A Tale of Two Cities
As a woman’s role in society shifts, so will the diversity of urban design.
Imagine Waking Up
to the sun streaming through the glass windows of your fourth-floor apartment unit on a cold autumn day. Your morning routine includes getting your three-year-old daughter ready for school. You take the elevator and push her out of the apartment in a stroller. Your daughter waves to the kids running around the grassy courtyard, oblivious to autumn’s chill.
Within minutes, you reach the kindergarten housed within your apartment complex. You drop off your daughter and head to the bus stop a few yards away. Hopping on the bus and taking an empty window seat, you pick up where you left off in the book you’re reading, looking up just in time to see your stop approaching.
You leave work early, buying a few supplies at the grocery store beside your apartment before picking up your daughter. You take her to the nearby park and she heads straight to the sandbox. Sitting on a bench, you hear a group of girls talking on perches high up on the trees and another group of girls playing on the volleyball courts. As dusk approaches, street lamps turn on. Walking home, you pass people running and cycling on the spacious sidewalk.
This is Vienna, a city designed with women in mind. It has been this way since the 1990s, when female city planners took a stand against gender inequality in their industry and brought women’s voices to the forefront, designing urban spaces that cater to them.
But the Austrian capital is more exception than norm. Unlike Vienna, most cities aren’t built to meet the unique needs of women.
“As a woman, I navigate all public space through the lens of safety, including the casual catcall or the presence of real danger,” says Toni Griffin, an urban planning professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. “Many women are also trying to survive the changing city—a city that makes it difficult to find affordable housing with convenient access to work that pays a living wage, all in a neighborhood with adequate services and amenities.”
Navigating cities and public spaces as a woman can be challenging. Walking around poorly lit streets at night can feel unsafe. Women fear being sexually harassed while cycling or riding public transport. There aren’t enough public toilets, baby changing rooms, and breastfeeding areas. Sidewalks are too narrow to push kids’ strollers on them, and the absence of elevators at train stations means carrying those strollers up and down several flights of stairs. (In one tragic case, a mother died falling down a flight of subway stairs in New York City while carrying her one-year-old in a stroller.)
Societal assumptions about women have historically placed them in the home as house-wives and caregivers. As such, cities and public spaces haven’t been built to address their particular needs. “‘A woman’s place is in the home’ has been one of the most important principles of architectural design and urban planning in the United States for the last century,” wrote Dolores Hayden, urban historian and professor emerita of architecture and American studies at Yale University, in her 1980s essay, “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?” Hayden proposed community-oriented living in cities, with shared facilities like laundry and cooking areas to better support women and their families.
But women’s roles have become much more varied, whether they’re sole homemakers or income earners for themselves and their families. With more women taking on responsibilities in the workforce, an invisible labor persists. They must balance their jobs with caring for their children and elders, straining the amount of time they have for commuting and running errands.
According to a 2015 report by Cornell University’s Women’s Planning Forum and the Planning and Women Division of the American Planning Association, women are more likely to need affordable housing options because they earn less money than men, and safe communities are essential for them. They’re more likely to “trip-chain,” making stops on the way home to do household shopping, drop off and pick up kids from school, and travel to elders who need care. Women without care responsibilities still spend a significant amount of time commuting to and from work using public transport.
These factors highlight the need to actively incorporate women’s perspectives in designing and planning urban spaces. Yet their voices, historically missing, aren’t reflected in the everyday design of the cities they live and work in. Influential female urban planners throughout history were few and far between, and they faced barriers to promoting and advancing their work.
We need more diverse voices making decisions in our cities because the populations of cities are diverse.
In the 1860s, Octavia Hill formulated the landlord-tenant housing scheme to improve conditions for those living in slums in London. Hill also campaigned for public spaces, calling for the development of playgrounds, the conversion of halls for public events, and the reuse of grounds for parks. Her campaigns weren’t always successful, and she was met with opposition. She would have been the first woman to sit on the Royal Commission on Housing in 1884, but an attempt to invite her was blocked.
Urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs, whose community-based planning challenged the way architects and urban planners viewed cities, gained a following in the 1950s. “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” she wrote in her influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Jacobs advocated for higher density in cities, local economies, short blocks, sidewalks, and parks. She even took to the streets to save New York’s Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park from being demolished. Along the way, Jacobs encountered skepticism for her lack of formal training and criticism for her ideas in a largely male-dominated field. Her ideas directly refuted the work of urban planner Robert Moses, who bulldozed neighborhoods to make room for highways.
Things have not changed much since these kinds of early clashes. Findings from the 2018 Equity in Architecture survey reveal that the most senior levels of the profession are predominantly occupied by men, with women earning less than their male peers and less likely to hold positions of leadership. As a result, men have had more of a say on how cities are designed and built, and their work reflects a lack of female representation— from heavy doors that require a muscular shove to open to building thermostats with standard temperatures that cater to the average male.
“It’s time for the solution space to be populated by people who directly experience the problem, not just those with formally trained expertise to solve technical problems, which has historically been men,” Griffin says. “We need more diverse voices making decisions in our cities because the population of cities are diverse.”
As Hayden wondered in her visionary essay, what would happen if architects and urban designers rejected all previous assumptions about a “woman’s place” in the home? What would those cities be like?
In India’s capital city, the SafetiPin app allows users to rate and assess the safety of areas based on key criteria, such as gender diversity, lighting, people density, transportation, and visibility. City governments and urban planners are using the aggregated safety data to inform their decisions.
The female perspective
Present-day Vienna provides a good case study. Led by Eva Kail, a gender expert in the planning unit of Vienna’s executive group for construction and technology, city planners began designing with women in mind in the 1990s. They widened sidewalks, added streetlights, and carried out more than 60 pilot projects.
One of those projects was Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City), an apartment complex designed by female architects. Located near public transit, the complex has grassy courtyards serving as play areas and includes a kindergarten, doctor’s office, and pharmacy. Another project involved redesigning parks by adding footpaths for accessibility and installing a greater variety of sports areas, such as badminton and volleyball courts.
Kail says that starting with pilot projects contributed to the success of designing Vienna for women. “It’s easier for politicians to go for one project that gets visible and convincing results,”she explains. Political support—especially from male allies—was also crucial. “At that time, there were two open-minded male city councilors,” she says. “They gave me the trust and resources I needed.”
The Swedish capital is adopting gender-equal snowplowing practices. Instead of first clearing areas frequented by men, such as roads and construction sites, the city prioritizes paths more often used by women, such as those around daycare centers, footpaths, and cycle paths, followed by areas around the largest workplaces and schools.
Family Housing in Berlin (On Right)
In Kreuzberg, a former hospital was converted into apartments and terraced houses surrounded by green spaces and play areas. Located in the middle of Germany’s capital city, the complex is designed for families and completely car-free.
“Cities of tomorrow”
Cities also need to adapt to the growing threat of climate change, which some studies have shown is more likely to impact women. During natural disasters such as droughts and floods, women are 14 times more vulnerable than men, and figures from the United Nations indicate that 80 percent of those displaced by climate change are female.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, African American women were most affected. Many of the people who lost their homes were single mothers, who found it difficult to recover without their community support networks.
And in the aftermath of disasters, relief shelters are ill-equipped to support women. They lack reproductive healthcare services and supplies for pregnancy, lactation, and menstruation. They also put women in more danger, exposing them to higher levels of rape and violence.
“Women are potentially the first to suffer the consequences of climate change, and creating inclusive solutions for all will also create better and safer futures for women,” says Anne Lise Kjaer, founder of the trend forecasting agency Kjaer Global.
To plan the cities of tomorrow with a warming planet in mind, urban visionaries are touting some radical ideas. One involves houses designed as trees and communities designed as forests. Others are considering water architecture. Japan-based construction firm Shimizu Corporation has created designs for Ocean Spiral, an underwater city that can accommodate up to 5,000 people and generate energy from the seabed. Then there’s Artisanopolis, the Seasteading Institute’s idea of a floating city running on solar and hydroelectric power. The city would feature greenhouses and a desalination plant to convert seawater into safe drinking water. Meanwhile, the United Nations is considering a design for a sustainable floating city, consisting of groups of hexagonal platforms anchored to the seabed.
“Most of these ideas are rooted in real concern for creating new visions of cities,” Kjaer says. “They’re often extreme versions of more realistic ones.”
Still, experts worry that the female perspective isn’t wholly taken into account in projects geared towards the future. Do these designs consider how women move around the city? Are housing units located close to public transport and schools? Are sidewalks wide enough to fit strollers? Do streets have ample lighting? Where are the public toilets located, and do they have free menstrual products and baby changing rooms? These questions all have yet to be answered.
“Women are sorely underrepresented in the creation of future visions for cities and the smart technology being developed for these cities,” says Kjaer. “Getting more women on board in everything from urban planning and policy-making to technology can make our cities of tomorrow better.”
Kjaer cites Copenhagen’s Resource Rows as an example of what one such “city of tomorrow” might look like. These housing blocks are made of materials from abandoned dwellings and construction waste, and they’re designed to be energy efficient and to reuse rainwater. There are rooftop gardens, vertical gardens, and courtyards where children can play. Walkways are wide enough for bikes and strollers, shared spaces are visibly lit, and public transport is nearby.
“It has been said that the number of women in public spaces during the day and especially at night is an indicator of the livability of a city,” Kjaer says. “So creating livable spaces and environments for women is key.”
In Rwanda’s capital, mini-markets complete with breastfeeding areas were constructed as organized workplaces for around 5,000 female street hawkers in the city.