Can design with a gender perspective help to improve cities? (part II)
28 Dec 2021 /

Can design with a gender perspective help to improve cities? (part II)

Who does the city reward? and, therefore, who does it punish?

I would like to start this second part of the article with an anecdote: My grandmother has bought a motorbike. Rather than a motorbike, it is a scooter for people with a disability because, at the age of 87, she has decided that despite her aches and pains she does not want to be shut indoors. 

So far so good. She was very excited about this new opportunity offered to her by technology until she realized that coming out of door 11, turning left and managing to open the door to the lift was totally impossible. First strike. And what is more, there is a small step some 7 centimetres high in the vestibule, which she can only get down by holding on very tight to the scooter. Second strike.

But just when you think that all the work is done, you realize that, as if being in a wheelchair alone did not generate a sufficient feeling of defencelessness, the street manages to make you feel completely vulnerable.

After a real odyssey to manage to leave the house, there she was, surrounded by kerbs in the middle of the street like somebody on a desert island surrounded by water. All those kerbs were already there before but they had been invisible to us for twenty years. I don’t know whether the city is punishing my grandmother, I hope that is not its intention, but it is certainly letting her down.

After this introduction, it seems clear that “Cities have been built prioritizing productivity, that which is linked to the labour market, whilst that which is linked to reproduction and community, political and personal activities, has been left to one side,” as Blanca Valdivia, “gender and space” researcher and member of the group P6, complains. 


The ideal city should be a city that looks after its inhabitants regardless of their conditions. It should be a city that cares for us and which favours wellbeing over and above other interests because, as we commented in the article “The welfare society is designed too”, we cannot forget that accessibility is a fundamental right and that, when the time comes, we will all experience some level of “incapacity” when we face the socially-created barriers around us. 

The example of disability is always quickly understood but it is a limitation like any other, normally aggravated by the structure of the city. However, there are other incapacities that cities should also resolve: the vulnerability of people who cannot afford a house or the coexistence with flora and fauna (lovingly, our pets), are some examples. 

And not just that, the ideal city should allow us to express ourselves, to circulate and to develop freely from the first years of our life, and it should facilitate our daily tasks. To be able to give an example of what I am referring to, I am going to detail some of the attributes that SPACE 10 enumerates as essential and I consider that every city should have in order for us to inhabit it and not vice versa:

1. The ACCESSIBLE city

Accessibility within the city is vital in order to preserve our right as pedestrians to be the main users of public space.

The private vehicle is the most selfish and inefficient means of transport owing to the pollution it creates and the volume of urban space it occupies. Its use within cities should be reduced to the transport of people with reduced mobility. Furthermore, its limitation would directly imply that the use of alternative means of individual transport, such as the bicycle or the e-scooter, would be much safer and more pleasant.

The city has been planned and governed by attending basically to the dialogue with the private vehicle and the effects of this hermetic dialogue have been traffic jams, people being knocked over and the bad quality of the air we breathe.

This is the result of a dialogue between just two parties who do not take other realities into account. In this case, the way in which cities have said to cars: “You cannot come this way” has been to design an endless supply of bollards and kerbs in order to set limits. Of course, these measures also affect the other citizens. However, it is presupposed that as pedestrians we are going to be able to dodge all kinds of obstacles, even though they hinder access to prams or to people with reduced mobility, as though being able to do acrobatics were an innate virtue of our being.

Another collateral effect of paying so much attention to the private vehicle is the delay in the development of our independence:

The study “Biking to school” by Izaskun Chinchilla shows how boys and girls could make simple journeys in the city from the age of 4 and yet they are not allowed to go to school alone until they are 14. Parents mainly allege risks relating to traffic and physical integrity, to which Izaskun launches the following question:

Is it worth delaying the cognitive development of the population of a city so that a small percentage can go to work by car?

At what point in time have we allowed the private vehicle to retain all the privileges? And, above all, at what point in time have we accepted this as obvious? The law of the strongest, I suppose. We need cities designed for autonomous children, not for autonomous cars.

The idea of “superblocks” is a tremendously efficient way of giving the street back to pedestrians.

There is great potential for extending this model throughout the city because connecting different blocks via pedestrian access not only limits pollution and noise, but it also has another positive consequence, such as reducing the time needed to travel on foot. Valencia will premier its first two Superblocks during 2022, although this planning formula is an old friend in cities such as Barcelona or Vitoria. 

Some other actions that appear to be basic and simple, but the application of which generates a positive impact on the mobility of women, are those introduced by Eva Kail, head of planning with a gender focus in Vienna: she made improvements such as an increase in the number of pedestrian crossings in the city, steps reconditioned with ramps, increased lighting in pedestrian streets and the widening of pavements.

Public transport

The limitation of the car as a private vehicle would entail an expansion of public transport services in cities. A network that, although it may appear as though it were designed from the logic of optimization of routes, again leaves women in a more unfavourable position compared to men.

The differences between men and women do not stop with the means of transport they choose (men use private vehicles more whereas women are the main users of public transport): they can also be observed in the reasons for their journeys. It is a question of patterns of movement: whilst men enter and leave the city twice a day, women perform 75% of the unremunerated work in the world, and this causes their requirements to generate a “chain of journeys” as they go from place to place running errands, which involves several short interconnected journeys.

As is explained in “The power and pleasure of grids”, the bus systems in cities such as London, Milan or Paris, which are radial, favour the exiting of the city centre towards the outskirts but complicate and slow down journeys by public transport within the city itself since it will probably be necessary to change at least once before reaching one’s destination even though the distance is shorter than any other to the outskirts of the city.

Little can be done cheaply and easily to correct the historic bias in transport network infrastructures: There is, of course, the problem of resources but also, for sure, that of priorities.

2. The SAFE city

Safety in cities is still, of course, a latent issue. As Caroline Criado says, “Urban planning that fails to account for women’s risk of being sexually assaulted is a clear violation of women’s equal right to public spaces.” Furthermore, fear of crime is higher among women with fewer financial resources because they usually live in areas with higher crime rates, but also because they are more likely to work evening shifts and they often return home at night.

Good lighting in cities, managing, in some way, to do something about alleys by opening spaces, are actions that do not require major building work and are tremendously useful.

I would love to illustrate a small project with a huge impact: 

The Tokyo toilets, a series of 17 public conveniences designed by the architect Shigeru Ban. By incorporating coloured glass that is transparent when the toilet is unoccupied and opaque when it is in use, the design by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect tackles two basic concerns that people experience when using public toilets: cleanliness and knowing whether there is anybody inside.

But does safety always mean avoiding physical aggression? As well as reducing delinquency, cities should also protect their citizens against extreme weather conditions and provide a healthy environment that promotes physical and mental wellbeing. 

Especially interesting in my opinion is the case of Paris which has announced that it will clean the river Seine to make it accessible to bathers in 2024.

3. The PROVIDING city

To provide means to supply or place within a person’s reach what they need for their maintenance or functioning. 

If there is one thing our cities clearly need it is public toilets. The lack of these is a topic that has always fascinated me as to how something so basic could continue to be (and still is) the subject of so many petitions.

And if this absence is a problem for the whole of society, it is even more so for women who menstruate once a month, and for one in three who suffer from urinary incontinence after the age of 50.

If you want to know the position of women in a particular society, look at the queue formed in the toilets.

This is affirmed by Clara Greed, an English feminist planner who has studied how access to toilets is one of the most obvious examples of discrimination against women and an example of how cities continue to respond to patriarchal models.

I would not like to leave out a recent example of the city of Valencia such as the design of the public toilets in the Jardín del Río Turia, for two reasons: A park of 6 km in which there were only 2 toilets implied a walk of an hour and a half to manage, if it was not already too late, to use a toilet. We now have 6, after the addition of 4 new ones, designed by the architectural studio Versea. These 4 new toilets provide accessibility and safety, having eliminated solid walls enabling us to see, before entering, if there is anybody there. For the sake of our health, let us hope that their number continues to increase in the short term.

On the other hand, the providing city should also take into account other primary needs, such as public housing, affordable houses and access to property ownership, inclusive decision-making with transparent governance and encouraging the participation and empowerment of the community.


As well as free access to drinking water for which, for some reason, we have become used to depending on purchasing bottled water.

It should also supply our leisure needs with cultural activities in the street. Something which we frequently undervalue and which is, undeniably, an indispensable contribution to people’s development. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it was not so much during the months of lockdown but during the months of easing of the measures when we realized that, without leisure, levels of stress and social malaise soar.

4. The SHARED city

The city should strive to overcome the individualism that is increasingly present in the way in which citizens relate to each other. A city prepared for social interactions via shared facilities, public spaces, spaces for coexistence, as well as shared work and transport. The city should favour that which is collaborative, close, the essence of the neighbourhood which allows us to have a relationship that favours collaboration between neighbours.

A shared city necessarily involves sharing its space and not leaving anybody out. We spoke in the first part of this article about an example in which a pre-school class designed a step to reach the litter bins in parks. 

Citizen participation is the best field study that no designer can undertake, because only a person who moves in a wheelchair is going to notice the number of steps in their street. Barriers that are totally invisible for other citizens who do not have reduced mobility. 

Sharing not only spaces, but what is decided about them.

Nobody gets dirty their own home because they feel it is theirs and that is where they live. I positively believe that  the result of involving citizens in decisions that affect cities would have as a result smarter citizens, a cleaner society and the true engine of change, group responsibility.

Leaving aside the implications at a global level, collective participation is also the best field study that no designer can do, because only someone who moves in a wheelchair is going to realize the number of steps that his / her has. Street. Barriers totally invisible to the rest of the citizens who do not have reduced mobility.

Cities give something to everyone when they are made together. (Jane Jacobs)

The Tatarstan initiative is a project that revives the local bases of design and manufacturing at a lower cost.

In places where there is no established design culture, two opposing approaches are available at the project stage: hire experts from abroad or nurture a local design community. In the Russian republic of Tatarstan, located at the intersection between Europe and Asia, a recent Public Spaces Development Programme has created more than 350 parks in five years, by choosing the second approach.

The programme, which is one of the six winners of the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, is led by Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova. Thanks to this programme, a new standard has been set for design processes in the country with its endeavour to involve not only local architects but also the local community.

What we’ve managed to achieve is a totally new model of relationship between the state and the people because we managed to make our people the actual client. With participation, you minimize the probability of failure.

Traditionally, the contribution of the community has not been an important part of decision making in Russia, but the participative design focus that Fishman-Bekmambetova initiated in Tatarstan has since become the template for the development of open spaces in many regions of the country.

The non-democratic approach is more efficient in the short term, but the greatest danger is losing common sense

In all the parks, the approach remains constant: landscaped embankments, public art commissions, contemporary playgrounds, and cultural pavilions. But most of all, the Public Space Development Program shows a long-overdue ambition since it refocuses priorities on humble yet quality public spaces.

5. The FUN city

The desirable city, the city that favours fun and leisure. 

Building a desirable city means discussing the profitability of productive and non-productive activities. Are our cities prepared for the school calendar in the same way that they are prepared to host major conferences for businessmen? 

In the book “The caring city”, the author launches this question with the premise that boys and girls have 190 days per year without school, of which 104 usually coincide with weekends. This leaves 86 non-school days for children in cities in which their parents continue to work.

Are companies alone responsible for balancing work and family life or is it also the responsibility of the way in which cities and their services are conceived?

The balance between commitments and family life is also the responsibility of the city when it is almost impossible to run errands while looking after your children. It does not occur to us to think that situations of this type could be different, but here is the thing: they can.

Incentives to play can be integrated in the places where adults have obligations to fulfil, where they go to handle a formality or facilitate the resolution of other requirements. Lady Allen of Hurtwood said that children play wherever they are, and it is true. Taking this premise into account when designing cities would enable us to achieve, through design, an integrated development of childhood and the wellbeing of carers. 

Some examples that may seem silly but which I am sure that with experience would have posed a higher level of humanity:

If there were a sand box or an urban garden between the sober walls of the post office building or the tax offices, our little ones could perform a leisure activity, which they could share with their busy parents, without compromising their development based on stimuli and, thus, the balance would be more possible, easier and more fun.


The majority of today’s cities are the legacy of largely unplanned building work on which we are working little by little but in which the factor of experience is still lacking when it comes to taking decisions that affect us all. The city from the experience of women, boys and girls, the elderly, will take into account real factors and they will not go wrong because they will know what they need.

I firmly believe that the cities of today must listen to their inhabitants because it is the only way for them to be inhabitable from the point of view of wellbeing.

In short, a city not only in which to live, but to inhabit, which is not the same.

And that is what I want, a GENEROUS city.


Sara Antolín