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Cities designed for women

The reason why it is important to redesign urban spaces with a gender lens

Alessandro Magini

Journalist

By October 2021November 3rd, 2021No Comments
Photo by Claudio Colotti

“When project managers don’t keep sex-based differences into account, public spaces are automatically tailored to men. The issue is that half of the world’s population has a female body”. These words by Caroline Criado Perez- author of the “Invisible– The way the world ignores women in every field. Data on hand” book- conclude the chapter on urban planning. Even though it might seem odd, here in Italy, where reflections on gender inclusive urban planning are taking their first timid steps, a public transport plan, a park or a curb are often the results of sexist choices that perhaps were made unknowingly. The mistake is to keep viewing the space as if it were something neutral, without realising that the people who use it are never neutral but have female or male bodies.

In the rare occasion that gender differentiated data becomes available they show that people use the city differently based on their sex. Statistics indicate that the approach to urban fabric changes significantly based on the sex- from the use of means of transport or public toilets to the perception of safety and the use of parks. People in Vienna know this very well as the Frauen werk stadt (City of workingwomen) was built there between 1995 and 1997. The council created a borough with 350 council flats using a series of gender differentiated data provided by the National Institute of Statistics on the needs of the people who would be living in them. The data showed that unpaid care work was mostly carried out by women so the entire borough was designed to make their life easier, balancing paid work with housekeeping and care work in the best possible way. The City of workingwomen features an internal kindergarten and is based in an area very close to public schools and transport because it was observed that buses were utilised predominantly by female users and those taking children to school were mostly women. The complex was designed by female architects and engineers and it features low housing blocks divided by internal yards and gardens meant for play, which are visible from the windows of the surrounding houses in order to increase the sense of safety and enable parents to check on the children directly from their home. The entire complex is designed based on the “15-minute city” concept, a proximity-based model with access to any needed service within 15 minutes on foot. It is a sharp contrast with the functionalist city model commonly utilised in the first half of the 20th century, whereby boroughs are divided based on their function (work, rest and entertainment).

The only way to understand citizens’ needs is to listen to them. Otherwise you’re just going with pure imagination and that makes you slip back into stereotypes. Azzurra Muzzonigro e Florencia Andreola

A different perspective

The Austrian capital was a pioneer in gender-inclusive urban planning but today urban redesign plans based on women’s needs are radically changing the fabric of metropolitan cities like Tokyo, London and Barcelona. Gianna Attiani’s observations- an architect specialised in garden design and landscaping- are illuminating and confirm that our country is behind in this field. In 2013 she decided to participate to a tender- “a bit for fun and a bit because I was feeling tired of certain dynamics in Italy. I didn’t think I would actually win”- for the redesign of a housing complex in the centre of Christchurch, the third city of New Zealand that was hit by a strong earthquake in 2011. The tender of the council specified that in addition to following strict seismic guidelines the new borough should be sustainable and inclusive. “Our project was about building housing units with gardens and terraces, interconnected by green walking areas, gardens with native plants, urban vegetable gardens and shared drying racks in order to create a sense of community”, remembers Attiani. Once she won the tender she flew to New Zealand where she discovered a new way for the institutions to operate and work. “After the administration informed us about the outcome of the tender it called us in for a series of meetings to examine every single aspect of the project. They wanted to know in detail the height at which we’d be cutting the hedges of the gardens in order to avoid creating blind spots where someone might hide or commit a crime without being seen. The same goes for lighting: they decided to analyse each and every light beam to avoid creating any dark spots. Safety and people’s perception of it are essential to them.” When assessing the paths that cross the gardens the council noticed they were too narrow. “They told us that parents with a stroller or disabled people on a wheelchair would struggle so they asked us to enlarge the paths by a few centimetres.” Essentially each aspect of the winning project was examined in detail, assessing the way every single architectural element might impact the quality of life of every inhabitant. “In New Zealand I found the public administration to be very focused on the inclusivity of the overall project. I never saw that happening here. In Italy, the highest level of attention paid to these topics is the technician from the council asking the usual question, ‘Are we complying with the accessibility regulations?’ to ensure we’re avoiding any legal and bureaucratic issues”.

Listening to the city

In order to change things first of all you need to generate data. That is the exact goal of “Sex and the city”, a study on gender disparity in Milan that was planned and implemented by Azzurra Muzzonigro and Florencia Andreola, two independent female architects and urban researchers. The research won a tender promoted by Urban Center in Milan, the observatory of the city that is managed by the Council and the Triennale Museum. “The lesson from Vienna is mainly about listening and asking women directly about what measures should be adopted. The only way to understand citizens’ needs is to listen to them. Otherwise you’re just going with pure imagination and that makes you slip back into stereotypes”, they state. It is no coincidence that they created a questionnaire focused mainly on safety, mobility and topography for their research, which was given to 1,400 participants- men, women and non-binary people aged between 18 and 75 years. The answers obtained can be divided by gender, age and place of residence, creating an impressive amount of data that can be interconnected and processed based on the aspect one wants to study. In addition to the questionnaire, the female researchers also mapped the entire city indicating, for example, gender-based violence support centres, public toilets or places equipped for breastfeeding. With regards to the topography there is no big surprise: the way public spaces are named reflects centuries of patriarchy. According to the Association of Women’s Topography 2,538 roads and squares are named after men versus only 141 that are named after women. There are more roads named after flowers than female characters. “In terms of safety,” explain Muzzonigro and Andreola- “Milan is generally not considered dangerous by 48 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men, but the perception changes drastically between day and night. After dark, in fact, 50 per cent of women state they feel unsafe versus 15 per cent of men.” Unexpected data emerges when combining age with the perception of danger. The study showed that younger women between 18 and 25 years of age are those feeling less safe, but as the years pass women tend to perceive the urban space as less dangerous. In a country where, based on the ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistics), 36 per cent of women do not go out at night because they are afraid this means that at night the city completely becomes male territory.

Redesigning the mobility system doesn’t just mean maintaining the current state of things, thus facilitating the care work carried out solely by women, but rather inverting the ‘trend’: starting to put care at the centre of urban planning, regardless of who manages it.  Azzurra Muzzonigro

Even the transport system displays significant disparity in favour of men, facilitating the typical movements of commuters. “In terms of mobility we looked at research conducted internationally showing that men and women tend to follow different movement patterns. Men move more linearly, going to work at 9am and going back at 6pm. Women instead tend to follow a more fragmented pattern on foot, made of short trips, due to the fact that care work weighs mostly on the female population.” When Muzzonigro talks about the data collected on transport, she stresses an essential principle, “Redesigning the mobility system doesn’t just mean maintaining the current state of things, thus facilitating the care work carried out solely by women, but rather inverting the ‘trend’: starting to put care at the centre of urban planning, regardless of who manages it”. Planning urban spaces taking into account women’s needs might end up reinforcing stereotypes and inequalities. “If I speak about city for women because I want to facilitate care work I might risk confusing people. However, let’s clarify something from the start: redesigning the city to solve the needs of citizens- whether these are men, women or gender minorities- means that everyone will benefit from it”. The research results will be published next month close to the municipal elections in Milan. They will turn out to be very valuable if the elected parties can make good use of them. If instead they will decide to ignore them we will have lost a big opportunity.

Female/male architect

In 2017 Francesca Perani was the first Italian woman to become a female architect. She managed to obtain, together with Silvia Vitali and Mariacristina Brembilla, for the first time in our country, the female version of the official stamp, with the wording “female architect” instead of just “architect”, after expressly requesting this to the Order of Architects in Bergamo. The news were welcomed by most Italian newspapers but sparked much controversy on social networks, where many people- both men and women- thought the matter had little significance, as if it were an ideological whim or the fixation of a fussy feminist. Perani’s response to those that think like this is, “if it’s so difficult to accept the term, imagine how hard it is to accept the actual professional”. Francesca Perani founded the RebelArchitette (RebelArchitects) group, a cultural association formed by 15 activists, with the expressed objective to “detoxify architecture from inequalities” and promote women’s employment. The group immediately established collaborations with tens of similar associations from all over the world, from Chile to Canada, Iran and Iceland. In order to demonstrate that theirs was not a fixation, the first action taken by the RebelArchitette activists was to monitor 411 architecture-related events taking place in Italy between 2017 and 2018, which were organised both by orders and private parties. The results collected by the “Timefor50” report say it all: in 37 per cent of the events there were only male speakers, even in conferences with 20 guest speakers on stage. There were events with just female speakers only in 2 per cent of the total. In the remaining 61 per cent of the cases- mixed events- only 12 per cent featured the same or a greater number of female speakers compared to the male ones. This was the situation observed in a country- Italy- where the percentage of women working in that sector- 43 per cent- is one of the highest in the world.

In the “Where are the women architects?” book by Despina Stratigakos, the Canadian-born architectural historian demonstrated that the lack of female role models results in a third of women leaving architecture. For this reason the RebelArchitette group created digital support tools that talk about the best female architects from Italy or abroad. In addition to writing a book with the experiences of 365 female architects from different countries- including developing countries- the group created a map that features more than a thousand female architects who distinguished themselves for their talent all over the world. Their works can be seen for free on the website of the group (on www.rebelarchitette.it) and they were viewed tens of thousands of times, often even by developing countries, like India, where women’s conditions are far worse than in Italy.

Between 2017 and today the RebelArchitette group has asked all of the Italian Orders of Architects for the female version of the official stamp, with the “female architect” wording: 5 rejected the request and 30 accepted this change. The 30 orders that approved the request feature some of the largest ones such as those in Milan, Naples, Rome and Turin so today 65 per cent of Italian professionals can finally have the female version of the official stamp.

Universities

There is clearly an underlying issue because studies on urban planning lack gender data and architecture is a significantly male dominated world. The academic world is discussing topics like “How are we forming the male and female architects of the future?” The first answer given by Azzurra Muzzonigro and Florencia Andreola is bitter laughter. They both know the Italian university context well because they taught at the Polytechnic University of Milan. “No, the study of gender-inclusive urban planning is not taught in our universities. I never came across it, even as a subsection of a module. You finish your university studies without even knowing about the existence of this topic. In Italy architects and designers simply did not think about this issue.” “In terms of scientific research- carries on Andreola- there’s very little in our country. Almost everything we’ve read on these matters was written in English or Spanish. Whenever you find something related in Italian the terminology used and the ideas expressed date back to thirty years ago”. In addition to the scientific and pedagogic gaps there is a methodology issue in that universities tend to be quite narrow-minded and don’t manage to open up and connect with the city. “Some academic bubbles formed in order to discuss ways to enable the research conducted in universities to get in touch with the real urban processes”, concludes Muzzonigro.

Alessandro Magini

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