Cities Aren’t Designed For Women. Here’s Why They Should Be.

At first glance, a assemble of 60 or so women in Detroit earlier this month looked like a typical networking event — a few speeches, lots of mingling, plenty of wine. But instead of making contacts to boost their careers, the women discussed how to use their collective power to improve the city.

“The grassroots, networking facet of what is going on right now in the city is merely extremely powerful, ” Wendy Lewis Jackson, interim co-managing director for the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program , told The Huffington Post. She was also a speaker at the Sister City event, which the Detroit Women’s Leadership Network held at the Urban Consulate, a new space that hosts conversations about city life.

“It is shaping decisions and dialogues about improving the qualifications of life in the city as a whole, ” she added.

Credit: Alissa Shelton
About 60 women, representing a range of ages and professions, assembled earlier this month at the Urban Consulate in Detroit for aSister City event, where they discussed how girls could make a difference in the city.

The Invisible Obstacles Holding Women Back In Cities

The need for women-focused answers in cities becomes clear when you look at how they have been ignored in urban design. The built surrounding — things like the accessibility of public space, zoning for housing and transportation design — canmarginalize women and jeopardize their safety.

Women use cities differently from men in many ways, in agreement with the American Planning Association and Cornell University’s Women’s Planning Forum: They have higher poverty rates and different housing wants, are still “responsible for the majority of housework and childcare” and “have unique travel behavior related to their combining of run and household responsibilities.”

Cities’ plans overwhelmingly don’t address women’s requires, their planning or zoning boards aren’t aware of them and local developers aren’t responsive to them, according to a 2014 survey of more than 600 planners that is cited in the report.

Some of the challenges women face may seem simple, such as “ve had to” navigate poorly maintained sidewalks or stairs with a stroller or use restrooms without trash receptacles or changing tables. But many are more consequential, such as avoiding public transitrather than facing conditions, like desolate and poorly illuminated bus stops, that stimulate them feel unsafe.

How Cities Can Bring Women Into Public Space

Awareness of those challenges is growing. The most transformative changes have resulted overseas — like in Vienna, which has been redesigning its parks, streets and housing for decades in response to female residents’ concerns.

“We basically do not have good examples of gender-sensitive planning in the U.S ., ” Mildred Warner, the Cornell planning professor who led the survey with the APA, told HuffPost in an email. “That is an example of the problem. We have policy blindness around gender.”

Credit: Getty/ HuffPost

One of the encouraging areas of change is in public transit. Several U.S. cities have acknowledged the issue of sexual harassment and worked to combat it with publicity campaigns and tools that allow victims to easily report it.

There’s more that can be done, however. For example, a Toronto-based organization generated a “safety audits” program, which allows women to identify where they feel unsafe and has been replicated in cities around the world.

Considering women’s concerns doesn’t hurt men or other groups. Instead, it helps cities reflect the needs of all residents, Warner and the other researchers argue in their report:

Asking “Would a woman feel comfy walking here at twilight? ” and getting an affirmative reaction likely means that most people will feel comfy use the space. Women can be used as a bellwether for safety, as well as other planning priorities. Regarding transportation planning, women are option riders: if more females ride transit, more people will ride.

Who’s Shaping City Policy

There aren’t many women in political power or at the helm of influential organizations that steer cities’ futures, told Daphne Spain, writer of Constructive Feminism: Women’s Space and Women’s Rights in the American City .

Women are often at the vanguard of grassroots efforts to address issues that affect themselves and their families, like tenants’ rights and environmental hazards, but they’re underrepresented in leadership roles, Spain told HuffPost.

Fewer than one-fifth of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000 have female mayors. Thirty percent of council members in the largest cities are women, down from 33 percentage in 2010. Women are underrepresented in the fields of planning, architecture and real estate development, particularly at the top.

We have policy blindness around gender. Mildred Warner

Jackson often considers few, if any, other women of color in sessions, she told the audience at the Sister City event.

“We play truly critical and central roles in developing our city’s future but we don’t always have an equitable role, and in fact we often don’t have a seat at the table where decisions are being stimulated, ” she said.

When Women Take Charge

Women speak less at planning meetings and are less shall include participation in the planning process, the APA survey discovered. But when they do get involved and combine forces with other women in leadership roles, they have the ability to move cities forward in powerful ways.

Stop Street Harassment founder and executive director Holly Kearl described the challenge of get her message to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority several years ago.

They were “saying that one person’s harassment was another person’s flirting, and it wasn’t a problem on their system, ” Kearl said.

Muriel Bowser, D.C.’s current mayor who was a councilwoman at the time, arranged for Kearl’s organization to testify at a city council session. It now works with the transit authority, assisting with anti-harassment campaigns and a recent rider survey.

“Clearly it wasn’t on their intellects at all until this happened, ” Kearl said. “That’s sort of what we’re left with, being the advocates for ourselves, or on behalf of the members of others, to make sure our needs are being heard and that we are able to navigate cities and public transit safely.”

In Detroit, Jackson pointed to the response when 11,000 untested rape kits were found in police storage in 2009, some dating back to the 1980 s. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s fierce advocacy brought local fund and widespread attention to the national problem of untested rape kits. Last year, a group of black Detroit girls stepped up to keep focus on the issue and fill the funding gap, calling on their peers for gifts.

The African-American 490 Challenge, which has Worthy’s support, has raised $235,000 since October, more than one-third of their $657,000 objective to cover the testing of the remaining kits.

“No city can truly thrive if it discounts the talents, contribution and leadership of its women, ” Jackson said. “We’re women who can work together to transform cities into places where women and girls are insured, they are safe and they can fully participate in all aspects of city life.”

Kate Abbey-Lambertz encompasses sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter .

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