GUEST POST: Feminist urbanism: Creating gender-equal cities in Scotland

Engender and the Equal Media and Culture Centre for Scotland have hosted student placements from the MSc in Social Research at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Strathclyde Applied Gender Studies and Research Methods course. As part of their research outputs, the students have produced a series of blogs.

In this post, Beth looks at how women and men experience public space and urban environments and how we can create gender-equal cities in Scotland.

The graphic shows a bright pink background with black left-aligned text quote that reads "Whilst budget and bureaucracy restrictions are inevitably always going to pose a challenge, the growing evidence of the gendered nature of urban experiences does not appear to have led to any substantive change to urban planning policy in the UK.". The quote is attributed to Beth Allen, Student Placement, University of Edinburgh. In the top right-hand corner of the graphic there is Engender's logo, which is an equals sign in a black circle.

When considering issues of gender inequality, one aspect that is perhaps far subtler and more discrete than others is the way in which the built environment is experienced differently by men and women.

In recent decades, feminist research has studied this phenomenon, with the evidence undeniably pointing to women being disadvantaged in their use of urban spaces. From a lack of accessible and functional public toilets, which biologically women require greater use of, to transport systems that are not built for a purpose beyond that of a daily office commuter, a range of factors have been demonstrated to restrict women’s access to the cities. 

Beyond just practical challenges restricting women’s use of urban spaces, a prominent embedded issue that leads to women and girls experiencing urban environments differently is feelings of fear and perceptions of safety whilst in or travelling through these spaces. Whilst violence against women and girls (VAWG) is a whole other topic in itself, which Engender’s advocacy work with Delivering Equally Safe is a helpful example to look at, this is just yet another example of how the way in which cities are built is embedded with gender inequality. For a captivating overview of this issue, I highly recommend Leslie Kern’s book, ‘Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World’ amongst a wealth of academic research papers. Overall, what is evident is that cities have been traditionally built for men, ignoring the differential experiences and requirements other groups in society have, reinforcing the patriarchal values our society has historically been built on.

I want to use this opportunity, however, to not simply restate the issue of gender inequality in urban environments but to instead discuss what can be done about it.

What is Feminist Urbanism?

Feminist urbanism can be defined as the aspects of urban design and planning which are:

“Developed as a reaction to traditional planning processes that were shaped by patriarchal values, with an intention to facilitate equitable access to the benefits and opportunities” (Dutton et al., 2022).

In essence, feminist urbanism is creating a feminist approach to urban planning with the aim of creating environments that are safe, accessible, and open to everyone equally.

An important fact to highlight here, arguably a potential reason for these feminist approaches not having been successfully implemented years ago, is the gendered nature of the planning profession itself. Whilst the picture is somewhat improving, according to the Royal Town Planning Institute, 41% of planners in the UK in 2019 were women; however,  as with so many sectors of society in the UK, only 17% of above-director-level roles are held by women in the private planning sector. Therefore, if inequalities exist within the profession, what hope is there for creating true change in policymaking?

There are examples of successful feminist urban planning approaches across cities in mainland Europe that can be seen as paving the way for work in this area. A commonly cited example of this is the Austrian city of Vienna. After opening a Women’s Office in the 1990s, a gender mainstreaming approach was adopted, including when looking at urban planning in the city. Since its inception, over sixty projects have been designed incorporating this feminist urban approach, for example, adding mirrors to alleyways and redesigning parks. Public parks in urban environments have been spaces of particular interest, as these have been intrinsically designed with the norm of a man in mind. For instance, when looking at spaces for teenagers and young people in parks, facilities are often targeted towards men, such as skateparks and MUGA (multi-use games areas) pitches, whilst ignoring any facilities aimed to provide a safe space for girls to socialise. One organisation based in England looking to campaign for change in this area is Make Space for Girls. By looking at case studies of other European cities, including Vienna, Umeå and Barcelona, positive changes can be seen, such as creating areas for social settings and an inclusive, safe atmosphere so that everyone has equal access to parks, which can, in turn, enable all citizens to experience the positive physical and mental health benefits of green urban spaces.

In the UK, however, whilst awareness of feminist urbanism is increasing, there has, so far, not been as much practical change as some of these other locations. Whilst budget and bureaucracy restrictions are inevitably always going to pose a challenge, the growing evidence of the gendered nature of urban experiences does not appear to have led to any substantive change to urban planning policy in the UK. Despite this, recently, a window of opportunity has opened.

In October 2022, Glasgow City Council passed a motion to implement a feminist approach to town planning policy and embed this into the next City Development Plan. This led to Glasgow being coined the first ‘feminist city’ in the UK, using feminist urbanism in the hope of addressing this intrinsic area of inequality.  Subsequently, a similar motion was passed by Edinburgh City Council in early 2023. If these feminist urbanism changes are implemented successfully, it can be hoped that this will drive substantive policy and practical change to women’s urban experiences in Scotland. Perhaps then Scotland can once again lead by example for the rest of the UK to address embedded gender inequalities.

During a placement with Engender as part of a master’s dissertation, I have been exploring the opportunity this motion provides for implementing feminist urbanism in Scottish cities, interviewing key policy and planning experts working across Scotland. 

 

Engender occasionally works with students as part of their placement requirements for university or college courses - this allows students to work with Engender on specific areas of our work for women's equality. Student blogs form part of their course assessment, and they do not receive payment from Engender.

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