Gendered Landscapes

by Jessi Barnes, PLA, ASLA

Parking spaces for women
Some jurisdictions have women’s parking in well-lit areas near the entrances to transit or stores. / image: Pascal Terjan from London, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By making women’s safety a priority, we’ll likely make public spaces safer for everyone.

Did you know that Central Park in New York City has just one statue of real, historical women? Guess how many statues of real men are in Central Park: twenty-three. Can you believe that? Moreover, it took until August 2020 to get our single statue celebrating real women’s achievements in one of the most famous public spaces in the country.

This is hardly an anomaly. Think about your own town: how visible are women in the public spaces you frequent? Moreover, how often are you considering women’s specific needs in your designs? Probably not often—possibly not ever. It should come as no surprise then that our built environments favor men over women, and the disparity goes far beyond representation in statuary.

Design shortcomings from male bias have negative impacts on women’s mobility, economic status, and health—all of which increase vulnerability and decrease sustainability and resilience. If we’re interested in creating sustainable, resilient communities, we have to directly address women’s needs.

To do this, we have to embrace gender mainstreaming, which means we need to normalize decision-making to consider how any planned policy, action, or design will impact both women and men. The best way to find out how a decision will impact someone is to ask them, so we need to be intentional in including women in the decision-making process. Leading the way in this endeavor, Vienna has been gender mainstreaming since the early 1990s. Additionally, the U.N. has promoted the strategy through its U.N. Women’s programs as a “globally accepted strategy for promoting gender equality.”

While examining women’s specific needs in cities, “women” refers to people of all ages who were born female, people who identify as women, and/or people who perform labor traditionally assigned to women, like caregiving and domestic work. Each broad group of women may overlap, and some might include men. Perhaps because of this diversity, cities designed with and for women have the potential to benefit the community across many demographics.

Some features, like ramps on buses, benefit multiple user groups. / image: NACTO, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr

However, discussing women’s specific needs can be tricky. Considering women and girls as a homogeneous demographic group disguises the rich diversity among them. Women as individuals will all have unique and valuable skills, knowledge, and experiences that can contribute to building more resilient cities. This is one of the primary reasons it’s so important to include women from your community and from different demographic groups in the design process. The more voices you include, the better and more inclusive your designs can be.

As it stands in the U.S., a 2015 survey of 624 planners found that just 2% of comprehensive plans addressed women’s needs specifically, and just 7% agreed with the statement, “developers are responsive to the special needs of women.” Likewise, a 2015 survey by the American Institute of Architects found that men continue to dominate leadership roles in our field. We can do better.

So, what would a city designed for women look like? Based on Vienna’s experiences and research on how men and women utilize public spaces, we know there are a myriad of ways in which the built environment impacts women differently than men. Two big areas of focus are transportation and safety.

Stairs are obstacles for many user groups, including people who provide caregiving work. / image: Tracey St. Peter, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr

In the U.S. and around the world, women still manage the majority of caregiving activities, which means they’re more likely than men to trip-chain. Trip-chaining is when a person strings multiple destinations in one outing, for example, dropping kids off at school, going to work, getting groceries, picking the kids up, and then returning home. The problem is that transportation has traditionally been designed for commuters—travel from home to work and back—i.e. the traditional man’s travel patterns. Women are more likely to use public transportation than men, but men tend to be the ones designing public transportation. Public transportation designed by women would likely prioritize travel within neighborhoods, making trip-chaining easier. It would have hand holds at different heights to accommodate shorter people, have reserved spaces for strollers and grocery bags, and it would have plenty of crosswalks and safe ways to access public transit stops. But to really understand what’s needed to make transportation more equitable, we need more data.

Safety on public transportation and in public spaces often comes up as a critical need for women; however, not much is being done in the U.S. to address women’s safety concerns. In fact, one study found that only 3% of transit agencies in the U.S. have programs specifically for women. Women tend to prefer human-centric safety interventions like more security guards and passive surveillance as compared to technological interventions like CCTV, but the national trend is towards technological interventions. Having well-lit transit stops and parking lots also helps alleviate women’s sense of danger.

Women’s safety in public spaces matters. When women feel unsafe, they tend to self-limit their movement, which impairs their ability to participate in public life, including going to work or school. We need to make women’s safety a priority, and in doing so, we’ll likely make public spaces safer for everyone.

What can landscape architects do to reduce the male bias in our landscapes? First, advocate for including women in the decision-making process. Women are less likely to be heard in public meetings, so include multiple avenues for participants to give input during meetings. Be sure to gender dis-aggregate all your data to look for gendered differences in how spaces will be used. Support women in leadership positions—look for opportunities to promote women within your firm. Take time to educate yourself on women’s experiences of built environments (you can start with the links in this blog post). And of course: when you have women’s inputs and wisdom, listen to them!

Jessi Barnes, PLA, ASLA, is a Landscape Architect and Project Manager at 3North in Richmond, VA. She holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from Ball State University, a Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership from Tulane University, and is licensed to practice in Washington State and Virginia.

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