Can gender perspective help to improve cities? Part I
25 Nov 2021 /

Can gender perspective help to improve cities? Part I

I know that the remedy of beginning an article with the dictionary definition of the topic to be dealt with is somewhat trite but, in this case, the use of this formula is a good starting point to ensure that readers, and myself, begin at the same time.

A city is a series of buildings and streets, governed by a council, the dense and numerous population of which is usually employed in the performance of non-agricultural activities.

However, this definition, like the design of many of these cities, is too impersonal if we take into account that the soul of a city is precisely its people. 

To understand how important this issue is, it is appropriate to mention that, according to data of the United Nations, 81.1% of the population of Spain lives in urban areas. The UN estimates that this percentage could reach 88% in 2050.

Those who drove and led the transformation of modern cities did so with a bird’s eye view, using models and maps, building cities based on the way they should look from a distance. But designing from a distance is designing from ignorance, and the fact is that, since urban planning involves so many economic and human resources, the default modus operandi should not be this but rather another, slightly more empirical method.


Cities are something that has always existed and we have not questioned them too much because they were already here when we arrived. We have not thought about what our relationship with them should be like or that, like any relationship, it should be bidirectional. We take them for granted without considering that perhaps they could be easier to live in.

The problem in cities continues to be the lack of female representation in decision-making because, as Dafne Saldaña, architect, planner and member of Equal Street says:

Inequality in cities is due to the fact that, since the Greek agora, we have been excluded from the spaces where decisions are made

Once again, knowledge of the history of humanity helps us to understand many things since the cities we have today are the legacy of a historic bias.

The different urban aspects must be dealt with in a relational manner (housing, public space, urban services, transport) because they are elements that interact with each other and which are intersected by social aspects (social and economic status, gender, origin, ethnicity, sexual and gender identity, age…)

In the book “Invisible Women”, which we have spoken about before, Caroline tells the anecdote of how such apparently innocent actions such as removing the snow in Sweden favoured men over women purely as a matter of priority: They began by removing the snow from the roads before removing it from pedestrian walkways. And, although this seems trivial, is not so at all because men, women, children and the elderly do not move around the city in the same way.


The study of female contributions in architecture is complicated, but it is even more so in planning. Since this is an interdisciplinary and team activity, many names are erased with a view to constructing a historical narrative. It is an activity that implies a higher investment, owing to which it is closely linked to politics and power, activities that (I do not wish to generalize, but) historically have been in male hands.

Important names include Christine de Pizan who, as long ago as the 15th century, began to question the experience of being a woman in the city in her work The Book of the City of Ladies. With her discourse she sought to break the public silence that was imposed on women with an education in favour of a female gender model of submission and privation.

In her work Promenades in London, Flora Tristán reflected her astonishment at the multiple inequalities offered by the capital of Great Britain in the 19th century.

She thus denounced the horrendous situation in cities well before the studies, essays and reports that would later denounce the chaos and lack of hygiene of the industrial city – a new model of city that was advancing and was already beginning to cast aside all activities that were not strictly productive.

Any action for the transformation of a city, however small it may appear, is already questioning the city dogma. Jane Jacobs was aware of this.

As a journalist and activist, she understood the functioning of cities as a system of chaotic and unpredictable order ruled by people who, by living in them, granted them dynamism and beauty.

Jane was always amazed by the people who inhabited cities, especially New York, where she felt there was room for people of all kinds. It was clear to her that the design of cities should be approached from street level and she did not hesitate to challenge Robert Moses, an influential 20th century planner who destroyed and built at will all kinds of buildings and expressways.

The documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City films Jacobs’ first steps in activism, how she envisaged the city, the consequences of modern architecture and her entire diatribe with Moses.

For her, to talk of safety in the city invariably meant managing to fill and enliven the streets. With frequent crossroads and intersections, as opposed to cul-de-sacs; with buildings whose windows do not turn their back on the streets and from which it is possible to observe and participate in urban life; and with activities and structures that allow for comfort in the public space. With all of this, walking along the streets would not be a safety hazard for anybody, including children and elderly people.

In the light of this premise, voices such as that of Izascun Chinchilla remind us that citizens are active members of the place where they live. In her book, La Ciudad de los Cuidados (“The Caring City”), she says:

Our experience in the city marks us and it marks our view of things. The object of the memory is not the features of the building, but the perceptions of the subject who interacts with the architecture

Izascun, in what for me is required reading, describes cities as places oriented purely towards productivity, ignoring many other topics and needs. Our cities design public spaces as the space that enables us to reach work from our homes, but the use of that space for reproductive or caring activities (including rest and looking after oneself) involves a real odyssey. Therefore it is important, when we speak of cities, to talk about parks, public baths, leisure or transport systems. 

On the subject of mobility, Inés Sánchez de Madariaga has a great deal to contribute. Inés leads the Association of Women Architects of Spain, and she points to the introduction of studies to discover the needs of female workers in our country, to thus promote the work of female architects based on these aspects that need to be addressed. Her idea can be illustrated very well with the concept of the “mobility of care” which she developed in 2008 in a study for what was then known as the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. This is an umbrella category that makes it possible to quantify and give visibility to trips made for reasons linked to reproductive labour (the care of other people and looking after the home) most of which is performed by women. The standard reasons normally used by transport surveys undervalue these trips. This leads to a more than considerable reduction of the number of buses that circulate outside the “rush hour”. As though trips taken for care-related work were not compulsory, but merely “waiting time”.


The other day, I listened to a chapter of the podcast “Participantes para un delirio” (“Participants for a delirium”) by the artist Coco Dávez, in which her interviewee, Ana Enrich, told an anecdote about a Change Makers project they developed via the Ashoka Foundation with the social entrepreneur Charo Batlle, who has set up in Spain the learning and service network. This educational methodology designs solutions, with children, for the problems they see in their environment and teaches them how they can take responsibly by making their contribution.

THE ANECDOTE IS AS FOLLOWS: At a school in the town of Esplugas de Llobregat, they asked the boys and girls about their concerns, quite a serious question for the innocence that permeates an infant class.

However, from this meeting of wise little people, the solid conclusion was reached that the parks were dirty. 

This case was developed through a process of Design Thinking via which the teacher guided them and encouraged them to seek solutions to improve their park, coming to the conclusion that the parks were dirty because they could not reach the rubbish bins.

INCREDIBLE that five-year-old children assume that they are part of the problem, but even more incredible, it seems to me, is our capacity as human beings to commit ourselves to those things that allow us to be participants.

The boys and girls prototyped a step for the lower part of the bins and, with this model, the teacher organized a meeting to go with her pupils to present it to the mayor of Esplugas.

This is just one example that gives us back our faith that cities are for citizens and stresses the fact that, indeed, when citizens participate in the changes they also participate in caring for them. The feeling that we are all citizens is inherent to all of us, regardless of our circumstances.


We will never be able to stop talking about women when it comes to the care of citizens because the figures (the real kings of truth) say that we are the ones who perform 75% of domestic work. According to the International Labour Organization, 606 million women perform most of the unremunerated work in the world as a full-time job compared to 41 million men.

Women are the ones who continue to care for children, elderly and dependent people. Therefore, designing inclusive cities implies facilitating life for women.

Rethinking the city from a feminist perspective means ceasing to produce spaces from a productivist and mercantilist logic and beginning to think about environments that prioritize the people who are going to use them. It should be a question of spaces that adapt to the different needs of people, not people that adapt to the conditions of the space. Placing people in the centre, giving visibility to the diversity of experiences and needs, without trying to homogenize uses and activities in the urban space. Therefore, in the light of the functionalist city, Smart Cities or other paradigms unrelated to people’s reality, we propose the caring city.

-Sara Antolín