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The Gendered City

The Gendered City

“Women face problems of such significance in cities and society that gender can no longer be ignored in planning practice”, claims Leavitt (1986), an emeritus urban planning professor and social justice advocate.

Cities are an arena for diverse realities. The urban setting is made of fragmented and diverse materials and intangible individualities that shape our relation to the space we live in. Ultimately, these shattered and disparate realities within the city act as either enablers or impediments to full and fair access to the city, as well as control over it. 

According to UN-Habitat, women are either omitted or have little participation in decision-making related to cities, housing, and planning decisions. And until today, women’s equal share in public space is still not secured in many regards and parts of the world.

In light of this fact, it is crucial that women claim equal access to the public space, as well as more inclusive urban planning. It is more important than ever to take notice of the distinctive needs of marginalized groups and acknowledge a diversity of cultural, spatial and social practices. If we want more egalitarian cities, we need to understand the way cities and gender function as intersecting spheres.

Are cities gender neutral?

Urban planning is traditionally recognized as a male ruled discipline. The aftermath of such bias is that cities are standardized and gender-neutral “as if men’s interests and needs were universal”. The 2016 UN report on the progress of women states: “Gender-neutral laws, policies and programs unintentionally may perpetuate the consequences of past discrimination. They may be […] modelled on male lifestyles and […] fail to take into account aspects of women’s life experiences which may differ from those of men.”. When we ignore gender and close our eyes to the needs of marginalized groups, we end up with fragmented cities. 

Furthering this fragmentation is the fact that women do not have a uniform urban experience; their embodied, diverse identities – be they racial, cultural or religious – impact their experiences. As a consequence, cities are produced and consumed within a social hierarchy based on these differences. Feminist movements have raised issues of discrimination still in dire need to be tackled in the economic, political, urban and social spheres. Simultaneously, the vital debate over what kind of cities we need is more urgent than ever; we need to come up with new modus vivendi where men and women can cohabit in those times of social and economic shifts. When discussing issues of urban inequality, it seems crucial to include the Right to the City as a human right.

A feminist Right to the City

The Right to the City cannot be reduced to the right to exist in a particular public space; it also encompasses the right to access political debates, as well as an inclusion in the social and cultural spheres of the urban life. In other words, a right to “an urban life” as a range of reformulated social activities and identities.

Lefebvre (1968) claims that “the right to the city cannot be considered as a simple right to visit or come back to the traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a right to urban life, transformed, renewed”. Thus, this concept relies on the pervasive and radical reformulation of urban structures and social relations. 

From a feminist perspective, the Right to the City should begin with the right to be taken into account in all policy-making and processes of urban planning, to ensure participation, safety and access, which women were denied in the male-dominated city. This concept exists under the name of gender-mainstreaming and has been adopted – more or less successfully –  for decades already by some cities like Vienna, who conducted 60 gender-sensitive projects so far. Another necessary and radical step would be to take over the “urban life” and transform social relations to ensure a truthfully inclusive Right to the City.

Gender relations embodied in the dominant heteronormativity, sexual division of labour – paid and unpaid – motherhood, discourses on masculinity and femininity, child-rearing, gender violence, feminization of poverty and the like, deeply affect the character of the city we live in and our right to it. Yet, the Right to the City has failed to include an intersectional approach to it. Nevertheless, it reminds us that the reformulation of urban life cannot exist through existing traditional structures, but rather a complete destruction of the status quo. Hence, a truthful inclusion of the gender dimension in urban planning “must be rooted in the deconstruction and redefinition” of the existing origins of inequality in the city. And these origins go beyond gender and are linked to many other forms of oppression – be it class, nationality or race, etc.

Gender or diversity mainstreaming?

To conclude, urban women are not a homogenous group with identical stories;  they experience urban spaces in disparate ways. If urban policies want to secure women-friendly and just cities through the use of gender-mainstreaming, they ought to acknowledge the needs and individualities of each woman and integrate the voices of civil society. In that sense, the adoption of intersectionality in gender urban planning could enable a better treatment of the cross-cutting inequalities faced by everyone – and not only women and men – thus help integrate a diversity of voices in the so-far alienating approach of gender mainstreaming.

To carry this argument further, we chose this excerpt from the feminist architect Weisman’s manifesto (1981)

The appropriation and use of space are political acts. The kinds of space we have, don’t have or are denied access to can empower us or render us powerless. Spaces can enhance or restrict, nurture or impoverish. We must demand the right to architectural settings which will support the essential needs of all women. […]. The built environment is largely the creation of white masculine subjectivity. It is neither value-free nor inclusively human. […] One of the most important tasks of the women’s movement is to make visible the full meaning of our experiences and to reinterpret and restructure the built environment […]. These are feminist concerns which have critical dimensions that are both societal and spatial. They will require feminist activism as well as architectural expertise to ensure a solution.

References: 

Caglar, Gülay. 2013. “Gender Mainstreaming.” Politics & Gender 9 (03): 336–44. doi:10.1017/S1743923X13000214. 

Damyanovic, Doris, and Barbara Zibell. 2013. “Is There Still Gender on the Agenda for Spatial Planning Theories?: Attempt to an Integrative Approach to Generate Gender-Sensitive Planning Theories.” DisP – The Planning Review 49 (4): 25–36. doi:10.1080/02513625.2013.892784. 

Massey, Doreen. 1994. Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

McDowell, Linda. 2001. “Women, Men, Cities.” Handbook of Urban Studies, 206–219

Leavitt, Jacqueline. 1986. “Feminist Advocacy Planning in the 1980s”. In Strategic Perspectives in Planning Practice, edited by Barry Checkoway. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books 

Lefebvre Henri. Le droit à la ville. In: L’Homme et la société, N. 6, 1967. pp. 29-35. doi : 10.3406/homso.1967.1063 

Leslie Kanes Weisman. 1981. Women’s Environmental Rights: A Manifesto, in Heresies: A feminist publication on art and politics, reprinted in: Gender space architecture: An interdisciplinary introduction 1, 2 (Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner & laina Borden eds., 2000).

Spain, Daphne. 2014. “Gender and Urban Space.” Annual Review of Sociology 40 (1): 581–98. doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-071913-043446.

*UN Women. 2016. “Progress of the World’s Women 2015–2016, Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights.” Available online: http://progress.unwomen.org/en/2015/ (accessed on 14 August 2017). 

Image Credit: Lorena Lenara / Flickr

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Safaa Charafi
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