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Her Just City

July 11, 2022

Feminism in the pursuit of urban social justice

Much of the theory underpinning urban design and architecture has concentrated on the everyday needs of able bodied cis males; evident in cities from the construction of transport networks, to the facilitation of public restrooms, up to the masculine shapes of the city skyline. These processes have ignored women and the diverse nature of communities who make up the city. The causes of such exclusion within a city are complex -  tangled within the puppet strings of city politics and histories of exclusive practices - causing such processes to become structured within the urban design process.

Whilst the height of a building or the width of a street alone is unlikely to change the way in which our cities are governed, the cityscape can provide spaces and opportunities to engage silenced and marginalised communities. In such a way,the built environment has the opportunity to listen to, amplify and address the voices and concerns of those often left unheard thus cementing their history and requirements within the built form of our cities.

How women experience the city

The ability to traverse a city unnoticed has been romanticised through the male character of the flaneur who has the freedom to saunter the city, observing others. Women, amongst other subjugated groups within society, do not share the same luxury, instead they experience the city under a constant panoptic gaze. Yet despite being so conspicuous, the voices of women have often been suppressed, rendering them seen but unheard. As voiced by Audre Lorde, those who experience subjection from those in positions of power are often silenced and therefore they must rise and speak in order to create change and bring about equality - for “it is not difference which immobilises[...] it is silence” (Lorde [1978], 2017).

The landscape of a city has the potential to provide common ground and a platform upon which citizens can voice their right and fight for change. Don Mitchell in his works on Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, places politics at the heart of urbanism - ‘People must lay claim to the city as critical public space, or risk the continued advance of a cadre of elites who seek to control citizens’. The divide between those who inhabit the city and the systems that contrive it, has buried the voices of many of the diverse citizens who live, work and occupy the city including women. This highlights the opportunity for change and the space for potential within urban practice and architecture.

London has been long established in its built form, with many of its original planning policies deriving from modernist, male-centric mentalities. Travel patterns were designed around the working man who would travel from suburban residential areas at the outskirts of the city into the economic centre forming distinct districts for living, working and consuming, connected via disrupting roads in the rise of car use. Those who resided in the city centre without the financial ability to leave were then left with increasing lack of services and underfunded public transport systems. Whilst more recent urban development and changes in working patterns in London have formed a more polycentric city with increasingly connected districts, there are still evident differences in the way in which men and women traverse and experience the city and opportunities to better understand and improve the issues some marginalised communities face.

What does a feminist city look like and what can bring about change?

Inspiring and motivational examples of community lead groups and organisations are emerging throughout cities to encourage and promote gender equity within urban environments. Within London, grassroots campaigns and communities have been established by women, addressing the challenges they face in order to reclaim their right to the city. The displacement of mothers through cuts in funding and reductions in social housing in Newham, for example, birthed the Focus E15 campaign. The original Focus E15 hostel housed young homeless people, often single mothers who, on the closure of the hostel, were being forced to move outside of London to private rented accommodation as far as Manchester, if they wanted to be rehoused. Women who were impacted, joined forces creating a collective voice, taking their concerns to positions of power in the council and media outlets. By taking advantage of the city as a platform for activism, their campaign resulted in the rehousing of all 29 mothers within Newham.

In Hackney, 2016, an empty council flat was reclaimed by a feminist action group Sisters Uncut, who created a community centre raising awareness for their opposition to government funding cuts for domestic violence services and victims. Their movement was inspired by the first women’s refuge set up in Chiswick in 1971. The original refuge was a four bedroom, short-life property leased by Hounslow Council to a group of women for community use as a space where women could gather and talk about the issues they were facing. The refuge became an integral part of the community, accommodating around 40 women and their children. The women worked together, repairing the house and making it livable, creating a space where abused women could come together and form a community, breaking the cycle of violence and preventing isolated women from returning to abusive households.

Both of these examples of informal grassroots movements demonstrate the importance of the collective voice and the role which safe spaces and places in the city play in the empowerment of women. Whether that be through safe housing or through spaces to voice concerns - the public realm can facilitate change.

More formal examples of equitable practices in urban design that empower women, can be seen in case studies around Europe. Vienna is an example often praised for its approach to gender mainstreaming within urban planning, having designed spaces around the challenges women face in transport around the city, extending into residential architecture, featuring on-site childcare, health services.

In the research for Vienna's redevelopment, the voices of teenage girls were heard within the design of public parks in order to understand how to make these urban spaces more appealing. The result was larger areas, often dedicated to football, being divided up into smaller spaces so that multiple groups could play in the same space. Improved seating areas were integrated and the number of public toilets increased. Importantly, the safety fears, held by many females also were addressed with well lit pathways which were straight with bushes set back at a distance.

Vienna not only listened to the perspectives of females within their research, they also empowered women through increasing visibility. In the city's urban development project Seestadt Aspern, many of the streets, squares and parks have been named after women, contrary to the historically predominant male naming. As requested by girl’s at the nearby school - a stage, called the Mädchenbühne (girls' stage), which can be used by anyone,  was designed within one of the city’s most prominent squares. The stage not only responds to the direct needs of the local female community, it stands as a physical space for expression and performance, as well as a symbolic space allowing the voices of all to be seen and heard.

Successful formal and informal movements have shown how communication and the collective voice of women have the power to impact the urban design and the social architecture of the city. Where women have been historically disregarded in the development of the city, they possess the right, the opportunity, and the need to voice their position within them. Whilst it’s critical for women to take matters into their own hands and reclaim their right to the city; the effort to change should be a collective one with all stakeholders holding each other accountable, particularly in male dominated spaces. Therefore, as architects and urban designers, we have the ability to encourage and promote the empowerment of women and other marginalised communities through inclusive participation and provision of equitable spaces.

Book recommendations:

Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World - Lesie Kern

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London - Lauren Elkin

The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities.- Dolores Hayden

Your Silence Will Not Protect You - Audre Lorde

The sphinx in the city : urban life, the control of disorder, and women - Elizabeth Wilson

 © 2O22 West Port

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