Gender and Urban Planning: Time for Another Look

By Regula Modlich

Almost fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs shook the planning establishment with her bookThe Death and Life of Great American Cities. While neither explicitly feminist nor oriented to women, Jacobs’ perspectives were rooted in the life experiences, sensitivities and issues of women. So were her solutions.

The second wave of feminism started forty years ago and soon thereafter introspective consciousness-raising turned outwards. One way this change was manifest was that women started to critically evaluate their built environments. At the 1976 UN-HABITAT Conference in Vancouver, women delegates met and focused on how male experiences and values had shaped and dominated urban planning and architecture and how these fields had failed to meet the needs of women. By then, women from North and South, at both ends of the social scale, had entered the paid workforce in droves to become primary and secondary breadwinners in their households. Despite this, women, especially those from vulnerable minority groups, remained overwhelmingly responsible for human nurturing and domestic work, laboring as unpaid homemakers, nannies or maids. Some women, of course, also achieved spectacular careers. Juggling multiple roles, however, has forced women to constantly multitask and live with very fractured timeframes. Women also started to leave abusive domestic environments, raising their families alone, often only to trade the emotional and physical violence of their spouses for the economic humiliation and cruelty of poverty.

In the mid-1970s, activist groups such as Women Plan London, Women Plan Toronto, Women’s Design Service (UK) and many rape crisis centers organized. Five major planning issues emerged: mixed-use planning, public transit, safer cities, social services planning and the role of women in decision-making. Women & Environments International Magazine was started to document these developments—and it continues to do so today.

Mixed-Use Planning

In 1933, the International Congress of Modern Architecture, held on board a ship that sailed from Marseilles to Athens, adopted segregated land use planning as the crowning conclusion of the industrial revolution. Urban planning reflected the experiences, perspectives and visions of the overwhelmingly male professions of the time. Segregated land uses, especially at low densities, increase the need to transport goods and people. This strains public and private budgets, the environment, public health and time schedules—especially for women, with their multiple roles, lower incomes and fractured timeframes. Feminists called for mixed-use planning and greater densities to render home, jobs and services more accessible and affordable.

The vitality, beauty and diversity of towns and cities built prior to the era of land use segregation still testifies to the validity of mixing urban functions. Jane Jacobs, too, demanded mixed and intensified land uses. Later, the environmental movement realized the benefits of mixed-use and intensified planning, proclaiming it “smart growth” and better planning, but never acknowledging or endorsing the gendered implications.

Land use segregation and low densities still prevail in North America. Big box stores with huge parking lots in ever-larger assemblies keep sprouting in the countryside far from communities. Municipal councils, craving the employment and tax revenue expected to flow from commercial and industrial uses, fail to force developers to change. While there is some mixed-use development—usually in older, already mixed-use and dense neighborhoods—society becomes more dependent and addicted to the car. Woe to those too old to drive and/or too poor to own a car—mostly women!

Public Transit

Around the world, women are generally poorer than men. They rely more on public transportation, walking or biking. Inappropriate pricing, design, routing and scheduling of transit becomes a stressful problem for women as they escort children or elderly dependents and shop and run errands during their lunch hours and commutes, and when they become frail or disabled.

In the 1980s, the Toronto Transit Commission pioneered a safety audit, “Moving Forward: Making Transit Safer for Women.” The resulting changes greatly improved safety for women. Women can now ask bus drivers to let them off anywhere along a bus route after hours. Subways have strategically located mirrors, emergency phones and monitored waiting areas. Elevators for wheelchairs greatly help elderly people, most of whom are women, as well as mothers with strollers or heavy shopping bags.

In the 1990s, senior levels of government started to download their responsibilities and amalgamate cities and towns into unwieldy monsters. Under the motto that public services have to pay their own way, transit systems were forced to raise fares, thereby losing riders, many of whom were poor women without alternative means of transportation.

Safe Cities

Wars, genocide, patriarchal religions, diseases such as HIV/AIDS and extremes of poverty and wealth victimize women, often denying them their most basic human rights. Poor aboriginal and minority women are particularly vulnerable. Public safety for women is therefore increasingly seen as a reflection of economic, cultural, social and environmental injustice. The pervasiveness and horror of domestic violence against women of all ages only became a public issue with the second wave of feminism. For the first time, women started to speak up and question the prevailing attitude of blaming the victim. Safety audits were done, police and criminal justice practices were questioned and rape was prosecuted as a crime. “Take Back the Night” campaigns reinforced women’s demand for safety. Jane Jacobs was the first to point to the safety that “eyes on the street” provide in mixed-use and socially diverse neighborhoods, and in 1994 Gerda Wekerle and Carolyn Whitzman offered planners Safe Cities: Guidelines for Planning, Design and Management.

Social Service Planning

With the exploding urbanization that followed World War II, suburbs developed everywhere, usually without social services such as health, elderly and child care. Women were still expected to perform these functions in the home without getting paid.

By definition a social service is one that transcends individual responsibility and need. The short-lived social democratic government in Ontario, Canada, therefore revised its Planning Act to mandate that social services be planned for. The succeeding conservative government quickly reversed this—as well as the requirement that major residential developments provide a certain portion of affordable housing. That government also shifted responsibility for many social services onto the shoulders of municipalities that could not afford to pay for them. Many services were therefore cut—and again, women were affected the most.

In Southern countries, loans from the North often mandate privatization or closure of the limited public infrastructure that exists, including for water, electricity and sewage, as well as schools and hospitals. What services remain end up out of the reach of most people, especially the poor, most of whom are women. This feminization of poverty has spread in both the North and South. As social justice is key to sustainable development, this means that a public commitment to planning for social services, from education to child, elder and health care is critical.

Women’s Role in Decision-Making

Though more women have won seats on councils and parliaments over the years, they rarely occupy more than 30 percent. Even when elected, women are likely to speak for a non-gendered community and deal with “family needs” rather than women’s issues. Official jargon, inconvenient locations—especially in large amalgamated municipalities—and meeting times tend to discourage women from becoming active citizens or candidates. Women’s multiple roles and the lack of child care, time, energy and resources further inhibits involvement.

Local governments can no longer afford the time and money to reach out to and stay in touch with their citizens, especially minority and disempowered groups of women. Jane Jacobs noted this trend in her last book, Dark Age Ahead. The token mandatory public consultation for urban planning decisions needs to evolve into participatory planning that ensures a fair share in the decision-making process, especially for disempowered groups.

Four Major Changes over the Last Half Century

New technology, neoliberalism, globalization and climate change are changing the world. Since women are still the primary caregivers in the world, they are directly and differently affected by these changes. How do these changes relate to the above gendered planning issues?

Women and New Technology. Men still dominate the world of computers and automation, though this world affects women quite differently. Low-skill clerical and assembly line jobs held mostly by women have fallen to automation. Call centers and other high-tech/low-skill industries are being outsourced to women in low-wage areas and in the South. Of course, technology also confers access to an unprecedented amount of knowledge and communication, which benefits women.

Many jobs are moving from the office, factory or even storefront into the home, allowing closer integration of nurturing and domestic responsibilities with paid employment—for both men and women, though women prevail. While employers save in office or industrial space, the home-employed often feel isolated and stressed by insufficient or inappropriate space. Home employment challenges the traditional planning notion of segregating residential from employment functions, reintegrating two fundamental aspects of life.Urban planning should acknowledge and embrace this. It is time that scale and environmental criteria replace the inane traditional land use labels and definitions which have straight-jacketed our communities through official plans and zoning laws.

Women and Neoliberalism. In the 1960s and 1970s, many believed the days of capitalism were numbered. Instead, capitalism was repackaged as neoliberalism and came back with a vengeance. It devalued the social in favor of the individual, the public in favor of the private, cooperation in favor of competition and gentleness in favor of aggressiveness. Only that which makes profit or earns income is of value. Almost everywhere public services, housing, institutions and budgets are being cut, eliminated or privatized. Hard-won women’s centers, services and child care facilities are closing. Nurturing and domestic work is still assumed the responsibility of “real” women to accept out of love or with minimum financial reward. Most of this work in fact still has no place in conventional economic data and is therefore not valued. Women, especially the elderly, poor or otherwise vulnerable, as well as single parents, bear the brunt of neoliberalism.

In the 1970s, affordable housing was still considered a public responsibility. Non-profit, cooperative and social housing was being built in most cities in the North. Women focused on expanding housing opportunities, improving security of tenure and reversing discriminatory design and financing. Since then, social housing has been privatized or downloaded. Funding for new housing is almost nil, and waiting lists are enormous. Women in the South still have to struggle for an equal right to own land.

Maybe the pendulum is starting to swing back, reaffirming the importance of the public, the social, the cooperative and the gentle. In some countries, neoliberalism resulted in so much suffering, desperation and outrage that citizens elected governments committed to providing public and social infrastructure. Several countries in Africa, Latin America and Europe are seriously trying “bottom-up” governance and budgeting, and “gender mainstreaming,” giving women equality on councils and in legislative bodies.

Women and Globalization. Throughout history, the struggle to survive and to improve ones economic situation has forced people to seek refuge or fortune elsewhere, thus bringing their cultures, beliefs, energies and diversity to other lands. For women, especially singles, single parents or visible minorities, such transitions are especially difficult as neoliberalism takes advantage of vulnerabilities. Many poor women have to relinquish their own families to serve others as nannies, caregivers or cleaners, often suffering harassment, exploitation and abuse. Again, Jane Jacobs stressed the need for planning for social diversity in her critique of standard practice. The more urban planning integrates diverse populations and functions, the more misconceptions and hatred of the unfamiliar will give way to interdependence, cooperation and acceptance.

Women and Climate Change. Coping with climate change will require tremendous changes in human values, behaviors, lifestyles and economies—nothing short of a revolution. Corporate thinking needs to change its bottom line from profitability to sustainability. Guilt-tripping women into reducing, reusing, recycling and being responsible for the health of their families and the earth will no longer suffice.

Government procrastinating and dickering about Kyoto formulas and trade-offs will have catastrophic consequences, jeopardizing our environment and species. New ideas about travel and transportation are needed. Maybe the twentieth century planner Hans Blumenfeld’s idea of free public transit will be placed back on the agenda, and with it should come a review of transit’s design, scheduling and routing to ensure that it serves new lifestyles and priorities. Suburban and ex-urban shopping malls, with unused parking during much of the night, could be more intensely used by incorporating multi-unit housing, while existing housing could be allowed to incorporate commercial functions. All arable land will need to be protected and utilized. Food production and urban agriculture will become an important part of planning.

The planning profession must therefore ensure that intensification, integration and reclassification of urban functions based on social and environmental criteria will meet the challenge of climate change and support human nurturing and domestic roles. Then, maybe, men too will value, share and enjoy these essential and existential aspects of life.

Regula Modlich (rmodlich(at)evdemon(dot)ca) is a retired urban planner. She was a founding member of Women Plan Toronto and Toronto Women’s City Alliance and a longtime board member and managing editor of Women & Environments International Magazine.

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