“What works for men doesn’t work for everyone”: why cities need to start planning with women in mind

Mannequins erected in London's Marble Arch to promote Safer Cities for Women Day. Image: Action Aid.

Last year, councillors for the city of London, in Ontario, Canada, spent 90 minutes discussing a 12 word addition to a document. The contentious sentence read, “Consider a gender lens during the development and execution of new policies”.

Harmless sounding, perhaps, but some of the male politicians felt the line impugned their honour. Bill Armstrong, representative of Ward 2 since the 90s, accused Maureen Cassidy, the councillor who introduced the offending line, of “questioning the integrity of our administration and suggesting they were doing practices that would be discriminatory”.

That, he said, was simply not the case, and “I’ve been there long enough to know” – a reference perhaps to his opponent’s more recent assumption of office. “Plain and simple,” he concluded, “all people are treated equally, so it doesn’t have to be said.” 

The thing is, while Armstrong’s sentiment may be admirable, treating people equally has a long rap-sheet when it comes to achieving equal outcomes. That is to say, treating people equally often translates as treating people like men.

And not all people are men. Some of them (quite a lot actually) are women. Some of them are also girls – and boys. Sometimes people are men, but they aren’t the white, middle-aged, able-bodied men that are imagined when city halls are drawing up plans to treat people equally. 

What all this means is that what works for men, as imagined by city hall, doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else. By treating us in a way that suits this male ideal, the rest of us are disadvantaged – often in surprising ways.

For example, I bet you’ve never thought about snow clearing as a gendered issue. Neither had city officials in Karlskoga, in Sweden. “The community development staff made jokes about how at least snow is something the gender people won’t get involved in,” explained Bruno Rudström, one of the city’s gender equality strategists.

But on reflection, they realised that even something as seemingly neutral as snow-clearing, actually could have a markedly different impact on men and women, due to the gender split in travel style. Women are more likely than men to walk, bike, and use public transport, whereas men are more likely to drive. By prioritising clearing the roads, the city was prioritising the way men choose to travel, despite the fact that walking or pushing a stroller though 10cm of snow is much harder than driving a car through it.

So the city changed the order of snow-clearing to focus on the pavements and cycle paths first, particularly around schools. As an unexpected by-product, it found a marked decrease in injuries: pedestrians are three times as likely as motorists to be injured in accidents due to slippery conditions. 

Parks are another area you might not immediately think of as gendered spaces – but a study in Vienna found that, after the age of nine, there was a dramatic decline in the number of girls using them. The reason behind this decline was not that girls stopped liking the parks: rather, if they had to compete with boys for space, they tended to lose, because they were less assertive.

If she was older she probably wouldn't be here. Image: Getty.

In response, the city redesigned the parks to include a variety of courts to encourage different activities. It also divided large open areas into smaller semi-enclosed spaces. The effect was dramatic, and almost immediate: now that they didn’t have to share the same space as the boys, the girls returned. A small change, but an effective one.

There are a number of other hidden ways in which cities can exclude women – for example, the traditional “human scale” for buildings as advocated by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, where human meant a 6 foot male. But the number one way in which women are let down in city planning is through a lack of safety, which in turn can impede women’s access to work, a social life, housing and transportation.


Last Friday, ActionAid held a demonstration in Marble Arch, for Safer Cities for Women Day: 30 mannequins, a third marked in red, to symbolise the one in three women who will experience male violence in her lifetime. Each mannequin carried a quote from a woman. “The police told me not to tell anyone,” read one. “This is my city,” read another.

It may be her city in theory, but in practice, things are a little different. Poor lighting, dangerous public transport, even inadequate public toilet provision can all lead to cities being inhospitable places for women: in a typical Mumbai slum, there are around six toilets per 8,000 women, many of them infested with rats or without water. Women are often raped or assaulted as they search for a toilet.

Inevitably, it is Sweden that is leading the way in tackling these issues. After research finding that women were reluctant to use municipal car parks – due to traditionally poor lighting, windowless concrete walls, and lifts and stairwells tucked out of sight with few people around and no easy means of escape – officials in Gothenburg decided to do something about it.

Concrete was substituted for glass, and better lighting was installed, as well as an increased security presence. “A car-park company cannot solve the underlying problem, which is men’s violence against women,” said Jonas Nilsson, the company’s head of car park security, “but we can take many measures to reduce people’s insecurity.” And making cities more woman-friendly doesn’t have to be a purely selfless act: since the changes, more women have started using the car-park, and so the company made more money. Everyone wins.

Commuters board a tram in Gothenburg in 2004. Image: Getty.

To the east of the country, in the city of Kalmar, research found that women were avoiding taking the bus at night because of safety concerns. So, in order to achieve the city’s goal of increasing public transport use, officials introduced “night stops”. Passengers travelling alone could ask the bus driver to stop between two regular bus stops — somewhere closer to home, or somewhere that simply felt safer. The bus driver would open only the front doors, and only allow the single passenger out, reducing concerns of being followed. The number of people using the night bus increased significantly following the introduction of these measures.

But we all know Sweden is insufferably progressive on gender issues – what about less enlightened countries? Like the UK, for example?

Well, since 2007, public authorities have technically been required to consider all planning decisions in the context of the Public Sector Equality Duty. This duty requires all public bodies to explicitly consider whether their decision will “promote equality of opportunity”.

And there have been some examples of good practice – for example, the London Borough of Lewisham “shifted its policy on employment site provision, to provide more local jobs to benefit women and reduce long-distance commuting”. (Women tend to make “more complex journeys than men” as a result of their shouldering the majority of the childcare and household burden.)


But there is still a long way to go. Last year reporting of sexual offences on trains and at stations reached “record levels”. In part this was because of increased reporting, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is still happening on a significant scale. Meanwhile, councils continue to switch off street lighting to cut costs. It is debatable whether or not this actually leads to an increase in crime, but it certainly will not make women feel more safe.

Such considerations are perhaps likely to continue being overlooked, while female representation in local government remains so low: 32 per cent, 28 per cent and 24 per cent in England, Wales and Scotland, respectively. The issue is particularly acute in planning and construction, which Kate Henderson, chief of the Town and Country Planning Association describes as “very, very male-dominated”.

The evidence from cities around the world is clear: women and men use and experience cities differently, and if we want to ensure equal access for everyone, we have to take these differences into account. To return to where we began, London – this time the one in England – we have a new mayor in Sadiq Khan.

And here there is reason to be hopeful: Khan’s new team has not been fully appointed (a deputy mayor for planning has yet to be named), but the signs so far look good, with a diverse team in stark contrast to our usual pale and male diet when it comes to city officials. With a range of perspectives on offer, perhaps London can start to move away from treating people equally and start instead to treat them equitably.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

 
 
 
 

Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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