How Gender Inclusion Is Influencing Urban Design
In the 1970s, in Berkeley, California, a group of disability rights called the Rolling Quads began dismantling curbs and improvising sidewalk ramps, demanding access for wheelchair users. But what people did not expect was that wheelchair users would not be the only ones to benefit from the intervention. Soon, pedestrians with baby strollers, heavy suitcases or simply with reduced mobility started using the ramps. Likewise, a gender-inclusive city works better for everyone. A city where all gender minorities of different ages and abilities can move around easily and safely, fully participate in the workforce and public life, live healthy, sociable and active lives, is a city that improves everyone’s lives.
It is with this example that the Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, published in 2020 by The World Bank, begins its last chapter. By proposing practical and theoretical strategies to create cities with gender inclusion, the handbook decouples urban design from the logic that makes the white and economically active man the “neutral” user of the city. Therefore, the initiatives presented by the guide seek to break with the perpetuation of patriarchal gender norms reflected in the city, patterns that began to be questioned in the 1970s, when feminist scholars in the US and Europe analyzed the ways in which urban planning excluded the needs of women. Nowadays, more than 50 years later, this discussion is urgent, and it touches other parameters including different minorities related to gender identity, such as transgender, ager, gender neutral, non-binary, etc.
In this sense, thinking about urban planning from the perspective of gender minorities is a topic of fundamental importance, as these strategies are responsible for shaping the environment around us, which, in turn, shapes the way we live, work and rest. To illustrate, imagine a single mother who lives on the outskirts of town and doesn’t feel safe on her nightly commute home. For this reason, she begins to work informally from home and earn just enough to live with the risk of landslides or floods. Or, imagine if a transgender man is assaulted on the bus returning from his night class, he may give up his studies or even stop attending public spaces. Finally, there are many possible scenarios to be described here that illustrate how an urban environment not planned to serve these minorities can trigger serious social and economic impacts.
In view of this, gender-inclusive urban planning must be participatoryactively including the voices of minorities; integratedadopting a holistic and transversal approach that promotes the construction of the citizen-city relationship; universalmeeting the needs of all minorities regardless of age and ability; educational, sharing data and studies on gender equity; and financedreserving sufficient resources to implement the necessary urban strategies.
In practice, according to research carried out with gender minorities in different cities, the major challenges identified in the occupation of public space and carrying out daily tasks are concentrated in accessibility, safety and ease of movement. With this in mind, many cities have been rethinking their urban design, considering the four fundamental criteria:
A few years ago, a group of sociologists developed a study in the city of Vienna, Austria, which showed that girls stopped going to parks from the age of nine. Already understanding the possible causes of this, a pilot project was put into practice. It renovated an existing, including new accesses, dividing open areas into more private spaces with landscaping and benches that facilitate park interaction, as well as the inclusion of courts for other sports like volleyball and badminton. From this strategy, almost instantly a difference was noticed in the patterns of use with more presence of girls and the LGBTQIA+ community, breaking the possible monopolization that was happening in the parks by boys and football. This example clearly demonstrates what accessibility means today. Much more than making spaces physically accessible, accessibility today means that everyone can access and use public space freely, easily and comfortably.
Besides the above case, the accessibility implemented in gender-inclusive urban planning can be seen in the creation of gender-neutral public bathrooms present in some cities around the world. In addition, toilet facilities are incorporating adequate diaper-changing spaces (no longer just in the women’s restrooms) and disposal systems for menstrual products.
As well as accessibility, mobility is a key aspect that is being rethought in urban design with gender inclusion. In addition to common structural strategies, such as increasing sidewalks or elevated lanes to facilitate the movement of pedestrians (who are, to a large extent, gender minorities), it is possible to perceive other logistical strategies that bring gender into the discussion.
Public transport and night routes are constantly portrayed as major challenges, as they bring up situations of vulnerability and insecurity. Therefore, in order to change this scenario, simple strategies are being applied in different cities around the world. These include implementing bus and train schedules that meet the needs of all genders and not just focus on traditional travel patterns or hours, and instituting a stop request program allowing passengers to request a hop off at any point along an overnight bus route. This also includes expanding transport networks to the outskirts, providing reduced or free school transport to increase access to educational opportunities for children and ease the burden on mothers, or the creation of gender-divided spaces, such as buses or subways, exclusively for minors.
In addition to mobility issues, vulnerability is also in confined, poorly lit and poorly maintained public spaces, which can convey a sense of danger. With this, special attention is being given to public lighting, especially around bus stops. In some parts of New York, you can see a gender-sensitive approach, as in pioneering Vienna, which made the city’s parks and streets safer and more comfortable on an individual level. In them, better lighting was installed, and semi-enclosed pockets in parks were created, which are visible, but still offer a reasonable level of privacy for those who are not comfortable exposing themselves from all angles, bringing more security, especially to LGBTQIA+ groups . It is about escaping from claustrophobic and closed projects or large open squares dominated by security lighting and wide viewing angles dictated by surveillance strategies and the protection of private property.
Another interesting initiative that is being rethought for cities with gender inclusion concerns urban furniture. As with Vienna’s parks, a new bench arrangement seems like a simple strategy, but it can mean a lot. The usual aligned benches, which facilitate distance viewing and surveillance, reflects the masculinity of the public space. However, when positioned in opposition to each other, they create spaces for coexistence and face-to-face interactions, increasing the sense of freedom and security of the gender minorities who attend the place.
As well as furniture, urban monuments also speak about the masculinity of public space. While elements that represent a common narrative, they have now incorporated more critical thinking, embracing representativeness and diversity. In the city of Manchester, for example, the Alan Turing Memorial was inaugurated in the Gay Village in 2001, and in Berlin, in 2008, the memorial to homosexuals persecuted by Nazism was inaugurated.
But beyond the monuments, it is possible to see in several cities the creation of a “brand” or visual identity for the public space that is inclusive and welcomes sexual and gender minorities of all ages and abilities, helping to evil public hostility and increase the sense of belonging.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Democratization of Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.