Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Who Owns Public Spaces: How City Design Reinforces Inequality

Public bathrooms are just one in a series of unfortunate examples of the reinforcement of inequality by the design of public spaces that caters to men's bodies or ignore women's needs. Public city spaces should be equally accessible, useable and beneficial to both men and women. For this to be the case, the differences between men and women must be taken into consideration during the design of urban spaces. With widespread female migration to cities from rural communities, women's increasing participation in both economic and political spheres and the pledge to equality by many of the world's governments, cities must become safer, more equal places, and actively seek to avoid propagating structural inequality

Inevitably, where there are washrooms, their square footage is similar for both sexes. Differences in bodily functions, however, mean men's washrooms have more urinals per square foot than women's washrooms have available stalls, resulting in different experience and usability for the sexes. Women, because of cities designed primarily around men's bodies have far more needs for washrooms: menstruation and diaper changing, breast-feeding and more frequent urination due to smaller bladders and pregnancy, tending to both children and older, sicker relatives (as women take on the bulk of the care for both these groups more than men). 

Men use bathrooms often just for urination. The results are long lines outside of women's bathrooms and short or non-existent lines outside of men's. The use, then, of these public facilities becomes unequal: washrooms are built for men's ease of use, for a favouring of men's bodies over women's, and end up causing women unequal amounts of discomfort. Indeed, as Soraya Chemaly notes, the lack of female public washrooms were once used as a reason to not hire women: both Harvard Law School and Yale Medical School join the ranks of prestigious schools and government institutions who made the expunging of bodily fluids into such political places. If we want equality in our cities, more square footage for women's bathrooms would be a good place to start, and placing diaper changing tables in men's washrooms a good change in traditional conception of gender roles. 

Urban landscaping must also consider the use of lighting as being able to reinforce or disrupt inequality. In 2010, the UN launched its Global Programme on Safe Cities Free of Violence Against Women and Girls, in partnership with UN-Habitat. This programme found that women experience sexual harassment and violence in areas where they should be welcome: in public transport and in parks, around schools and in every-day street harassment. The result is unequal access to public services and institutions, increased fear and 'danger zones' as women and girls voluntarily or forcibly avoid these spaces. In the evening and at night, spaces without lighting become especially unsafe for women and children, areas where gender-based crimes can be committed, making entire sections of a city inaccessible to women. While not wishing to enforce the notion that women are victims to be saved, men are far more likely to view darker spaces as still accessible, while women, young girls and children will not. Lighting would allow access to these spaces by all citizens, permitting them to take advantage of the city spaces, participating and navigating their city at all hours of the day, to not fear violence when they work late or work a second shift or a night job. Again, we must take into consideration the differences in experience between the sexes and recognize that urban planning should incorporate these safety features into city planning for enjoyability and access for all its citizens.

Evidence has shown that women use public transport more often than men, and for a wider range of activities, going beyond twice a day use for work and including trips to the grocery store, to school for children, to the hospital and family homes for visits and care of the elderly and the sick. Vienna, Austria has been using this research since 1991 to mainstream gender into its transport system, adding more bus routes into residential areas, improving and building new sidewalks, and making public transport more accessible and useable for women with children in strollers. Based first on the people who most use the public spaces and transport, including in residential areas, Vienna city officials sought to build housing, communities and transport systems that catered to the specific needs of these citizens. What resulted were housing areas with bigger playgrounds, closer to health centres and with better access to public transport leading to grocery centres. While we may know that class often affects whether you can get on public transport, gender affects how often and with what ease you can use it.

Should cities aim to only provide equality or should it also actively seek to promote equality and female empowerment? Representation of male achievement in cities is another form of structural inequality. Often, cities dedicate space to art and achievement, in the form of murals, statues, busts, carved quotes or posters. I don't have to tell you that most of these art spaces depict male figures or sayings by men. What about representation of women as leaders, women as artists, as heroes, as innovators? What about simply women as represented in city space? Not, mind you, as the female angel looking adoringly at the male statues around her, but as belonging to the city itself. If a city seeks equality, then what it portrays as its mementos, both historical, artistic and future, should also equally represent both sexes. 

Parks are another public space that can either promote female empowerment and equality or reinforce inequalities. Studies have shown that girls, around the age of 9, stop using parks for recreation. Numerous factors play into this: parents become unsure of the safety of parks for girls, boys are raised to be more competitive and allowed to be more boisterous than girls, gender norms mean parents force girls to play more calmly. These norms mean boys will take more space in parks, and girls will relinquish it. Vienna, again, sought to implement actual change to promote physical activity and empowerment among young girls: it built walkways to make parks more accessible, put in different stations for different types of activities, added more lighting and made parks bigger, so there was more space for both sexes. It is no longer a debate that sports are intrinsic to girl's healthy physical and mental development, their understanding of team-building and competition, success and accomplishment. Girls who are physically active outside or who play sports have lower levels of depression and better self esteem and body image. They get better grades, have fewer unintended pregnancies and graduate at higher rates than girls who don't participate in physical activity.  This is one of the primary reasons behind Title IX in the United States and why Plan International "Not Just a Game" has used sports as a way to empower girls, develop their life skills and change gender role perceptions among communities and parents in many developing nations. It should be a great incentive for city planning to push for parks and recreation centres that actively promote equality and female empowerment. 

These changes in the design of our cities are not luxuries, or 'good to haves.' In many cases, they represent the basic needs of half of the population. They involve basic bodily functions, protection, access, usability and equality. Beyond these basics, cities should have visions for its citizens, and female empowerment and the active promotion of equality must be among them.  

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