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Engendering Progress

News & Features | October 21, 2013

In 1999, the City of Vienna, Austria conducted a massive survey of its populace. The survey asked residents how they interacted with the city. How did they use public transportation? Where did they walk? At which times were they out and about? What the survey revealed is that men and women use cities in drastically different ways. Men took public transportation largely for commuting to work. Women used public transportation for a myriad of reasons: to take children to the doctor or daycare, to visit relatives, to go to work, to go grocery shopping, etc. Women were more likely to have a stroller or wheelchair with them when walking on public sidewalks. Women and men visited cemeteries at different times of day. For women, many of these activities were difficult to accomplish—for a variety of reasons, including the layout of transportation, the accessibility of healthcare, and the location of cemeteries. What Vienna learned was that its city was structurally sexist; it was built in ways that facilitated men’s lifestyles more than women’s.

Thus the Austrian government decided to change the very design of Vienna. The public transportation network was ameliorated, enabling smooth transit between the neighborhoods on the outside of the city. The city oversaw the widening of sidewalks and the addition of ramps near important intersections. The overhaul also included the installation of benches and better lighting in cemeteries. A new apartment complex built specifically for women implemented on-site doctors, and improved public transportation increased the community’s accessibility to kindergartens. The city also rebuilt playgrounds to include small pockets of play space instead of one large park because boys had been bullying girls off the playground.

Today, Vienna is lauded for its adjustments: it won the United Nations Public Service Award for its structural improvements and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme listed Vienna’s city planning as one of the best in the world. This process, in which public administrators create laws and regulations to enact changes that will benefit men and women equally, is called “gender mainstreaming.” Vienna is an oft-praised example of gender mainstreaming, but the practice is implemented in countries around the world. The European Equality Policy introduced gender mainstreaming as a procedural strategy to all European Union states in the early 2000s. Since then, a number of programs have put the concept into effect. For example Germany has worked on providing more equal welfare housing for male and female children, and Italy has created more women’s shelters, endeavored to make internet access easier for all citizens, and mandated longer, more accessible pharmacy hours.

Similarly, the UN has been consistently working on gender mainstreaming since 1997—they have paired with organizations like the World Health Organization and the World Bank to bring about a multitude of changes in both policies and structures worldwide. For instance, in India and Bangladesh, women often worry about their personal safety when traveling without men and will forgo a trip to the doctor or school in favor of immediate safety. To combat this, the UN is working on making public transportation more secure and bringing healthcare closer to people’s homes. The government recently introduced women-only train carriages to Mumbai to help female travelers feel safer.

The UN argues in their report on Gender and Urban Planning that most cities were built under the western assumption that each household consists of a nuclear family with one breadwinner and one homemaker—assuming the woman primarily stays home. Yet this paradigm is not applicable today in most societies from the western world to anywhere else. Gender mainstreaming focuses on incorporating what women actually need into the structure of how society works. By structuring cities to cater to women as well as men, every demographic can reap the benefits. Men, children, and the elderly gain from improved welfare or public transportation. The theory, as Hilary Clinton said in 1995, is that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

A focus on gender and gender mainstreaming is not the only way to improve equality in urban planning. Julian Agyeman is a professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) at Tufts. One of Agyeman’s specialties, is in as he puts it “concepts of interculturalism, cultural competency, culturally inclusive practice and culturally inclusive spaces in urban planning.” Essentially, he looks at how the design of cities can be more culturally inclusive. He looks specifically at the intersection of sustainability and justice or equity, asking how we can create greener cities that simultaneously promote equality.

Lately, Agyeman has focused on the green and organic food movement. There has been a burst of enthusiasm for local organic food in recent years, and many cities have started creating green roofs and rooftop gardens. Yet this local food movement assumes that urban dwellers are white and privileged. The foods are expensive and usually offer only western options such as potatoes or lettuce, preventing many immigrants from preparing their familiar cultural foods. Agyeman explains that locally-grown does not mean that the food has to be sourced locally—if a Brazilian cook wants manioc root in Boston he should use it and be able to grow it locally. Additionally, these locally-grown foods need to be more accessible to those of lower incomes who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods. The best urban planning would be intersectional, mainstreaming these cultural needs and environmental needs at the same time and thus promoting equality across the board.

A number of intersectional projects of this sort have recently been adopted in the U.S. Peter Furth, a civil engineering professor at Northeastern University, and Jeffrey Rosenblum, the transportation planner for the city of Cambridge, are working with Northeastern students to make bicycling a preferred mode of transportation in Boston. The two are looking to the street design of the Netherlands to try and understand what makes cycling so easy in Amsterdam and so difficult here in Boston. The project has intersectional interests, as the planners hope to use cycling as a means to make Boston both safe for the environment, and safer for families. Many Bostonians have expressed an interest in bike lanes and additional bike-centered structures but are fearful of the infamous Boston traffic. In an interview with the Boston Globe last month, Furth stated, “For the first time, there are a lot of normal people who are showing an interest in cycling. It’s not that they’ve changed their minds so much, but now they see it’s possible and they want to be protected from cars.” A Boston that biked like Amsterdam or Houten would use a fraction of the gasoline currently consumed and have hundreds fewer car crashes per year. Bicycling is the primary mode of transportation in Holland and with fewer cars on the street, there are fewer car crashes. Moreover, bikes are so common that they easily gain the right of way; families even bike around Dutch cities without any helmets.

Mainstreaming projects of this sort have popped up around the country, but the U.S. has yet to adopt this sort of equality-based planning as public policy for urban planning. The slow integration into public policy may be partially because there are some detractors of gender-mainstreaming and cultural mainstreaming. NGOs have criticized the European Equality Policy for a lack of sustainability and many have cited the UN for poor implementation of gender mainstreaming initiatives. Both of these plans have been cited for having little structure for monitoring and follow-up. Additionally, many argue that officials run the risk of reinforcing gendered or cultural stereotypes when looking to integrate mainstreaming into public policy, and that many of these structural changes have not placed women into positions of power. Yet the UN argues that gender mainstreaming is an important tool for promoting equality in a world that is often structured in a western, gendered way.

Bureaucratic inertia may be another reason that mainstreaming has not become a legally-backed part of U.S. policy. In a democracy, getting a majority of the populace to agree on a large-scale shift can be a slow and fraught process. In a public meeting about potential bike lanes on West Broadway Street, the Boston public fought back, arguing bike lanes would be much too dangerous and do not belong in Boston. Similar outrage was seen in New York City when the new Citi bike share system was put in place this past summer. Politicians have to think about their constituencies and pushing for a change of this sort can be an exceedingly unpopular choice.

It is easy to look at a city like Vienna or Boston and see that there is room for improvement. These big hub cities have been around for centuries and often the very structure favors certain types of privileged persons—the transportation is created for men commuting to work, and the food sources are centered around the middle and upper class. Not every city can overhaul their urban design and re-plan like Vienna did. But what the Vienna example illustrates best is how small changes can create a large difference, promoting equality for a city’s entire population.