New London Architecture

Improving public spaces: women in planning

Friday 28 May 2021

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Rachel Bell

Director
Stride Treglown and National Chair for Women in Property

The worrying incidence of abduction – and tragically, assault and murder - of women from our streets has revived the debate on how to improve public spaces. Chaired by Nicola Mathers (Future of London) NLA convened a think tank, of prominent women in the built environment to consider the issues, and share knowledge and experience. 

Dr Karen Horwood (Leeds Planning School) referred to seminal feminist works in the ‘80s and 90s that set the agenda for ‘gender mainstreaming’, where gender issues, relations, power differentials and identities are accounted for in plan-making.

Karen framed the challenge in terms of ‘descriptive representation’ – how to get more women in leadership positions - and ‘substantive representation’ – the change seen on the ground. You can see Karen's presentation here.

More women in leadership 

Women are proportionally under-represented in senior roles in the built environment, with the usual barriers implicated: lack of family-friendly policies, a dominant male culture, and poor work/life balance. 

Julia Munro (BDP) pointed out the structural barriers: the hoops you have to jump through, to advance, were designed by and for men. The ‘starchitect’ myth needs busting too: acknowledging that the built environment is the product of many collaborative inputs, would help level the playing field.

Because of their comparative rarity, women in leadership are under unfair scrutiny. This sometimes leads to ‘queen bee syndrome’, i.e. adopting masculine behaviours to fit in, says Irene Man (London Legacy Development Corporation). 

Emma Clifford (Foster and Partners) says that properly representing women takes its emotional toll. Nonetheless, say Emma Nicholson (Women’s Engineering Society) and Natasha Manzaroli (John McAslan + Partners), women need to be allies, citing the importance of mentoring and coaching.

If the moral argument doesn’t work, the business one should. Irene Man can’t imagine IKEA ever ignoring the needs of half of their market the way the built environment does. Leanne Tritton (ING Media) agrees, diagnosing professionals’ entrenched detachment from their end-products as the root problem.

Considering women’s needs

Dr Karen Horwood highlighted two encouraging planning case-studies showing what is possible: Vienna in the 1990s and Barcelona today.

Thanks to the serendipitous meeting of influential women whose interests aligned, Vienna’s local authority enacted women-friendly policies for the city’s streets, leading to ramps (not steps), wider pavements (for buggies) and secure play areas.

In Barcelona, the female mayor linked up with independent feminist group Punt 6 to focus on more space in women’s toilets, park play areas for girls, seating, lighting, and the concept of traffic-calmed, people-friendly ‘superblock’. They also addressed night-time street safety with staff there to inform and help.

Lucy Attlee (Transport for London) described TfL’s efforts, which include undertaking healthy street assessments and measuring the gender balance in frameworks. 

Referring to the Kings Cross estate, Angela Jewell (Argent) described their collaborating with fellow community stakeholders, the potential of CCTV, and training uniformed staff to be first responders in cases of street harassment.

Sripriya Sudhakar (LB Tower Hamlets) has explored nudge theory, and champions the need for better data as the key to better design.

It’s clear that improving public spaces for women depends critically on representation in both leadership and design. Doing so intersects with many other under-represented needs, too, hence our end-goal is sustainable communities founded on equality and compassion. With determination we can meet this challenge head on. 

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Rachel Bell

Director
Stride Treglown and National Chair for Women in Property


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