What would a city look like if it was designed with the needs of women in mind?
This is the question city officials in Vienna asked back in 1999 as part of a project aimed at including gender in the consideration of setting public policy. After conducting a survey to look at how men and women used public transport differently, Vienna adopted a policy known as ‘gender mainstreaming’ (now referred to as ‘Fair Shared City’).
The responses from this particular survey led to city planners addressing the public transport needs of women, whose use of the system turned out to be more frequent and complicated than that of men. Additional lighting was added to city pathways, sidewalks were widened and intersection crossings were built with accessible ramps for strollers and mobility instruments. Since then, more than sixty urban planning pilot projects have been instituted under the Fair Shared City policy, whose primary aim is to make urban public space accessible for everybody.
So what would a contemporary Australian city look like if we were to design it with women, sustainability and accessibility in mind? Here are just some ideas.
1. Safety first
As a city cyclist and enthusiastic nighttime pavement-pounder, I’m frustrated by the sudden panic that comes when lighting suddenly disappears from a previously hospitable path. Central to the Fair Shared City concept is the idea that public space belongs to everybody; unfortunately, negotiating dark streets in a culture that tells women they are vulnerable to attack is a reminder that this space doesn’t belong to us.
So if you ask any woman what she would like to see her city improve upon, she will almost uniformly answer ‘better lighting and security’.
The City of Sydney has committed to replacing around 6,500 LED lights around Sydney over the next three years, helping to reduce its greenhouse by up to 70% in the process. LED lights produce better visibility than standard lighting while saving money and reducing energy. A well-lit city is a city with safety in mind (especially for women, although it also benefits men). It can also be very beautiful!
If public space belongs to everybody, it means it must be fairly accessible to everyone. The social model of disability observes that disabled people are more significantly oppressed and marginalised by society than by their own conditions.
To put that in another way, it is not a wheelchair user’s body that might keep them out of a particular pub but the fact that the pub in question doesn’t have an accessible ramp or toilet.
It is criminal that accessibility is still an overwhelming issue for disabled people in Australia. In Europe, cities can participate in the Access City Award, an “innovative competition between European cities which was launched in 2010 to promote accessibility in the urban environment for persons with disabilities.”
I asked my friend Stella Young what she’d like to see in an accessible Australian city, and she replied, “accessible public transport, no more fixed chairs in cafes, rules about parking bins on footpaths, every cab accessible like in London, audio announcements for signs, sit anywhere you want in a cinema, accessible changerooms in clothes stores - the list goes on and on!”
3. Practical urban living
In 1993, an apartment complex was designed for and by women in Vienna. Called ‘Women-Work-City’, it aimed to create housing that would make life easier for women and this was largely influenced by the fact that women performed the bulk of the housework, childcare and care for the elderly. That remains true today, but it’s (thankfully) changing.
In Australia, we’re still attached to the notion of home ownership - especially in regards to raising families. But as city populations grow, the need for more practical and sustainable living environments also increases.
Women-Work-City designed an apartment complex with some key features incorporated onsite: useable green space which could function as a park while staying close to home; childcare via a kindergarten; and healthcare via a doctor’s office and pharmacy. You could also add a shared laundry room and goods recycling station - for example, a self managed toy library or book exchange to cut down on home clutter and waste.
The practice of creating tiny villages in large urban areas makes it easier for both women and men to take care of families without having to juggle too many different obstacles, thus creating a better work-life balance for everyone!
4. Get cycling
According to a 2009 article in Scientific American, 49% of cyclists in Germany are women. In the Netherlands, that percentage increases to 55%. But in Australia, women comprise only one-fifth of the number of two wheeled commuters.
Well might you ask why but as Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer at Deakin University, stated in that Scientific American piece, “If you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes - just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female.”
In short, Australian road infrastructure does not support or even prioritise cycling and that has a detrimental effect on the number of women who do it. In a 2012 survey in Seattle, 79% of women surveyed cited “distracted driving” as a barrier to them riding a bike. Then there are the fears of sexual harassment - I’ve certainly copped my fair share of unsolicited comments while riding, yet another reminder that the public space I am entitled to occupy is not really mine.
Susan B. Anthony once credited the bicycle for having done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. Whether that remains true today is by the by - the fact is, cycling is a liberating, environmentally sustainable, thrilling means of commuting around a city and more women should feel empowered to do it.
Here’s what we need: wider bike paths (especially to accommodate trailers for children); road safety policies which prioritise cyclists over cars (because I’m sorry, cars are a relic of the past and people need to get used to that); beautiful, green space to ride through that isn’t choked up by exhaust fumes; more bike-borrow programs that encourage short term commuting; functional cycling gear that isn’t made out of lycra; and fewer hostile long distance cyclists berating commuters for riding ‘too slowly’.
5. No more sexist advertising or billboards!
When I asked the fine folk of Twitter what they would like to see in a city designed with women in mind, a significant number asked for a ban on sexist advertising and on the spot fines for sexual harassment.
There are few things more intrusive to women on an ongoing basis than the repetitive reminders that our bodies and our autonomy do not belong to us, and seeing those things magnified on giant posters across the skyline only exacerbates that.
An Australian Fair Shared City would be one in which everyone felt able to go about their business freely and kindly, knowing that they would receive kindness and respect in return. That means no more casual ‘jokes’ or comments, no more ‘harmless’ touching, no more intrusive attempts to persist in making conversation when it’s clear the other person isn’t interested. But it also means no more corporate and social support for the degradation of either sex (or sexuality, or race, or appearance and so on).
A Fair Shared City is one which welcomes its inhabitants rather than excludes them. Imagine your city with conceptually designed apartment blocks with support for urban living! Where women could cycle and walk freely no matter what time of day or night it is, where everyone could gather in the local square or drinking hole to discuss the day’s events regardless of whether or not they use legs to move or a chair, and where parenthood was supported rather than made more difficult!
Now that’s a city I’d like to live in.
* Cleaner public toilets (and more of them) with complimentary tampon and pad dispensers and Japanese style cistern refills which double as the tap
* Meditation gardens
* More water fountains
* Craft cafes for children
* More late night security officers
What are your ideas for a Fair Shared City? Leave them in the comments below!