Widely, daily and by design, the modern city excludes those of us who don’t occupy straight white able cis male bodies. And while we can’t easily change yesterday’s architecture, how do we change the patriarchal stereotypes it perpetuates?
By Joana Partyka
Imagine you’re walking down a street in your city. You’ve had a great night, but it’s dark now and you kick yourself for staying out so late. There’s an unlit corner coming up, so you thread your housekeys through your knuckles as your pulse and pace together quicken. Cobblestones make it difficult to move too fast in the shoes you’re wearing, though. In the morning you clatter back over these cobbles with your kid in a stroller, which you struggle to lift into the bus. At the supermarket, some of the items you need are difficult to reach even on your tiptoes. There isn’t anywhere you can comfortably rest to feed your hungry kid. And you go the long way home just to avoid walking through the local park, which would actually be really nice thanks except it feels unsafe.
If you identify as a woman, there’s a good chance you didn’t have to imagine any of this. You’ve lived it. Possibly even today.
Widely, daily and by design, the modern city excludes those of us who don’t occupy straight white able cis male bodies. Often, it happens in ways we aren’t really consciously aware of. But the message we receive is clear nonetheless: the city is not for us.
The city, it turns out, is sexist.
Read any article on the topic and you’ll almost certainly come upon a quote by feminist geographer Jane Darke: “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” But it’s the less often published portion of Darke’s quote that’s perhaps the more illuminating: “Any settlement is an inscription in space of the social relations in the society that built it.” Bearing yesterday’s legacies, today’s built environment continues to influence life around us long after the final brick is laid. Our cities are discriminatory or inclusive; they harm or heal. Never are they neutral.
Presented with the concept of sexist architecture, you’d be forgiven for thinking directly to the “upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating into the sky”, as author Leslie Kern witheringly characterises skyscrapers. And while, yes, they do fit the brief – Kern, who wrote Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, also describes them as “monuments to male corporate economic power” – it goes far deeper than that.
Modern public spaces – and most private ones, for that matter – are not designed with the female experience in mind. Quite simply, they’re designed by men for men, explicitly charted in service of male economic enterprise. Says Kern: “The city has been set up to support and facilitate the traditional gender roles of men, with men’s experiences as the norm.”
“The primary decision-makers in cities, who are still mostly men, are making choices about everything from urban economic policy to housing design, school placement to bus seating, policing to snow removal, with no knowledge, let alone concern for, how these decisions affect women,” she writes.
The idea that a city is engineered around the employment activities of men while singularly facilitating a life of homemaking for women harkens back a little further than Kern’s 2020 book. In a 1980 paper published in the peer-reviewed feminist academic journal Signs, architect Dolores Hayden theorises that 20th century architectural design practices have their roots in the adage ‘a woman’s place is in the home’. From this implicit but widely adopted tenet stems urban design as we know it today, she contends, whereby “dwellings, neighbourhoods and cities designed for homebound women constrain women physically, socially and economically”.
Rewinding even further, it’s clear that urban design has ignored women from the very beginning. In 1948, legendary French architect Le Corbusier developed his anthropometric architectural scale, the modulor, based on the ‘universal’ dimensions of a six-foot man. And in 30-15BC, architect Vitruvius wrote his treatise On Architecture, which defines the ‘ideal’ human proportions in male and white terms. TL;DR: the city does not acknowledge the way women use space or move through it, and never has.
This manifests in everything from public transport schedules that don’t accommodate women’s complex commuting patterns – often anchored in caregiving and domestic responsibilities that men culturally don’t share – to office thermostats set to prioritise the comfort of men and excruciatingly long queues for women’s bathrooms not reflected outside the door with the ‘M’ on it.
Dr Pamela Salen, a researcher at Monash University’s gender-sensitive design research hub XYX Lab, further postulates that language and messaging – the masculine street names and advertising featuring highly sexualised female bodies that oversaturate our cities, for instance – increase a city’s hostility against women.
“If we’re surrounded by a high density of language that is privileging men, there could be some relationship with the experience of women not feeling as included or being a part of that space on a very subtle, nuanced level,” she says in an episode of the Sexism and the City podcast.
Architecture alone obviously isn’t the driver of sexism, and addressing its shortcomings won’t singularly retool social hierarchy or advance equality. But the architecture of old that endures today serves to keep women in our place – one characterised by fear, obedience and silence.
Avoid that neighbourhood after dark. Don’t park your car too far from the entrance. Never wear headphones while you’re out jogging. Women are socialised from birth to consider how we move through space in a way men are rarely called to examine.
“We anticipate these questions and they shape our mental maps as much as any actual threat,” Kern writes.
“At the end of the day these limitations and costs and stresses amount to an indirect but highly effective program of social control. Our socially reinforced fears keep us from fully inhabiting the city and from making the most of our lives on a day-to-day basis.”
One of the great drivers of this enforced social structure, according to Hayden’s 1980 paper, is the suburban home’s physical estrangement from the city. Back when our cities were being built – sired, if you like – homes were purposefully tucked far away from the hustle and bustle as a means of providing refuge for the working man. Women, meanwhile, were left stranded in domestic exile. This spatial division of private and professional life that persists today reinforces the role of women as domestic workers – as “members of the secondary labour force”, University of Minnesota professor Ann Markusen says.
Maybe it seems natural for homes to exist in manicured tracts cloistered far from a central business district. Maybe a lengthy commute is the tradeoff for a patch of land to call your own. Maybe long bathroom queues are just a matter of complex biology. Or maybe it’s the cult of capitalism – a lever of patriarchy – duping us into thinking it’s the only way. Maybe, in fact, building communal daycare facilities just doesn’t deliver the same profit as a one-size-fits-all estate.
Which brings up another issue: the built environment’s accommodation – or not, as it were – of mothers. Motherhood reshapes the way a woman fits in a city not just once she has a child, but while she’s still carrying it. Like people with mobility needs, Kern says, mothers are not the “ideal imagined user” of public spaces and services; they’re “presumed to want or need no access to work, public space or city services”. That means when they do, the results can be deadly.
Yesterday’s architecture also preserves colonial values. “Buildings can reinforce the status quo and aid in the implementation of settler-colonial desires of expansionism,” says WAI Architecture Think Tank’s anti-racist architecture manifesto, adding that the architectural discipline’s elite whiteness – historical and contemporary – means the world around us continues to reflect a white utopia. Pushing this line of thinking even further, French architect Léopold Lambert describes architecture as an instrument of domination. “It organises bodies in space with a varying degree of coercion, from what may appear as voluntary to the most extreme instances of violence,” he writes. “[Architecture] does not invent racism, but it provides the spatial and territorial conditions for racism to exercise itself.”
It’s clear the modern city doesn’t come close to working for all of us. So what would your city look like if it had been designed by women?
In a word: community. Hayden’s inclusive urban design model, for one, places grassroots organising, collective bargaining and cooperative services at the centre of an egalitarian community. This doesn’t look like a free-love commune – it looks like mixed-use public spaces. It looks like better integration between residential areas and employment hubs. It looks like a thriving local sharing economy displacing soulless big-box retailers. A lot of it, unsurprisingly, looks like the Australian Greens’ planning policy principles.
It also looks like Vienna. There, gender mainstreaming – an approach to public policy that assesses the impact of any policy or program on women and men equally – has been employed for decades. It’s been so successful that all bids for social housing contracts, for instance, now require a detailed gender analysis.
It all began in the 1990s with the trailblazing Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City) project, a women’s social housing complex in Vienna’s north designed entirely by women. A little further down the Danube, the neighbourhood of Aspern was explicitly (but not exclusively) designed to accommodate families, with half of its 240-hectare footprint designated as public space and all streets named for women. These Haydenesque principles were eventually rolled out across the city. Better street lighting, wider footpaths, more public seating and more inclusive language are just some of the initiatives that bestow upon the Viennese among the highest quality of life in the world. It’s almost as though gender equality benefits everyone (spoiler: it does).
This is not to say that women-led urban design will singularly solve sexism or other widespread social problems. But lessons from Vienna’s program of gender mainstreaming show us that cities will become more inclusive only when a broader spectrum of people become part of informing their development. That means more women and people of all different backgrounds taking up space in architecture, urban planning and government – fields currently occupied primarily by those who benefit from the inequality they perpetuate (spoiler: white men).
“Artists, misfits, outsiders, elders, immigrants, people of colour and women … their varied lived experiences offer something more or counter to the standard advanced for our civic commons, parks, plazas, and other urban public assets,” says Isis Ferguson, associate director of city and community strategy at the University of Chicago’s Place Lab. These diverse viewpoints would naturally lead to the adoption of universal design principles, which aim to meet the needs of all potential users. Physical and social barriers can be dismantled because the people designing spaces no longer have to speculate – they know them firsthand.
Maybe it’s unsurprising given Western culture indiscriminately rewards white maleness, but the establishment has an important place in the shift toward inclusive urban design. That’s because we must first examine the damaging mechanisms that spawned the status quo before we can then break them down. Kern again: “Once we begin to see how the city is set up to sustain a particular way of organising society – across gender, race, sexuality, and more – we can start to look for new possibilities.”
The WAI manifesto echoes the need for radical architecture that digs “deep into its past, present, and potential future role into perpetuating the origins of social fragmentation, oppression, colonisation, and racism”.
“We must undo the damage created by the complicity of architecture with these systems of oppression,” it offers.
Undoing millenia of practices so deeply entrenched many of us can barely see them won’t be easy. Even in utopian Vienna, there was angry resistance to gender mainstreaming projects in the beginning – sometimes from public officials who supported the idea in principle.
But as urban planner Eva Kail, who spearheaded many of these projects including Frauen-Werk-Stadt, says, “To be able to be in the city in the way you want to be shows in a really clear way what your chances in society are.” So if architecture is the gatekeeper to a person’s full and safe participation in society, we have a duty to keep the gate unlocked.
Joana Partyka is the Australian Greens’ National Communications Officer.
Hero image: Pexels.