What Does a Gender-Neutral City Look Like?

CC BY-SA 4.0. Alfredo Borba / Wikimedia Commons

Throughout history, urban planning has been designed for and by able-bodied men. What does that mean for everyone else?

You know that hackneyed saying, "You can't be what you can't see" — or something to that effect? To me, it means that equal representation at the table isn't just about checking a diversity box or hitting a certain quota. A truly equal system or city or urban plan needs input or data from everyone in order to create a safe, accessible, user-friendly experience for everyone — from seniors to the disabled to millennials to commuters to caregivers.

But when cities were planned, most of us were left out of the meeting room. By "us," I mean anyone who wasn't a privileged man with access to education and power. In a profile for dezeen, British writer Caroline Criado Perez describes how cities have never been designed for 50 percent of the population: "Things like zoning are really very biased against women."

So biased, in fact, that she wrote an entire book about it, called "Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men." This kind of gendered data gap has led to city planning and public spaces that just don't function for everyone equally.

"The vast majority of information that we have collected globally, and continue to collect — everything from economic data to urban planning data to medical data — has been collected on men, male bodies, and typical male lifestyle patterns," Perez states.

It is an imbalance we still struggle with today. Writing for MobyCon, a private consultant group that worked with the Dutch government to develop a modern, groundbreaking approach to mobility for all, Melissa Bruntlett says:

Our personal lived experiences influence how we see the world, and how, as planners and designer, we find solutions to mobility challenges. The fact is that despite gains in many countries to balance gender roles in daily life, men and women experience the world differently. Our differences in height, body types and even values have an impact. By aiming to have more gender parity of voices in the room, you have a much greater chance of hearing more balanced approaches and ideas.

So how do we rectify our wrongs? We can't go back in time to America's first urban planning conference, held in New York in 1898, but there's some simple solutions we can implement now. Here's how.

Young women on bikes chat on street in London surrounded by cars and buses

Every trip counts

If we only consider the 9-to-5 office or factory commute, that leaves out a lot of people who are also working, much of it as unpaid labor. Think about the parent who not only drives to work, but stops at multiple schools or daycares, picks up groceries at the end of the day, and then runs errands for their elderly relatives. These short, frequent trips are just as important as the paid job people head to every day, and they should also be documented when creating or measuring the transportation network as a whole. Giving equal importance and measurement to every kind of trip should help cities better plan where walking, cycling, or public transit routes should go.

Consider the young and old and everyone in-between

The city should work for everyone. Well-lit, wide lanes and easy-to-navigate, traffic calming streets encourage everyone to try alternative transportation, instead of the car. Bruntlett also adds that we shouldn't discount the power of the teenage girl: "One of the great successes of Dutch cycling is that teens make up the largest mode share of all people on bikes in the country, and teen girls make up almost half of those numbers. When teens are seen as a welcome part of the transportation network, the city is all the better for it." I, for one, would love to see packs of teenagers biking my urban streets — in fact, I might even join them!

Public potties in public spaces

One of my biggest fears while working as an au pair in Paris was being in the middle of the city or a park with no (free) public toilet. That was 12+ years ago, pre-smartphone for me, and I believe Parisien toilettes have come a long way since then. But safe, visible, clean public toilets are essential in making a public space thrive for more than just 50 percent of a community. In the wise words of Lloyd Alter, "Public washrooms really are just as important as public roads because, in both cases, people gotta go."

Let there be light

Given the option between a dark, quiet street or a busier, well-lit street, I always opt for the lighted street. While I certainly don't like being around buzzing cars while walking or biking, dark streets can make anyone feel a little uneasy. Perez believes most designs today don't take into account violence against women (or the constant fear of it in the back of our minds): "Women are the primary users of buses in the daytime," she said. "At night, they're not using the buses. Why? Because the buses don't feel safe." Adding lights at bus stops, keeping bike lanes clear and well-maintained, and consistent enforcement of road rules will bring more women to the bike yard.

Adds Bruntlett, "Incorporating infrastructure in the busier public realm provides a safe, comfortable option on a well-lit, and often more direct and convenient route. Ensuring your designs — and budgets — include ample lighting to create a warm, inviting public space is an essential way to design a more gender equal city."

Of course, city officials and planners thrive on data, which is where sex-disaggregated data (separate data for women and men) comes in. We can't implement anything if we're not getting the right data to back it up. I'll let Perez have the last word on that:

"Equality doesn't mean treating women like men, and this is a bias that we all fall into so much. Sex-disaggregated data is really incredibly simple. Everyone needs to do it more disaggregation, not less."