How to Design a City for Women

A fascinating experiment in "gender mainstreaming."

In 1999, officials in Vienna, Austria, asked residents of the city's ninth district how often and why they used public transportation. "Most of the men filled out the questionnaire in less than five minutes," says Ursula Bauer, one of the city administrators tasked with carrying out the survey. "But the women couldn't stop writing."

The majority of men reported using either a car or public transit twice a day -- to go to work in the morning and come home at night. Women, on the other hand, used the city’s network of sidewalks, bus routes, subway lines and streetcars more frequently and for a myriad reasons.

"The women had a much more varied pattern of movement," Bauer recalls. "They were writing things like, 'I take my kids to the doctor some mornings, then bring them to school before I go to work. Later, I help my mother buy groceries and bring my kids home on the metro.'"

Women used public transit more often and made more trips on foot than men. They were also more likely to split their time between work and family commitments like taking care of children and elderly parents. Recognizing this, city planners drafted a plan to improve pedestrian mobility and access to public transit.

Additional lighting was added to make walking at night safer for women. Sidewalks were widened so pedestrians could navigate narrow streets. And a massive staircase with a ramp running through the middle was installed near a major intersection to make crossing easier for people with strollers and individuals using a walker or a wheelchair.


The barrier-free staircase in Vienna’s ninth district. (Image courtesy flickr user: Josef Lex)


The decision to look at how men and women used public transit wasn't a shot in the dark. It was part of a project aimed at taking gender into account in public policy. In Vienna, this is called gender mainstreaming.

Gender mainstreaming has been in place in the Austrian capital since the early 1990s. In practice, this means city administrators create laws, rules and regulations that benefit men and women equally. The goal is to provide equal access to city resources. And so far, officials say it's working.

Vienna has adopted gender mainstreaming in a number of areas of city administration, including education and health care policy. But nowhere has it had more of an impact than on the field of urban planning. More than sixty pilot projects have been carried out to date. As the size and scale of these projects increase, gender mainstreaming has become a force that is literally reshaping the city.

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Urban planners have been melding mainstreaming and city design in Vienna for over two decades and they've gotten it down to something of a science. Before a project gets underway, data is collected to determine how different groups of people use public space.

"There are so many questions that need to be asked," Eva Kail tells me. Kail has been instrumental in bringing gender mainstreaming to Vienna and currently works as a gender expert in the city’s Urban Planning Group. "You need to know who is using the space, how many people, and what are their aims. Once you’ve analyzed the patterns of use of public space, you start to define the needs and interests of the people using it," she explains. "Then planning can be used to meet these needs."

Mainstreaming got off the ground in Vienna in 1991 when Kail and a group of city planners organized a photography exhibit titled "Who Owns Public Space -- Women’s Everyday Life in the City." It depicted the daily routines of a diverse group of women as they went about their lives in the Austrian capital. Each woman tracked a different route through the city. But the images made clear that safety and ease of movement were a priority for all of them.

It sparked a media firestorm. "Newspapers, television and radio were all covering it and 4,000 people visited," Kail says. "At the time it was something completely new. But politicians quickly realized it was something people were interested in and they decided to support it."

Soon after, the city green lit a series of mainstreaming pilot projects. One of the first to be carried out was an apartment complex designed for and by women in the city’s 21st district. In 1993, the city held a design competition for the project, which was given the name Frauen-Werk-Stadt or Women-Work-City.

The idea was to create housing that would make life easier for women. But what exactly did that mean? Time use surveys compiled by Statistik Austria, the Austrian national statistics office, showed that women spent more time per day on household chores and childcare than men. Women-Work-City was built with this in mind. It consists of a series of apartment buildings surrounded by courtyards. Circular, grassy areas dot the courtyards, allowing parents and children to spend time outside without having to go far from home. The complex has an on-site kindergarten, pharmacy and doctor’s office. It also stands in close proximity to public transit to make running errands and getting to school and work easier.


A view into one of the courtyards at Women-Work-City. (Image courtesy archive Franziska Ullmann)



Women-Work-City has an on-site kindergarten. (Image credit: Paolo Mazzoleni)
 

"What made the project unique was that we worked to define the needs of the people using the space first and then looked for technical solutions," Kail says. "Very often it is the opposite, where technical or aesthetic solutions determine the end result."
 
Following completion of Women-Work-City, city officials turned their attention to Vienna’s network of public parks and commissioned a study to see how men and women use park space. What they found was surprising.  

The study, which took place from 1996 to 1997, showed that after the age of nine, the number of girls in public parks dropped off dramatically, while the number of boys held steady. Researchers found that girls were less assertive than boys. If boys and girls would up in competition for park space, the boys were more likely to win out.

City planners wanted to see if they could reverse this trend by changing the parks themselves. In 1999, the city began a redesign of two parks in Vienna’s fifth district. Footpaths were added to make the parks more accessible and volleyball and badminton courts were installed to allow for a wider variety of activities. Landscaping was also used to subdivide large, open areas into semi-enclosed pockets of park space. Almost immediately, city officials noticed a change. Different groups of people -- girls and boys -- began to use the parks without any one group overrunning the other.   


A city park in Vienna. Photo courtesy of David Bohmann.


People have started to pay attention. In 2008, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme included Vienna’s city planning strategy in its registry of best practices in improving the living environment. Vienna’s park redesign project, along with a program to create a gender mainstreaming pilot district, has even been nominated for the United Nations Public Service Award, a badge of honor recognizing efforts to improve public administration.

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This change hasn’t come without criticism, however.  

"When we came up with the idea for the exhibit “Who Owns Public Space" a lot of our colleagues thought it was ridiculous," Kail says. “Everyone we worked with had to give feedback. People said things like, "does this mean we should paint the streets pink?"

"Gender can be an emotional issue," Bauer adds. "When you tell people that up until now they haven’t taken the women’s perspective into account they feel attacked. We still have people asking, ‘Is this really necessary?'"

Planners also run the run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes in attempting to characterize how men and women use city space. To distance themselves from this, city officials have begun to shy away from the term gender mainstreaming, opting instead for the label 'Fair Shared City.'

Whatever its limitations, there's no question that mainstreaming has left an indelible mark on the Austrian capital. It began as a way to look at how men and women use city space differently. Today, however, mainstreaming has evolved into a much broader concept. It’s become a way of changing the structure and fabric of the city so that different groups of people can coexist. "For me, it’s a political approach to planning," Kail says. "It’s about bringing people into spaces where they didn’t exist before or felt they had no right to exist."

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