New London Architecture

Gendered landscapes under the microscope

Monday 06 December 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Urban designers should employ more subtle signalling of safe spaces in their schemes and create places that are less ‘policed’ and more about ‘democracy’. They should also draw on their lived experience and form teams composed of a diverse range of people that better mirrors the society they are designing for.

Those were some of the key issues to emerge from Gendered Landscapes: Equity in the Public Realm, an NLA webinar held last week and kicked off by Joanna Averley, chief planner at the department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

More than ever, said Averley, we’re all really conscious about how comfortable we feel in streets and squares and travelling on public transport in cities and towns, and the extent to which they make us feel safe and welcome or raise our anxiety. So, one of the answers was to have a conversation about adopting a gender quality approach to place shaping and what that means for raising awareness and questions of power in public spaces. 

‘If we design for how we feel as women in a public space or how we feel as anyone using a public space, whether you're male or female, actually, we also deal with how young people and children feel in public space’, said Averley.  ‘So this is not just a conversation about landscape just for women, and safety for women, but actually, safety and comfort for everyone.’

Judith Gough, Ambassador at the British Embassy in Stockholm said she could not think of two better countries than Sweden and the UK to be at the forefront of  a movement to develop more equal communities, paving the way for a sharing of ideas from contributors from both countries. Linda Gustafsson, gender equality officer for the city of Umea in northern Sweden said there has been a gender equality committee connected to the city council since 1994. There had also been an overarching goal from the council, said Gustaffson, that Umea ‘should create conditions for women and men to have equal power to shape society as well as their own lives’. But we cannot build away the problem, particularly of violence to women, she added. ‘We need to work with education. We need to work with masculinity’.

Gender equality, indeed, is everyone’s responsibility, said Sally Kneeshaw, director of Kneeshaw Consulting. It takes long, slow, hard work to do proper engagement - to reach out to people to get them to express their experiences. And in places like the Olympic Park, said Marina Milosev, senior planning policy officer at LLDC, the fact that statistics show that 57% of all students are female means that major consideration should be given to the planning of major development such as East Bank, with 10,000 new students set to arrive. 

But really the whole issue is about ‘lifting democracy’, said Helena Bjarnegard, Sweden’s State Architect. ‘Because creating meaningful places where everybody feels welcome, comfortable and safe – that’s an important issue for democracy’. 

We need to ‘reframe the problem’ in the light of the murder of Sara Everard, to think about the issues in a much more holistic way than just policing, said Ellie Cosgrave of UCL and Publica. ‘If we focus just on a crime approach, we’re not going to get very far’, she said. ‘We need to think about women's safety or a gendered experience of the city much more in terms of a free and accessible use of city in a holistic terms’, getting women’s real experiences. There is also a plethora of things that designers can do in the public realm to signal to people that spaces are attended to and cared for, she added, including lighting schemes or signalling the presence of community to make spaces feel safer. ‘I think we can be a bit more ambitious about the ways in which we think about what space signals to us at all times, even when we may be alone, or it may be night-time’.

In Malmo, at least, said city architect Finn Williams, there are clear signs of an encouraging attitude to the creation of more equal, safe environments. ‘When I’ve been having conversations with people about gender equality, the people leading this agenda within the city government are all men’, he said. ‘And I think that reflects the maturity of Swedish society.

Wrapping up, Averley said what was needed was a systemic response to a complex set of issues that is about democracy, equity, and ‘who we look to for our guidance in terms of the important aspect of a project or a programme or a change process in a city and its public spaces and streets’. ‘We need to talk about fear and we also need to talk about hope and opportunity, the sort of things that people might be stopping themselves from doing because they might feel a little unsafe or unsure’. 
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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

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