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

By Viv Groskop  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Fri, Sep 26, 2008 - Page 9

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.

The urban planning concepts that affect women most are predictable: nurseries, housing design, parks, pavements, safety and transport. Burgess says that 75 percent of bus journeys are taken by women and only 30 percent of women have access to a car during the day, yet urban schemes are designed around car drivers and commuters. Many of the problems of urban planning simply reflect women’s domestic inequality: The fact that women still do the bulk of child care, look after the elderly and do the household shopping and cleaning.

“Women are less likely to have a simple journey to work like men,” Greed said. “They break up their journey, stop off at the child minder, school and then work, and maybe the shops and school on the way back. Public transport favors the male commute in and out of the city center.”

It is disturbing, when you start to think about it, that women simply accept the physical and geographical limitations placed on them in everyday life.

“You are used to it being uncomfortable,” said Eeva Berglund, a social anthropologist and author of Doing Things Differently: Women’s Design Service at 20.

“One of the major issues is the way that women restrict their lives. You choose where you go and where you don’t go and you come to find that acceptable,” Berglund said.

This chills me slightly as I remember the times I have excluded myself from shops, offices, public transport options, arts events and restaurants because I have a buggy with me, because I am carrying a baby who will need breastfeeding or have various children in tow who won’t make it up all the steps. When I first had a baby I noticed this and found it annoying. Now, like a Stepford Wife automaton, I accept it. And I never sit on those sloping shelves at bus stops or stations because they are at a weird height.

But how can we change all these things? Above all, it is about architects, whether male or female, being open to these issues. More women in the industry would help too, because at least some of them would design in their own image.

“Designers see themselves at the end of their pencil — or their mouse,” Davis said.

“Until about 15 years ago, most architects and planners were men. They saw themselves moving through this environment. Because they were men and they were car drivers, they were interested in keeping commuters moving. It’s the same issue as with disability. They didn’t understand how a 15mm lip on a curb could upset a buggy or a wheelchair. Not that they were being sexist — it just didn’t occur to them,” she said.