OPINION: How our cities fail women

Monday, 13 July 2020 18:23 GMT

General view of a Sir Matt Busby Way street sign outside the stadium before the match, March 2, 2019. Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cities are predominantly designed by men, for men

Leslie Kern is the author of Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World published by Verso Books

If aliens touched down in one our major cities, their observation of street names, monuments, public spaces, and named buildings would quickly tell them who our most revered, celebrated, and powerful entities are: men (and corporations). These extra-terrestrials would be forgiven for assuming that women are second-class subjects who contribute little to the urban environment. After all, there’s scarce evidence to suggest that cities have taken women’s bodies, lives, and needs into account in their function or design.

How often have you seen a mother struggling to carry a stroller down the subways steps or fighting a losing battle with a revolving door? When was the last time you found a publicly-accessible ladies or all-gender restroom that was clean, safe, and fully stocked? How easy and affordable does your city make it for a working mother to drop the kids at school or day care, go to work, pick up the shopping and collect the kids using public transportation?

These very mundane—but oh-so-frustrating—examples of gendered inconveniences point to a much bigger problem: cities have been built around the idea of a particular kind of worker, a particular kind of home and family, and a particular economic priority. The male breadwinner, the traditional nuclear family, and waged labour are the backbones of urban design. Women’s unpaid labour is the invisible tissue holding it all together, while their specific needs around access to paid work, different forms of housing, and social services have been, at best, afterthoughts in most cities.

You don’t need a degree in planning to figure out who the city seems to work quite well for. There’s Mr. Smith now, climbing into his air-conditioned SUV with a tumbler of fresh coffee, ready to take to the ever-expanding maze of freeways built to enable him to commute in gas-guzzling solitude. Able-bodied, he easily climbs the concrete steps out of the parking garage and navigates the crowded foyer of his office tower. He carries his coffee, newspaper, and briefcase; what he doesn’t carry is a baby or a breast pump or his son’s forgotten lunch that needs to be dropped off at school.

In his office, the thermostat is set just right for the comfort of a man in a long-sleeved shirt and wool jacket. Although he’s quite handsome, no one whistled at him or met his serious face with a call to “give us a smile, love!” He didn’t carry a rape whistle through the parking garage or text his wife to let her know he’d made it in safely. His comfort and safety have been all but guaranteed from door to door.

This isn’t the product of a vast sexist conspiracy but neither is it mere coincidence. Our cities reflect what our societies value and hold as normal. It may be 2020, but the pressure on women to be primary caregivers as well as economic providers remains strong. In many ways, cities still cling to the notion that someone is doing the unpaid care work at home, and someone else is doing paid work elsewhere. They don’t support those who do both, at least not very well. This is also a product of the fact that most planners, architects, and city politicians are men, who haven’t experienced the city in the same way as women.

How do we start to make changes so that our cities are safer, more accessible, more affordable, and more care-full? We could start small, with more public toilets, ramps, and elevators. If your city has torn down a statue lately, why not replace it with a monument to someone who has fought against inequality? Slightly more complex, but very doable: expand public transit networks into more neighbourhoods and recognize that “care labour” trips are also part of the urban economy. Make transit free or heavily subsidized for families. Ultimately, and most radically, we need to recognize that the true “essential” work of cities is the work that keeps us fed, clean, healthy, and safe, and shape our cities to reflect our shared responsibility to take care of one another.