“Cities are designed by men, for men”: why local government needs more female leadership

Just one of the issues women face more than men. Image: Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons.

Cities are largely designed by men, and for men. There is nothing unusual in this – we instinctively design, plan and make policy that reflects our own experiences and biases. However, this has led to places that don’t work as well for women as they should.

This has safety implications: clearly anyone who de-prioritises the importance of streetlights has never had to walk home in the dark worrying about the footsteps behind them, and while men are attacked and mugged as well, the danger to women is significantly greater. But even leaving that aside, there are numerous less well documented issues in cities that affect women.

And even simple things like cracked and crumbling pavements have a greater detrimental impact on women. The vast majority of people pushing either prams or wheelchairs are women, and while having to navigate a giant set of wheels around tree roots and potholes is unpleasant enough for the person being pushed, getting around shouldn’t have to be the daily equivalent of Ninja Warrior.

The perpetual closure of public toilets affects women more than men. The fact that women are still most likely to be carers – let’s not forget that less than 2 per cent of men have taken the option of shared parental leave – means that public access to toilets becomes an issue that disproportionately affects women. It makes it difficult to leave the house if you don’t know where you will be able to access changing facilities. Reducing amenities like these ends up confining women to their homes or places they know will be convenient. 

This is why we need more women at senior levels of local government, to improve the standard of our places for women. So for International Women’s Day, NLGN has made a series of films about the experiences of women in local government. And, in particular, we looked at the issue of why diversity is important.


As councillor Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds city council, said in one our films: “Too many areas of policy covered by local government are male dominated – infrastructure, highways, planning… The most important thing is to put women in positions of responsibility in those areas, leading by example, reflecting the needs of their communities, and making a difference.”

And while there are a huge number of women working in local government, reaching the senior levels of management is still much rarer than it should be. But council workplaces are becoming more open and less hierarchical, there is a greater allowance for flexible working, and many women who do reach the top are keen to mentor and support those at the beginning of their careers.

It is crucial that local government does what it can to support women in their careers, at all stages and levels of seniority. Until we have senior management that is representative of the area it creates policy for, our places won’t improve in the ways that they need to.

Claire Porter is head of external affair at NLGN. The three films are available on the NLGN YouTube channel.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.