“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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.