system. It seeks active community involvement in bringing about positive changes to the built environment.


    Open Sesame was developed as a response to the following concerns:

Today, in many households women still have the main responsibility for looking after children or elderly relatives. Also, women still bear the main responsibility for shopping. Provision of local shopping facilities and design of town centres are very important to women, especially the ones who have to do the shopping trips together with their children or disabled relatives. Their mobility in and around the shops and public buildings becomes restricted due to badly designed access and layouts as well as lack of facilities such as toilets, nappy changing areas, lifts, and seating areas.

Planners' lack of awareness on women' needs was one of the main reasons of insensitive design that women had to encounter everyday. This also stemmed from the fact that women were mostly excluded from decision making processes. The project had therefore the following aims:

a) to highlight the access problems of women as carriers and to raise the awareness of planners and shopowners on this issue,

b) to encourage the business community to address the problems of access by way of giving one to three star awards to those shops which provide better access and basic facilities,

c) to develop ways of involving women living and working in Haringey in all aspects of environmental improvements.

Various women's community groups in Haringey participated in the implementation of this project as well as in the decision-making process at all stages. The Council had a women's issues officer who organised two action days in major shopping areas of Haringey during which women with baby buggies, shopping bags or wheelchairs surveyed shop accessibility. A guide for good access was also drawn up based on the views of women participating in the project. Senior male planners were subsequently invited to undertake similar action days to give them experience of problems first hand.

As part of the multi-sectoral approach, letters and access guidelines were sent to all shopowners in the survey areas, highlighting the access problems and offering support and advice if they were to improve the design of their premises.

Continuing with the project, in October 1989, a sample group of women in Haringey were asked to nominate the most and the least accessible shops with the aim of giving one to three star Open Sesame awards to the most accessible ones. Women responded by not only filling the nomination forms but sending notes and letters complaining about the problems they faced while shopping.

In February 1990, the Open Sesame Panel, largely consisted of representatives from various women's groups evaluated the results and announced that none of the shops nominated were worthy of a 3- star award. In total only 9 shops won 2 or 1 star Open Sesame Awards.


The project resulted in the development of access guidelines for shops and facilities in town centres for the use of planners. The guide was developed with direct involvement of women from community groups (See attached). Open Sesame was an eye opener for everybody involved in the project. It brought together in action planners and women from the community. In doing so, it increased the awareness of planners in relation to some of the problems that women face in today's badly designed built environment. On the other hand the project helped to demystify the planning practice and the way it works and affects our lives in the eyes of the community. It provided lessons on how to open up communication channels between the community and the planners. It also opened the way for further joint initiatives between the planning department and some of the community groups involved in the campaign.

A brief survey of planning applications on shop front improvements in Haringey around the time of the campaign showed that access became one of the major concerns of planners. The Planning Service itself produced shop front improvement guidelines including access provision as part of its environmental improvement projects. This increased awareness was, later on, carried into the planning policies document called the Unitary Development Plan.

The project received wide spread publicity fulfilling its aim of raising awareness on access issues. (See below)

Open Sesame was one of the early examples of including women's issues into planning. Some of the issues which the project raised in 1989 are now widely discussed or accepted. The importance of this project, like many others, comes from it being a pioneering one which contributed to the cumulative efforts of women promoting a needs-based approach in planning practice.


The project was developed and implemented with direct involvement of users for improving local town centres.

With its emphasis on public participation and its aim of raising awareness on women's issues, it achieved support and acceptance from the wider community of planners as well as from those involved in community work.

It contributed to the wider discussion on the importance of the protection of local shopping facilities as opposed to out of town centre facilities which are based on access by car. Seeking to improve the quality of local centres within a walking distance of residential areas through better and sensitive design contributes to the wider discussions on sustainable development. It also contributed to our understanding of the barriers against women's participation in the urban planning process and how to overcome these barriers in order to achieve users' involvement in urban planning decision making process. It contributed to the change of attitude that urban policies must take into consideration the role and requirements of women. We need to make cities work for all their citizens.

The project was designed to raise the awareness of planners as well as local shop owners regarding the needs of women as carriers. It also brought together in action planners and local women's groups.

It received local publicity through local newspapers. It was reported by the BBC and ITV south east News sections. It was reported in professional magazines. Last year, it was presented to a high level international conference organised by the OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) in Paris and included as one of the case studies in the " Women in the City" published by the OECD.


  • reshaped planning policy,
  • changed the nature of the planning profession and its make up,
  • reformed the scope and perceived bias of planning legislation
  • involvement of more women from local communities in decision making process of local planning authorities.


The inclusion of 'women and planning' policy statements in development plan documents, the acceptance of policy guidance documents, a change in criteria in dealing with planning applications related to women's needs, pioneering new organisational structures and working methods promoting increased participation of women from the community in decision making process.

Women use cities and land uses differently from men and many have quite different life styles and daily activity patterns from their male counterparts. Women's main concern has been that, modern cities, far from being gender neutral in design, appear to be designed and planned primarily to facilitate the activity patterns and needs of the male population.

For example, transportation policy has conventionally been developed within modern town planning practice to accommodate the needs of the traditional 'breadwinner' in his monodimensional and uninterrupted journey to work. Public transport has, likewise, been geared to meeting the needs of peaktime, rush hour travel, whilst radial road building programmes, and the location of car parking provision have also enforced this model.

In contrast, women are more likely to work part time, to work outside the home in more local forms of employment, and to combine formal employment with homemaking and childcare duties. This is likely to result in more off peak travel patterns, which will also be characterised by being more likely to be tangential, between local areas, rather than radial. Also such journeys are more likely to be broken several times, for example a typical woman's 'journey to work' might take the following form: Home > childminder > school > work > shops > school > childminder > clinic and then Home again. The problems are compounded by the fact women have less access to the use of a car during the daytime, and thus are dependent on public transport. Far from easing the problems, it may be argued that British town planning has actually amplified the problem, if not created it, because of the emphasis upon land use zoning, with its obsession for separating residential and employment areas, and its somewhat ambiguous attitude towards urban decentralisation, and encouragement of low density development, ostensibly to counteract the imagined problems of urban overcrowding, squalor, and disorganisation. Thus at the macro level of the city as a whole, women are critical of the very structure and organisation of urban form, and of the related transportation systems.

At the district and neighbourhood level, and the micro level of estate layout and building design, again the emphasis is upon a more mixed and balanced range of land uses and local facilities. This arrangement would cut down on the need to travel, and make facilities more accessible to a wider range of the population, especially to those without cars. In particular those who are responsible for small children and babies, are likely to find their mobility is severely limited, because of the present inaccessible nature of the design of urban form and buildings.

Women comprise majority of shoppers and if central areas of cities appear threatening or difficult to use for women then this will have a knock on effect on the vitality and viability of central area retailing. Needs of women as users of town centre have direct relevance to sustainability.

At the micro level of estate layout and individual building design also becomes a key concern for the women and planning movement. This is partly because women are likely to spend more time in the home than men, even nowadays, it remains for many, the chief work place. 'Adequate' must be interpreted to encompass 'well designed', not as an add on or luxury but as an integral, and basic human right. Otherwise quantitatively the housing problem might appear 'solved' but qualitatively, the human cost in terms of social, economic and plain practical inconvenience and disadvantage will be great. Sensitive layout and urban space design, is important not only because the problems of access mentioned above, but also because of the ever-present fears and dangers of crime and vandalism, which for women are amplified because of the issue of rape and other specifically sexual, and thus gendered forms of assault.

The women and planning movement has changed the 'culture' of planning to a considerable extent. This is particularly so in academia where nowadays all planning schools are required by the RTPI to include equality issues in their syllabus, and where women students now account for over 35% of the total on planning courses. In respect of changes in policy, at the city wide macro level of planning, most development plan policy documents, particularly the more recent UDP (Unitary Development Plans) will contain some mention of women's issues, usually alongside consideration of the needs of ethnic minorities and the disabled. Some will contain quite specific detailed sections on 'planning for women' whereas others will add a qualifying section within each traditional policy section to show how the policies might particularly relate to women. At the micro level of detailed estate design, there is hardly a street in the nation which does not now possess a ramped kerb, and many a shopping mall provides crèche facilities. On the other hand, basic provision which particularly benefits women and children, such as public toilets, and public transport are in decline in many parts of the country owing to lack of investment and the perceived low political priority of such social investment.


    Northumberland Women & Children Ctre
    Somerford Grove, Tottenham
    United Kingdom


    London Women & Planning Forum
    9 Hamilton Crescent
    United Kingdom
    0181 359 4662


    Northumberland Women & Children Centre
    Northumberland Women & Child'n Centre
    Somerford Grove, Tottenham
    United Kingdom

    London Borough of Haringey (LB of H)
    Dr Clara Greed, School of Planning
    University of West of England
    Coldharbour Lane
    United Kingdom
    BS16 1QY
    0117 965 6261 Ext 3001/3074

    Dept of Planning, University of West of England
    Takmaz Nisancioglu, Sule
    9 Hamilton Crescent
    United Kingdom
    0181 359 4662

To MOST Clearing House Homepage