The traditional canon of urban planning excludes people and practices that could greatly benefit it—and society. That needs to change.
In Cities of Tomorrow, a textbook commonly used to teach the history of urban planning, Peter Hall espoused the contributions of Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, and other heroic male figures of urbanism. As for women, he told the reader: “There were, alas, almost no founding mothers.”
It would be more accurate to say that women are and always have been part of urbanism, but their contributions have disappeared from planning and architectural history.
In light of recent discussions about the marginalization of women in technology, the media, and other fields, it’s time to bring attention to women in urbanism. So far, other writers have focused on two points: First, that there is a lack of representation and recognition for women’s contributions to the field; and second, that male architects and planners fail to design cities that account for diverse needs, including those of women.
I would add a third point, which is that we must expand the definition of what counts as “real” planning.
In school, most planners learn about Daniel Burnham as a founding father of modern urban planning. But few learn about the women-organized clubs that led the charge for urban beautification at the turn of the 20th century, transforming the American urban landscape. In her book Downtown America, Alison Isenberg discussed how women drove urban change by fundraising, organizing lectures, and focusing public attention on improving the urban aesthetic.
City planning was still a new discipline. According to Isenberg, these women “legitimated [male] experts during the insecure early years of the planning profession,” helping them win lucrative bids and stimulating demand for their consulting services. Once established, however, the male planners saw it personally advantageous to erase the role of women’s city clubs from their official records and distance themselves from gendered discussions of urban planning. For example, Charles Mulford Robinson’s General Plan for the Improvement of Colorado Springs (1912) failed to acknowledge the women’s clubs, even though their efforts led to his own hiring.
In effect, the women of the city clubs were the mothers of the fathers of urbanism—who then proceeded to erase them from the dominant narrative of American planning history.
In architectural history, countless women have worked alongside their better-known male employers, but they are seen as the “women behind the men,” assumed to have played modest supporting roles.
Marion Mahony Griffin, one of the first women in the world to have an architecture license, worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and was responsible for many of Wright’s watercolor renderings. Charlotte Perriand worked as a furniture designer for Le Corbusier and created some of the architect’s most iconic chair designs. Then there was Lily Reich, who collaborated with Mies van der Rohe, and Anne Tyng, who collaborated with Louis Kahn—both exerting a strong influence on those men’s designs.
However, the work of female designers is often not directly credited or celebrated. They remain absent from or peripheral to the “Urbanism Hall of Fame.”
Any profession that claims the public interest as one of its core values should give credit where it’s due. This means acknowledging the contributions of all who were instrumental in advancing the field, whether it is design, architecture, or planning. Not only does this enrich any “Hall of Fame,” it is an opportunity to create a more accurate and inclusive professional identity.
Who designs our cities, and for whom?
As other critics have noted, our cities have been designed without much attention to the ways in which women use transportation, public space, and streets. If cities were designed to account for a broader range of needs, they would function better for all.
The low representation of women in the professions that shape cities is one reason that cities are not as inclusive as they could be. In the United States, although women make up the majority of students of architecture and urban planning, things look quite different in the workforce: As of 2014, only 22 percent of licensed architects and 17 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms were women.
Raising those numbers could help, but the professions might still end up prioritizing a narrow segment of the population. There is, after all, a whole spectrum of gendered identities that do not fall squarely within the dichotomy of male and female. Not to mention all the other intersecting factors—including race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic background, and age—that affect how we relate to space and place.
The real problem is when people in the field lack the framework or tools to approach inclusive design for cities. “Most of the design literature we have reviewed—if it refers to users at all—assumes that they are all able-bodied, relatively young, and male,” wrote Clare Cooper-Marcus and Carolyn Francis in their 1997 book People Places. More than 20 years later, we are still talking about this problem.
There have been so many missed opportunities and life-threatening outcomes when designers fail to account for diverse bodies, they could (and do) fill a book. To cite just one example, car companies used to test airbags using only dummies with the height and weight of the average American male. It wasn’t until 2003 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration undertook airbag testing with dummies of average female proportions.
Translating this to the built environment, many solutions are simply not designed for a wide range of needs. Try pushing a stroller down icy steps to the subway platform, or navigating a badly designed intersection in a wheelchair.
Increasing the recognition and representation of women and other underrepresented groups in design and planning, and expanding our conception of who uses urban space, are important. But there’s more: We can break down the increasingly limited box of what even counts as planning.
Expanding the definition of planning
The planning canon, as it currently exists, reinforces a binary notion of what “real” planning is and isn’t.
According to this dichotomy, “real” planning is either big in scope, or focused on “hard” infrastructure improvements, or based on highly technical expertise—or some combination of those three qualities. Daniel Burnham is lionized for making “no small plans,” and even Robert Moses is grudgingly acknowledged as a “power broker.” But planning from below, and “soft,” people-centered work like community outreach, are not ascribed the same kind of value.
If we expanded the definition of planning, we might include Majora Carter’s workforce development and environmental justice work in the South Bronx, or Antionette Carroll’s Creative Reaction Lab, which tackles inequity in St. Louis. Carter, Carroll, and many other women leaders are not “real” (i.e. professionally trained and certified) planners, but they have shaped their cities and amplified place-based work already happening in low-income communities of color. Instead of expecting their work to fit within our planning paradigms, the field of planning should expand to include the critical intersections they explore between planning and public health, environmental justice, and education.
Without broadening what qualifies as planning, we close off ways of understanding cities that would help us find new solutions. For example, community development groups can help planners think about achieving sustainability through cultural preservation, which is already happening in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Chinatown. A great deal of local expertise is forfeited if non-professionals are only engaged when their approval is needed. What if we engaged them in defining goals and priorities from the beginning?
As an educator, I am keenly aware that students question who is teaching them, what knowledge is valued, and how their curriculum is chosen. It’s time that we examine the role of universities and professional associations in addressing these disparities.
To start, colleges and universities that make up the pipeline of future planners should rethink what they teach. It is time to recognize that our shared identity as planners is based on privileging the contributions of certain individuals and groups over others. In specific terms, institutions can reshape curricula to include missing or marginalized voices. They can involve professionals from non-traditional planning backgrounds as co-educators and co-researchers, who may offer innovative approaches to studying urban environments.
In the end, we will have to challenge our own deeply held assumptions about “real” planning. But it’s the only way we can develop leaders who will be fully prepared to work in today’s—and tomorrow’s—cities.