Fri, Sep 26, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Gender and the city: Struggling in a man’s world

By Viv Groskop  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Have you ever stood in line for a toilet? Tried changing a baby’s diaper on a park bench? Slid off the alleged “seat” at the bus stop (or failed to perch on it in the first place)? If so you are a victim of anti-women urban design.

Research presented last month at the UK’s Royal Geography Society’s annual conference found that our cities are still being designed for the benefit of men. The report, by Gemma Burgess of Cambridge University, concluded that the vast majority of town planners are ignoring the gender equality planning regulations that Britain brought in last year.

This is significant, because if public spaces were designed with women in mind, they would look entirely different: much more lighting, better-situated car parks and more areas where residential and office spaces are mixed, making it far easier to juggle work and child care.

The report noted progress in some specific areas. In Lewisham, in southeast London, for example, Burgess said: “They asked themselves: ‘Where have we decided to build new office blocks?’ They realized that where they were located was no good for anyone wanting to combine work and home, so now they are thinking: ‘Where can we get mixed development to make it easier for those people?’”

Another local authority, in South Yorkshire, in the north of England, organized a series of walkabout tours with architects and local women, whose views were written into planning briefs.

There is something of a buzz around this subject. In July the Women’s Design Service (WDS) launched Gendersite, the world’s largest database on gender and the built environment, and on Oct. 2 an all-day Gendersite event at Queen Mary University of London, will feature an exhibition of work by women architects. The speaker will be Ruth Reed, who was elected the first woman president of the Royal Institute of British Architects in July; the president of the Royal Town Planning Institute is also a woman, Janet O’Neill.

The WDS publishes such mind-bogglingly fascinating titles as At Women’s Convenience: A Handbook on the Design of Public Women’s Toilets, and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, having been founded by a group of women architects, designers and planners in 1987.

“Most of the things in our built environment are designed on a male model,” WDS director Wendy Davis said, before noting: “There are differences between men and women in terms of ergonomics. Women are generally smaller, they have less reach, they are less strong.”

But designs that are hostile — or useless — to women still make it through. As an example, Davis cites the recent removal of seats from railway stations because of fears of vandalism.

“They have been replaced with sloping shelves at the height of a 6-foot 6-inch [2m] man’s bottom. By and large, things are designed to accommodate men’s bodies. They don’t take account of all the issues around the fact that we’re the ones who menstruate, get pregnant, need to breastfeed.”

Which brings us neatly to the subject of toilets. Almost all public spaces still accord the same number of square meters to male and female toilets, and because women can’t use urinals, they end up with half as many toilets in the allocated space. So why not double the allocation?

“If you want to know the true position of women in society, look at the queue for the ladies’ loo,” said Clara Greed, professor of inclusive urban planning at the University of the West of England, at Bristol.

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