How Do You Design a City for Women? Ask For Their Input.


Vienna city planners have been working for decades to create women-friendly public spaces — in a totally groundbreaking move, they’ve gathered data from actual human women in order to determine how and why women move about the city, and they’ve incorporated their findings into real city-planning projects.

This is because the city administration of Vienna has enthusiastically adopted a policy of gender mainstreaming, according to Clare Foran, writing in The Atlantic. Here’s the definition of gender mainstreaming, as stated by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women:

Gender Mainstreaming is a globally accepted strategy for promoting gender equality. Mainstreaming is not an end in itself but a strategy, an approach, a means to achieve the goal of gender equality. Mainstreaming involves ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities — policy development, research, advocacy/ dialogue, legislation, resource allocation, and planning, implementation and monitoring of programmes and projects.

Yep. Gender equality can’t be a mere afterthought if it’s to become a reality: it has to be a policy focus throughout every stage of development. Male privilege isn’t entirely maintained and reaffirmed through conscious acts of malice (i.e., a panel of angry wizards sitting in a cave and saying things like, “Let’s make it really difficult to get a stroller into the subway and also all periods shall last two weeks. And so it is.”). Because women haven’t traditionally been in positions of authority, it’s understandable (but still awful) that no one would have thought to address woman-specific concerns on a policy level. Taking steps to solve this problem is easy though — all you have to do is ask women about their specific needs, and then listen to what they’re saying.

As Foran writes, Vienna has adopted gender mainstreaming “in a number of areas of city administration, including education and health care policy,” but the area in which it’s made the most impact has been urban planning. In 1999, city administrators polled men and women and found that women tend to use public transportation far more than men do. Women also utilize public transport for a wider variety of reasons, including getting to and from family commitments (such as child care and caring for elderly parents). In response to these findings, city planners widened sidewalks to improve pedestrian mobility and increased access to public transport. They also added more lighting to city streets to make traveling at night less threatening.

Studies also found that girls were far less likely to frequent parks after the age of nine. Researchers concluded that young girls were less assertive, and thus more likely to back down in park-space turf-wars vs. boys. In response, the city planners added foot paths to city parks in order to make them more accessible and subdivided open areas, creating small, semi-private pockets. “Almost immediately,” Foran writes “different groups of people — girls and boys — began to use the parks without one group overrunning the other.”

There are some obvious criticisms that could be levied at gender mainstreaming as a policy — notably, that it reinforces gender stereotypes. But making public transportation more accessible to those who are raising children and constantly running errands isn’t necessarily gendered, nor is helping less assertive youths find their own territory within a city park. As Eva Kail, a gender mainstreaming advocate, puts it: “For me, it’s a political approach to planning. It’s about bringing people into spaces where they didn’t exist before or felt they had no right to exist.”

“How to Design a City for Women” [Atlantic Cities]

Image via Muelleck Josef/ Shutterstock.

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