In 1999, officials in Vienna handed out a questionnaire about how people in the city used transportation. The men filled it out in five minutes: go to work in the morning, come home at night. The women couldn’t stop writing.
The things they wrote were about dropping the kids off at school on the way to work, or taking them to the doctor some mornings, or helping their own aging parents buy groceries, or picking the kids up from activities.
It was an extremely more varied pattern of use–with far more walking and public transport–and one that resulted in several changes to the city’s infrastructure: easier access to public transport, wider pavements, ramps for pushchairs and buggies. This thinking is part of a movement called gender mainstreaming–assessing how planning and policy decisions will specifically affect both women and men.
For instance, Toronto has made a “request stop system,” so women (and men, for that matter) can get off buses closer to their homes late at night. Several places, from Srinigar in Kashmir to Mexico City, have created women-only buses and subway cars. Västerås in Sweden, recognizing that women are less likely to take part in consultation on urban innovations, has started asking its questions in places dominated by women. And cities in El Salvador have started putting all women-focused public services, like childcare, violence protection, and sexual health clinics, together in centers called Ciudad Mujer.
And because women in general are more likely to combine work with family commitments, cities like Berlin are trying to break up the division between residential and commercial districts, between suburb and office. That means more mixed-use neighborhoods, with homes, shops, and workplaces all jumbled up–something with numerous other benefits as well, like neighborhood character or being able to walk rather than having to get in a car every time you leave the house.
It also means designing specific developments on those principles. Latin American cities, spurred on by a strong grassroots movement, have done a lot to remake public spaces for women. In Rosario, Argentina, the city has reclaimed its squares from young drug users by filling them with good lighting, playground equipment for children, benches, tables, and soccer goal posts.
The gold standard for apartment buildings themselves is again in Vienna, which is a pioneer in this field. Consultation on the model development, called Frauen-Werk-Stadt, found that women tended to do more housework and childcare than men, so the apartments have safe grassy areas where families can play without traveling far from home. It also has an on-site kindergarten, pharmacy, and doctor’s office, and is close to public transport connections.
The crux is the consultation process–actually asking people how they live and then building the city to fit. On the other hand, there is an argument that by doing so you entrench those norms. How could urban design nudge people toward a society in which women don’t do a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare?
Another Viennese example: The city ran a project switching the genders on subway signs, so that the “please give up this seat” reminder showed a man holding the baby. But it’s hard to imagine urban design influencing the division of labor between two people, and perhaps better answers lie in the workplace: closing the pay gap, so men’s time isn’t more valuable, or making it easier for them to take paternity leave.
In fact, Japan has recently announced plans to effectively force men to take more time off when children are born: Parents will only qualify for the full two years of shared leave if the man takes at least three months. In Sweden and Norway, where the scheme was developed in the 1990s, some 90% of men now take parental leave.
For urban design, the task may be instead to give women more time and economic freedom, so that it’s easier to close those gaps even more.
Alexander Starritt is the editor of Apolitical.