May 20, 2022

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We must work for more equal urban spaces

We must work for more equal urban spaces

Architects and website developers need to become more gender conscious.

Housewife and activist Jane Jacobs argued in the 1960s in frustration at how undemocratic and inclusive urban planning was at the time: “The city must be planned for all and by all.” Today there is broad agreement (and dictated by law) that everyone should be able to influence planning processes, and that city public spaces should be usable and seen as accessible and inclusive for ‘everyone’. But does this mean that everyone is automatically included? And who do you use as a starting point when designing “for everyone”?

Can you design for everyone, if you don’t think about gender?

Gender has been a little discussed topic in architecture* and place development, and instead this has been an area that is almost blind from a gender perspective. Critical voices between academics and feminist practices[1] It highlights that ignoring gender as a theme in urban development means that cities and places are designed according to men’s terms, and has persisted so despite the fact that (Western) society has changed radically when it comes to women’s equality.

Here in the magazine Hailey Cecily Palmer refers to the term “man of reference” by Caroline Criado PerezAnd which describes how research and design will automatically depend on a healthy young white man if one does not consciously think about sex. Architecture and site planning suffered from the same automation.

We do not shy away from the fact that it was middle-aged white men who decided and knew how the physical environment should develop, and that they may have been largely dependent on their own needs and worldview. This is not to say that there is not a lot of architecture, places and cities designed by men that in many ways can be considered universally good. But at the same time we can ask whether the dominant male perspective is able to adapt well enough to the needs and experiences of females in the city, and is this modified at all in the absence of a compromise with the automatic design of men?

It is clear that urban public spaces are not adequately suited to the interests and needs of girls and young women.

Can you design for everyone, if you don’t think about gender? There are unfortunate tendencies that may indicate that the answer is no:

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For example, there is a significant difference between girls and boys in the use of public urban spaces. There is a tendency for girls in European countries to start withdrawing from public parks at the age of ten[2]In many cases, the facilities for outdoor activities are dominated by boys and young men by up to 80% [3].

In my work as a landscape architect, I’ve also encountered these gender differences when I engage users with young adults. Girls say they like to meet at home or at the local mall, while boys meet outside somewhere, often in connection with an activity. The reasons for the differences are many and complex, but it is clear that public urban spaces are not adequately suited to the interests and needs of girls and young women. The result is that girls are indirectly referred to private (and commercial) rooms, while boys are allowed to dominate the city’s public outdoor space.

When we know that providing good public outdoor spaces can be important for democratic participation, socialization, and physical activity, we should ask ourselves if this is OK?

The result is that girls are indirectly referred to private (and commercial) rooms, while boys are allowed to dominate the city’s public outdoor space.

It has also been found that women greatly limit their use of the city due to the need for security[4]. This is not to say that women are constantly wandering and afraid, but rather it has to do with heterosexual relationships and their awareness of the dangers of being a woman against a physically superior man. Are our cities good enough for women if they feel they have to limit their movement patterns and men don’t?

The above critical voices have also pointed out how, since the post-war period, venues have been planned for private car rather than pedestrians, who are an overrepresented “traffic group” of women. Much of our built environment is built for the car: long distances between different jobs, large paved parking areas, “big box” architecture without a life front, underpasses and narrow sidewalks along multi-lane roads. All these movements make moving as a pedestrian somewhat more and more complicated.

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More women also have a more elaborate movement pattern in daily life, according to Statistics Norway[5] He largely takes care of the daily chores related to the family and the home, doing so on foot and via public transportation. One might wonder if “Auto City” is convenient enough for those with such everyday life, and whether cities would look different with a different priority?

It should be a goal to create urban spaces and spaces that feel safe enough that women do not feel they have to avoid them.

So how do we go from being gender mainstreamed to being gender conscious and creating more equal urban spaces and places? First, we must realize that creating good spaces and places for “everyone” means taking into account the different conditions we live in as human beings, and that sex is also such a condition. Then we need to work more actively to modify the inequitable gender distribution in city space. Thus we obtain an effective compromise with the continuing design of the “reference man”.

When developing parks and public facilities for activities, care must be taken to better facilitate girls’ interests and welfare needs. It is known from research and experience that a wide range of activities and many social seating and aesthetic expression can be important. Many of the answers will also come through the involvement and listening of women and girls to a greater extent in the planning and design processes.

Security is also an important keyword. It requires effort on many levels, but the physical environment can contribute to both physical and physical security. For example, it can mean a lot about how buildings approach streets, how an area is lit and what kind of outlook you have on the site. It should be a goal to create urban spaces and spaces that feel safe enough that women do not feel they have to avoid them. It would also benefit men who actually face a higher risk of assault.

One might wonder if “Auto City” is convenient enough for those with such everyday life, and whether cities would look different with a different priority?

And not least, we must prioritize pedestrian experiences and accessibility over private car. Proximity between functions, preferably in a dense mixture, harmonious volume proportions between buildings and urban spaces and spacious, efficient and aesthetic pedestrian conditions. Making walking attractive will benefit overall health. It also doesn’t hurt to think more about care and the role of parents. It can be as trivial as thinking more about what it’s like to move around with a stroller through the city scene and whether there are places in the park suitable for breastfeeding.

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It is a political ambition to develop Norwegian cities and towns to be inclusive, safe and attractive. Raising awareness of gender inequalities in urban planning and architecture can help achieve this. And things started happening. In recent years, many projects have focused more on activities and facilities for girls, and several municipalities such as Karmøy, Nore and Uvdal have included a gender perspective in the development of the site. It’s a step in the right direction for a truly “everyone” design.

*The author is a landscape architect and refers to architecture as building and landscape.

Notes

[1] Mozingo, L.A. (2012) Introduction in Mozingo, L.A., & Jewell, L. (Editors) Women in landscape architecture. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, pp. 1-4.

Jacobs, c. (1961) The Death and Life of Major American Cities. Bristol: Politics Press.

Matrix Collective (1984) space making. London: Pluto Press.

[2] Grimm-Pretner, D. (2012) Engendered Spaces, in Mozingo, LA, & Jewell, L. (Editors) women in landscape building. North Carolina: McFarland, pp. 174–180.

[3] Blomdal, U. Elofsson, S. & Åkesson, M. (2012) Spontaneous sport for whom? Study of gender and use of outdoor areas planned for spontaneous sports during the summer.

[4] Ace, J., Renhovede, SR, Streep, J., Birgo, T. (2010) Security in public spaces – in eight Norwegian municipalities and counties. Oslo: Police Academy.

[5] SSB (2017) Indicators of gender equality in municipalities. Oslo: Statistics Norway.

Sandvik, or . (2017). How do parents of young children share the work—inside and out? Oslo: Statistics Norway.