Have you ever thought that practically all the cities in the world, since the dawn of humanity, were and continue to be created and designed by men? From urban design to building projects, from public transport to chairs – women have not been part of the process of creating everything around us.
The effects of this imbalance are evident in all cities: dark, poorly lit passages, high walls favoring a feeling of confinement and insecurity, or neighborhoods with public transport schedules that do not accommodate women's schedules, which usually include more care and responsibilities.
When we project onto others, we project our interpretation of their needs, and the more divergent our experience and understanding from theirs, the more likely we are to be wrong. It happens when a man designs for thousands of women.
But some cities around the world have started to adopt women's committees in their urban projects to add a feminine vision to cities.
Women and Umeå
In Umeå, a Swedish city, gender equality officers Dalén and Linda Gustafsson assess urban policy and planning decisions – from new parks design and housing projects to the development of a new cycle path – to ensure they also meet the needs of the women who will use the infrastructure.
Also, according to the architects, designing for women helps create a sense of belonging and security that makes people from different generations and different backgrounds feel welcome.
Umeå has a head start when it comes to redesigning cities for women: since 1978, a gender equality committee has weighed in on city administration policies from a gender perspective.
Umeå's approach has caught the attention of urban designers and policymakers across Europe, and in 2019 the city was selected as the lead partner in the Gendered Landscape network organized by URBACT, a program funded by the European Union.
The initiatives also include small actions such as signaling crosswalks by warning signs that portray a man and a woman instead of always using the male symbol, in addition to naming squares, schools and monuments after female figures (the vast majority are named after men).
These actions are part of the practices of Design Justice, a branch of architecture and design focused on redesigning cities, products, services and environments with historic reparations in mind.
“Design justice” seeks to rethink design processes, focusing on people who are often marginalized by design and using collaborative and creative practices to address the deeper challenges that our communities face.
Designing with women in mind is also positive for the planet in terms of climate and environmental balance. Globally, women, particularly in the poorest families, are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
In Umeå, administrators argue that measures aimed at reducing emissions need to take gender into account to ensure that women are not disproportionately affected. They also point out that prioritizing gender equality can be a powerful tool in the fight against climate change.
In gender-equal cities, emissions would decrease dramatically because women make more sustainable choices than men, Gustafsson says.
For example, research by the city's urban gender committee showed that men were much more likely than women to use their car in the city. A 2020 study commissioned by Sweden's innovation agency found that if men traveled as women, Sweden's passenger transport emissions would decrease by nearly 20%.
This is why it makes no sense to work on the balance of climate change and gender equality separately. In order to achieve good levels of urban equity, it is necessary that these issues go hand in hand.
It is a fact that we need to recognize the past inadequacies of our spaces and admit the prejudiced and unfair practices that formed the status quo and unfair privilege in the way we design.