#12: Lily Maxwell on... how to create more feminist cities

We live in a man's world. Despite being home to more than 80% of the world’s population (more than half of which is female), cities the world over have been designed and built by men. And this is not a radical perspective: even institutions like the World Bank acknowledge that urban planning has universally failed to take into account the lives and needs of women, girls, sexual, gender (and often ethnic) minorities.

Research shows that our city spaces still fail to accommodate the mobility patterns of women's everyday lives or girls' favourite games and hobbies. There's not a single city in the world where women can take up and inhabit space freely and safely - in Europe alone, up to 45% of women in EU member states experienced street harassment or aggression in 2018. And urban exclusion becomes even more stark if you are a disabled woman, a woman with children, or a woman of colour.

... Why is this happening and how can we change it?



A history of women’s erasure from urbanism

The architecture and urban design and planning fields have long been dominated by (largely white) men. Ask people to name a legendary female urbanist and, if you're lucky, one name usually comes up: Jane Jacobs. Beyond Jane, we are lacking female names in our urbanist history books. 

This is an age-old problem across all fields: the systematic patriarchal and often colonial erasure of women’s historical impact on all fields of human endeavour is well-known. Despite their front and centre role in many a political revolution and movement, women are often relegated to only supporting roles, if mentioned at all, in our collective historical memory.

But it’s not just a problem with the past. Today, the urbanist world continues to be dominated by men. “Pop-urbanism” is filled with male names: Richard Florida, Jan Gehl, Gil Peñalosa, the list goes on. Despite representing around 40-50% of graduates from urban planning, design and architecture schools in some countries, women only make up 10 percent of the highest-ranking jobs at leading architecture firms and urban planning offices. A 2017 survey by Dezeen revealed that only three of the world's 100 biggest architecture firms are headed by women and only two have management teams that are more than 50 per cent female. It’s not so crazy to argue, then, that the urbanism industry, like many others, has a problem with sexism.

As Caroline Criado Perez’s recent volume on gender bias, Invisible Women, amply highlights: when you are not in the room, your needs and desires go unseen. For too long, women and many other demographics have simply not been (allowed) in the rooms where our cities are planned. As a result, in most cities, we live with the legacy of urban design for the able-bodied, 25-55 year-old, (white) man. This urgently needs to change – not only to make cities more liveable places for women, but also for disabled people, children, people of colour, and ethnic, gender and sexual minorities.



How can we dismantle the master's city?

Ultimately, to make our cities truly feminist, we have to change how our whole society works. The economic logic underpinning most human societies today is a fundamentally patriarchal one that is grounded in the notion that we can measure a city (or society’s) “success” via quantitative indicators alone, placing economic growth and patriarchal ideals above human and planetary wellbeing. 

Such a patriarchal economic logic is grounded in the idea that “rational”, knowledge is more legitimate than experiential knowledge, productive labour is more important than reproductive labour, and winning is more important than caring. This is not to say that scientific knowledge, productive labour and winning are all bad, but rather that it is high-time to place more value on community-based knowledge and practices of everyday care and collaboration.

How does this affect urban life? Well, neglecting the essential experiential knowledge of urban community-makers working on the ground, who are very often women, frequently results in adverse negative consequences. This affects everyone (including men!) but the city’s most vulnerable demographics often suffer the worse impacts. 'Green gentrification', where city greening projects lead to rising house prices and gentrification of an area, forcing out existing low-income communities, is one example of this. 

What else does patriarchal capitalism result in an urban context? To generalise massively, a patriarchal and economic-growth-focused societal paradigm results in cities dominated by cars. It means the steady privatisation of public and community spaces. It underpins our deregulated, home-ownership-focused housing markets and rocketing house prices, prevalent across Europe. It means more individualistic lifestyles and less time and space for community-making. This varies hugely by city, but some of the effects remain fairly universal, particularly in Europe's bigger cities.

Feminist cities as more 'care-full' cities

Col-lectiuPunt 6, an feminist urbanist organisation based in Barcelona, notes that feminist urbanism 'starts from the premise that urbanism is not neutral and that our cities and our neighborhoods have been shaped by the values of a society that is patriarchal'. They suggest that feminist urbanism proposes to put people’s lives at the centre of urban decisions, to ‘incorporate the diversity of people’s experiences’.

It’s quite a big challenge to shift an entire economic and societal paradigm, so, as Collectiu-Punt 6 highlight, we can start by creating urban ‘spaces that take into account the needs of daily life [and] allow care for oneself and others, foster spaces of exchange and mutual aid and generate community’. In other words, we can start by creating more “care-full” urban spaces, as academic M.J Williams suggests, where community-making and practices of commoning (sharing, collaborating, collectivising) proliferate. The new rise in collaborative forms of housing – such as cohousing – and urban community gardens are only two examples of urban initiatives that have the potential to bring about new feminist urbanities. 

Creating "care-full" urban spaces and initiatives, more recreational areas for children, improving street lighting, designating women-only train carriages, and so on, are important changes to make cities more suited to women’s everyday lives and needs. Although they might be individual actions, each feminist initiative and space can be an important incremental step towards systemic change - towards new feminist urban worlds.

By creating a new "reality" in a time and space, even temporary feminist measures can open people's eyes up to what the world could look like. This is where so-called "experimental urbanism" can have a big impact, creating future feminist urbanities by imagining and enacting them in the present moment.

These steps also don't have to be standalone: if cities apply a gender/intersectional feminist lens to city planning and budgetting in a holistic way, such steps can be part of a wider transition towards a more feminist city. If they are applied collectively, joining the dots as part of an overarching strategy, feminist urbanist interventions (both top-down and bottom-up) can chip away at patriarchal capitalism and gradually disassemble its impact on city-making. More on this below.



Some movement on the ground: feminist cities being created in Europe

In some cities, the fundamental exclusion of certain demographics, notably women, from urban planning and design is now being actively tackled. In Barcelona, feminist mayor Ada Colau has been implementing a 'feminisation of politics', passing legislation and implementing progressive urban design initiatives to improve not only women’s but other marginalised groups' urban experiences. Alongside Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, Colau fought for the Right to the City to be included in the New Urban Agenda, to ensure everyone’s needs are included in city planning, at the Habitat III conference.

In Vienna, gender mainstreaming (based on a United Nations initiative) has been used for the last twenty years to make the city more feminist. The result: Vienna consistently tops the charts as the best city in the world to live in.

In Sweden, gender-balanced budgeting, has led to a number of female-friendly urban initiatives, including more women-friendly mobility, for example “night stops” for buses so that passengers can request to alight between sanctioned stops (and don’t have to walk home as far in the dark), and some towns, like the Stockholm suburb of Husby, designing city spaces with gender and inclusion in mind.

Feminist activist groups continue to protest on global city streets every year to fight for the rights of not just women but all those traditionally excluded from the right to city.  And their work is gradually filtering into the mainstream. There is increasing recognition of the need for more women, disabled people, LBTQ+ people, and people of colour in urban planning, design and architecture and some cities, like those above, are beginning to integrate feminist principles into the heart of their urban policymaking. 


Big ambitions, little steps

Women and other marginalised groups don’t just need a 'room of one's own', as Virginia Woolf famously wrote, to be able to live free, independent lives. We need a ‘city of one's own’: space(s) to create care-full, community economies where human and planetary wellbeing are prioritised above economic growth.

To make feminist cities, we must ultimately get to the heart of the issue: the patriarchal economic system underpinning most of the societies that we live in. Given that we are unlikely to tackle this system in one fell swoop, implementing incremental steps as part of a more systemic feminist vision - promoting a culture of care, placemaking with gender and inclusion in mind, building more child-friendly urban spaces, involving women of all kinds in participatory urban planning processes, and promoting women as leaders in our field - is crucial to driving systemic change in the long-run.

At the EUKN, we are celebrating International Women’s Day by focusing our comms activities this month on feminist urbanism. If you'd like to engage with us on this topic or submit a piece for Urban Voices, get in touch with us at info@eukn.eu