Jane Jacobs was one of the most enduring voices in urbanism, railing against the plans of men like Robert Moses who sought to impress themselves and their ideas on the urban environment by razing history to the ground.
There has been no shortage since of women with something to say about the urban environment. But somehow, their voices are marginalized. Recent statistics show that, in the UK, the number of women in architecture fell from 28% to 21% between 2009 and 2011. And more anecdotally, men dominate urbanist writing in the UK and elsewhere.
So it is heartening to see women fighting back. A group of urbanistas from Aotearoa (New Zealand) have set up a network - called Women in Urbanism Aotearoa - to amplify the voices of women in urbanism. I talked to them about their group, why diversity is so important in urban planning and why we need more women leaders.
Deborah Talbot: Why did you set up Women in Urbanism?
Women in Urbanism (WiU): We are fed up with the glaring lack of women decision-makers in our urban industry (planners, architects, engineers and politicians, for example.)
We in Women in Urbanism Aotearoa believe this lack of representation has a direct effect upon the urban form of our city. City building has just become a competition between men to see who can build the biggest motorway or tallest tower. The biggest size, speed and spend seem to be the only things that have historically mattered to male city planners - especially the men at the top.
What do panels, keynote speakers, managers, senior leaders, boards and meeting rooms in the urban industries all have in common? A serious lack of representation of women. In Aotearoa, this also means women of colour: Māori and Pasifika are notably left out.
Instead, there's an over-representation of men - mostly white and middle-aged - from privileged backgrounds, and they are the ones who make decisions about our cities.
Talbot: What’s the data on women’s underrepresentation in urbanism?
WiU: There is a lot of missing data, but this is what we do know.
In Aotearoa, women make up around 29% of the architectural workforce and only 14% of engineers. We don’t have the exact statistics, but the number of Māori, Pasifika and Asian women working in these industries is much smaller still. From these numbers, only a very slim proportion make it into senior decision-making positions and therefore have a tangible impact on our urban environment.
It’s also about how women feel when moving within these ‘man-made’ environments. In March this year, we launched a survey asking women about their transport habits and how they are influenced by the infrastructure. The survey is still live.
The data we have collected so far paints a clear picture: women feel unsafe using our transportation networks, both physically and psychologically. They argue they have limited mode choice and unhelpful travel times, restricting their freedom of movement.
Other data highlights the difference between how women and men travel. Women's travel is more complicated and results in more pendular shorter movements, compared to the chain trips more common for men. The is reflected in data on travel modes which shows that women walk more than men and men drive more than women.
Men also cycle more than women. Our survey indicates that this is not by choice – it is a product of the lack of safe infrastructure. This finding is symbolic considering the bicycle was also the mode of choice for the suffragists demanding a voice in the shaping of the country and eventually succeeding in gaining women the right to vote in 1893.
Talbot: Why does a lack of diversity matter for cities?
WiU: Let us set the scene: what’s gender diversity in Aotearoa like right now?
Aotearoa has a roughly even split of men and women. In our major urban centers (Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch) there are slightly more women than men. Women are generally younger than men and tend to outlive them.
So how do we shape our cities into places that reflect the people that live there? Specifically, how do we shape our cities for men and women? In the words of Jane Jacobs, legendary urbanist and activist: “successful, vibrant, happy cities arise out of the visions of many, not the powerful few.”
Cities thrive on diversity - economically, socially and culturally – and it means both the diversity of those who are making the decisions and diversity of the communities who make our cities what they are.
Let's look at the diversity of decision making.
Even though our cities have slightly more women than men, it is men - often Pakeha (white New Zealanders) and over 50 years old - who are setting policy direction and making decisions: designing our spaces and deciding on how our cities operate. The outcome? A city that is perfect for older, white men often of high socioeconomic status. This trend is still highly prevalent in Aotearoa.
Diversity in thought and leadership is crucial, and public institutions should take the lead. Diversity in policy can mean a combination of targeted ‘gender planning,’ better political representation of women in public and private institutions, and prioritizing what’s important to women, such as safety.
In our decision making, Aotearoa must also observe the intent of domestic law that normalizes equality. The Human Rights Act 1993 calls for ‘all people to be treated fairly and equally' and the NZ Bill of Rights Act gives rights for New Zealanders to be ‘free from discrimination.’ The Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi 1840, while not part of domestic law, gives all New Zealand citizens a tūrangawaewae - it’s our authority and right to belong.
On the diversity of communities within cities, what would a city be without a diversity of people? Pretty bland actually. We have an opportunity to embrace differences through urban design and policy and empower women with different backgrounds to contribute a variety of thought and skills.
Talbot: As a group, you are focused on the urban, but are there any distinctive issues for women and other underrepresented groups in rural development?
WiU: Absolutely. Much of WiU’s efforts is on the challenges faced in urban centers, but the principles and philosophies of what we stand for apply across all communities.
In the New Zealand 2016 Local Authority Elections, women-elected members were outnumbered by men in every category but one - our District Health Boards at 52%. Here are some of the statistics:
- District Mayors: 20% female (our regions/rural areas).
- City Mayors: 15% female.
- Regional Councils: 24% female (our regions/rural areas).
While there has been a gradual increase overall of the representation of women across all local authorities over the last 25+ years, in 2016 it was still only 38%. And this is only looking at statistics for women.
Some district councils have voted in favor of establishing Māori wards in the next local body elections to better represent and serve Tikanga Māori.
Another big challenge in Aotearoa is the change in growth distribution from the regions to the urban centres. In 2012, the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis outlined some big challenges for the future of rural Aotearoa:
- Population growth will slow and then end in most rural areas.
- Rural schools will be under threat.
- Emerging rural labor shortages in both primary sector and services.
- The 65+ age group population will double in rural areas – this has major implications for mobility, occupations and unemployment.
Casting a global lens, women play a vital role in the rural economy, environmental management and development and global food security: 43% of the worlds agricultural labor are women, and 60% of those are in developing countries. But they are unable to reach their full potential because of policies and norms that discriminate against them.
Talbot: What do you hope to achieve through WIU?
WiU: We want to bring the notion of gender mainstreaming to New Zealand as the practice has produced widespread improvements other cities. We want this practice embedded in the legislation, policy, and cultural practice of all organizations involved in delivering urban outcomes.
Gender mainstreaming is about ensuring that both men’s and women’s needs and experiences in their lived environment are considered equally. The ultimate outcome of this is gender equality in the home, public spaces, transport needs, accessibility and workplaces to name a few. In saying this, gender mainstreaming is a binary way of viewing equity, and the process that would be ideal is one where any urban project or transport initiative had to go through an equality impact assessment so that it couldn’t discriminate against any vulnerable or disadvantaged people.
For the short term, our goals are to raise awareness nationwide that Aotearoa may not be as equal as it thinks it is. We want to create a network that can level the playing field in industries associated with planning. We hope to open doors and provide inspiration for women entering these industries, and then help them to make their way into the leadership roles that are eluding us.
Here’s some of what we do:
- We run events like Pump Tracks are for Girls too with BMX medalist Sarah Walker.
- A speaker series where we’ve had Minister Julie Anne Genter, Matts-Åke Belin, Jennifer Keesmaat speak.
- We run Women in Urbanism workshops within the industry and communities.
- We’re often invited to speak, present, be interviewed and be on panels.
- We run campaigns, make submissions and we’re part of various stakeholder groups around Aotearoa.
- We host regular networking events that are not just limited to women in the urban industries (coffee catch ups at playgrounds for mothers and after work events that offer childcare, for example).
- We do research on how women experience our cities.
It’s all done on volunteer time. But we care deeply about our urban environments and are determined to enable people from all backgrounds to realize their potential and role in Aotearoa.
Image: Women In Urbanism
This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.