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Planning a city for women

This year, to mark International Women’s Day we hosted a conversation about “How to Design a City for Women,” jumping off from this 2013 CityLab article about Vienna’s experiment in gender mainstreaming. We asked women planners and urban designers at Urban Strategies to consider the following questions in their response to this article:

  • What do you think of the idea of gender mainstreaming?
  • What do you think of the Vienna precedent? Does it work?
  • Have you ever had a project where you felt a gender mainstreaming approach was needed?
  • What do you think would change in our city if a gender mainstreaming approach was taken?

[Content warning: sexual violence]

Katia Habra:

I believe that taking gender – and more widely diversity (whether it is gender, ethnicity, age, disability) into account is essential to public policy and place-making.  I don’t know if gender mainstreaming is the most accurate way to describe a truly inclusive approach, but thinking holistically about the impacts of development and regeneration is key to successful city planning.

This requires planners and designers to ask themselves the right questions: Who will be using the space? What are their needs? Are these needs being met? For instance, are there enough safe and clean public toilets? Are the local community services and infrastructure provided sufficient and adequate?

Having worked on a social housing development specifically designed for single female-headed households, I learned the immense resilience and ingenuity that women from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds display every day to create safe, welcoming, and comfortable homes for their children. I discovered that small initiatives contribute significantly to improving their daily lives: from affordable delivery and courier services, to high quality ‘corner’ shops, to community gardening spaces. There is a multiplicity of considerations to keep in mind when planning and designing a more inclusive city!

Akanksha Chopra:

As an urban planner with the City of Delhi, I worked on the Women’s Safety Action Plan, developed in response to the infamous 2012 Delhi gang sexual assault of young women, which inspired the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter,” and will be captured on an upcoming Netflix special on the case investigations.

The fact that this took place in a local bus close to peak evening hours raised serious concerns about women’s safety on city streets and public spaces. It was very personal to me in the sense that the time and bus stop where the girl was abducted was one that I used regularly.  While law enforcement agencies and decision makers were at forefront of the crisis, the City’s Planning department took responsibility for presenting near- to long-term action items to make Delhi safer for women.  These stressed land use, urban design interventions, amenities and capacity-building measures to promote women’s safety.  As someone who grew up in the city, I can attest to how unsafe the city can feel when it lacks eyes on street, and has many single use areas (office districts after peak hours), gated communities, streets that are too wide and fast moving, and incidental spaces such as raised highways, parks with no lighting or with inactive edges, etc. The action plan targeted many of these areas.

Key highlights of the action plan include:

  • Create active edges and slow moving streets – eyes on the streets and active uses, mixed use districts – mixed use – for round the clock safety
  • Districts – staggered shop timings
  • Public toilets and emergency phones. GPS tracked private taxi or shared car services.
  • TOD – safe transit
  • Planning education – Women safety issues taught as part of planning programs
  • Training/Capacity building – Capacity building in planning departments

Read more about the action plan here.

Michelle Rowland:

Gender mainstreaming as an approach can ensure that our cities are planned more equitably. 32% of Toronto’s City Councillors are women yet women make up 52% of Toronto’s population. Planning happens at the local level so gender mainstreaming at municipal levels in policies and budgets can provide support for reducing inequalities in our city.

As our economy shifts from more industrial manufacturing jobs to knowledge-intensive industries, our land use designations need to reflect that shift as well. Now, our employment areas are being built up with clean and safe office buildings instead of smelly and noisy factories, yet sensitive uses like daycares are still not permitted in the City of Toronto 569-2013 Zoning By-law. However, the employment lands review in Official Plan Amendment 231 allows daycares to be permitted in site-specific instances in office buildings but our zoning still needs to catch up. Women are considered the primary caregivers in their families so a gender mainstreaming approach to zoning would include the ability of daycares to be built near employment. Toronto City Council should take into account gender equity when planning their budget. City staff’s recommended budget has only 1.9% of the average property tax bill going towards Children’s Services. Women are considered the primary caregivers in their families so a budget that isn’t gender responsive disadvantages the majority of the population.

Georgia Luyt:

Vienna’s approach to gender mainstreaming is about addressing the inequitable ways people live in and move through a city based on their gender. It makes sense that historically, urban planning hasn’t taken that approach because historically, urban planners have been men. If you are surrounded by peers who engage in the city in similar ways, your ideas and approach to designing a city will be limited.

Gender mainstreaming is about broadening that perspective, and looking at the how people of different genders use the city. We know that women are more likely to trip-chain, or walk their children to school, or to avoid using public transit at night due to safety concerns. It’s exciting that these types of projects are taking hold, because it means starting to address these issues, and building cities that work for a broader spectrum of people.

Toronto could take a cue from Karlskoga, Sweden, where city officials realized that clearing snow for highways and major arterials first benefited drivers (most often men), but meant that people using sidewalks and bike lanes (usually women) were at a disadvantage. They found that shifting their approach, and prioritizing sidewalks near daycare centres, schools and workplaces before clearing office districts resulted in fewer pedestrian injuries during the winter months. Imagine what clear bike lanes and sidewalks could do to incentivize active transportation in Toronto!

Melanie Hare:

The Vienna precedent is a fascinating example of planning for truly inclusive communities. Given the broad range of roles women play in the lives of their families and communities, taking a gender mainstream approach allows us to design communities that embrace the many perspectives and practical realities that make our urban experience one of pleasure and joy more so than a time pressured chore.

Without realizing it, we utilized gender mainstreaming in our St Paul Central Transit Corridor work by spending a day with women from the Somali community who talked and walked us through “a day in their life”, how they travelled (walking and by transit), by walking with their young families from their isolated high rise apartment building across parking lots to get across a large arterial road in order to get to almost everything.  Sidewalks did not mean much to them – where they existed – nor did signalized intersections. The experience influenced how we planned the travel to and from LRT stations at that corridor, but also opened my eyes to the daily lives and needs of this strong, immigrant, low income community.  I was also struck by how pivotal the women were as the backbone of their community, yet seeking their voice required connecting through their male community leaders.

As I learned from my work with Women Plan Toronto 30 years ago, a community planned through the eyes of women and children, is safer, more inclusive and has a strong sense of community, even more joy and laughter.

Anna Iannucci:

One of my projects has made me think a lot about the unintentional side effects of municipalities’ efforts to preserve employment lands. Policies tend to try to preserve employment areas as environments where potentially noisy, smelly light industrial uses can continue to take place. In reality, however, many employment areas are transforming into office parks in response to changes in our economy. Policies often limit “sensitive uses” that might be incompatible with traditional manufacturing, such as daycares, even when the employment area has a completely different character today. I’ve been wondering whether such policies disproportionately impact women, who are often the ones to drop children off and pick them up at daycare, and whether these policies make jobs in emerging office areas less accessible to women. I think it would be worth asking the question, whether or not it ultimately impacts employment lands policies, and I think that is what a “gender mainstreaming” approach asks us to do.

Ying Zheng (Design Intern):

I feel the concept of “designing a city for women” is more like a way to remind planners, landscape architects and architects to build city also from a feminine perspective, which is normally ignored by the mainstream.

When looking at the image of one courtyard at Women-Work-City, I feel more light colors, soft landscape and green balconies are applied, which definitely help create more intimate public space, encouraging everyone go outside and get some fresh air.

I am kind of curious what would happen if we design a park or plaza specifically for women, just like playgrounds for adults and parks for dog lovers. Will it be a must-visit place in the city through social media? Will it actually be used and loved by people of all genders and ages? Will it promote a deeper understanding of inclusiveness related to city design?

Read our 2018 blog post celebrating women’s leadership and innovation at Urban Strategies.