Gender-Based City Planning: Good for You or Really Creepy?

Vienna, Austria. Image via Joanne Bamberger

Vienna, Austria. Image via Joanne Bamberger

Would your city be different if it was planned specifically with the transportation needs of women in mind?

Think about it — have you ever complained that there wasn’t enough space on the sidewalk for you to walk with the stroller?  Have you ever wanted trains during the day to run more often, like they do at rush hour?  Would you like housing that offered both proximity to stores and a nice yard for your kids to play in?  Or how about better lighting for that walk home at night?

Maybe Vienna is the place for you.

In the early 1990s, in response to a photo exhibit that highlighted how women used the city, city planners in Vienna, Austria asked how men in one district used transportation in and around the city during the day.  Men took the train to work, worked, and took the train home.  The answer was simple, direct, and easy to understand.

And then they asked women.  Women, many stay-at-home moms among them, came back with much more complex answers.  They took the kids to school, they went food shopping, they ran errands, they picked the kids up, went to doctor’s appointments, after school activities, more food shopping, and then home.  Clearly men and women used the trains in very different ways.

So, the city planners decided to make the city of Vienna a more “woman” friendly place.  They built more gardens, they developed housing with central yards for children to play within sight of their grownups, and, on the surface, it looks idyllic. And they actually have a woman working for the city planners in the role of “gender expert.” She is the advocate for what women in Vienna need from their city.

But I am not convinced that I want my city designed for me.  Well, at least not for me just because I am a woman. And i am more than a little skeptical of a woman playing the role of gender expert.

It really surprised me that the responses were labeled by gender.  There are so many people who run similar day trips around a city transit system, how was it they decided to label this revamping of the city as a gender-based program?  They call it “gender mainstreaming.”  Don’t actors, musicians, painters, singers, waiters, retail salespeople, messengers, students, and caterers all travel through the transit system during the day, just like moms with kids?  And aren’t they likely to be both male and female?

When it comes to gender differences here and across the pond, how different is it really for women in Austria from the United States?

I know the city of New York could use a gender expert if their re-installation of the Central Park Zoo is any indication of how well they listen to women’s needs. When that zoo opened in 1988, after a total renovation, I was hopeful that this would be a haven for me and my very small children. I envisioned afternoons spent walking around the zoo with my stroller and happy toddlers watching the polar bears and seals swim. But what did I find? “Stroller Parking” signs just as you enter the zoo. I don’t know much about zoos in Austria, but having my stroller wrenched from me by a burly guard as I entered a city-run zoo was, well, wrenching. It meant I would be carrying a baby, the diaper bag, and my purse. As if that wasn’t enough inconvenience to stop me from going to the zoo altogether, I would have had to walk with my toddler as well, all the while worrying that my brand new, very deluxe, urban-strong stroller was just not going to still be there when we left the zoo.

But the situation in Vienna reminds me of the city that was designed for women in Saudi Arabia last year.  The thought there was that Muslim women, being already separated from men in many daily activities and in the workplace, would thrive if they could work together in a safe and separate environment.  This fills any mandate to create jobs for women while maintaining the segregation called for by Islam.  To me, it is separate but hardly equal.

These ’90s Viennese city planners also found that girls stop playing in parks.  After the age of 9, they noticed that boys continued to play games and sports in city parks, but girls just weren’t there.  Encouraging young girls to spend more time outdoors is a wonderful goal and, apparently this was something they saw in Vienna as a direct outcome of the gender mainstreaming redesign of parks.  Girls started using parks more.  Everyone needs enough space for bikes and swings.

Vienna is most definitely a family friendly place.  But I worry that basing planning decisions on gender is not the best solution.  It’s too easy for this to become a group of men telling women what’s good for them and that will always make me nervous.  Wouldn’t it be better to canvass everyone, assess the outcome, regardless of gender, to see when to schedule the trains and how wide sidewalks need to be?  Shouldn’t the answers they got from the women tell the city planners how everyone wants their city?

There’s something condescending and creepy about cities designed for women.  Especially when they are likely to be designed by men. Well, men plus one assigned “gender expert,” I guess. Isn’t that a lot like Mitt Romney’s assertion that Mrs. Romney was going to let him know what he needed to know about women? We know how that turned out.

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  While her children were enrolled in New York City public schools in the late 1990s, she edited and published The Backpack Press, and the CSDIII News, a monthly newsletter covering all public schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  She blogs on Open Salon and Red Room and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is also a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus. You can follow Anne on Twitter at @nilesite.

Image by Joanne Bamberger. All rights reserved

  • Seems the parts designed for women are based on sex role stereotypes. I do wonder why girls stopped using the parks.

  • Anne Born

    I wondered about that too, Martha. It could be that sports do not attract girls in Austria the way other things do, like shopping or just hanging out with their friends. And you are right about the stereotyping. Thanks for your comments!

  • Dana

    Gender segregation of the type called for in Saudi Arabia is not called for in Islam, but thanks for feeding into the stereotype.

    While it’s true there are modesty rules, they are adequately dealt with in the clothing standards (and even there not every Muslim agrees on what the standards are–there are bareheaded, practicing Muslim women, who only veil when they pray) and code of conduct between non-mahram (unrelated) men and women. There couldn’t BE a code of conduct between unrelated men and women if they were required to be kept apart, though. There wouldn’t be any point.

    And by the way, all those occupations you mentioned, male and female, have very different needs than a parent who is lugging kids around. And that parent is still exponentially more likely to be a mother than a father. So *yes*, the needs of parents lugging around those children *ought* to be considered. Vienna probably could have taken a cue from Sweden and focused more on making their city child-friendly rather than making it about women per se. But the fact is that it is not an unreasonable assumption that women will be lugging children around at some point. And it’s not a threat to women’s equal rights to plan accordingly.

  • Anne Born

    Child-friendly. Now, that’s something to get behind. I wonder if a gender expert is equally focused on children? Could be. I tend to think that title, “gender expert,” is probably more honorific than substantive, but I would be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

  • dee

    If the world in general was child focussed, we’d all be better off.

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