I have a secret to tell you about my city,” she says. “It has to do with what Eve Ensler calls the feminine cell.”
It was the autumn of 2016. I’d met her in Quito, Ecuador, at the United Nations’ Habitat III, the biggest global urban development conference in two decades. After a week spent pondering cities, we found ourselves talking to each other like strangers often do in the tired, busy evenings that follow a day’s hustle.
“What’s the feminine cell?” I ask.
“It’s empathy. It’s respect for the human experience. It’s being aware of the space you take up in the world and how that relates to the commons.”1
Outside the colors of Quito were drenched in rain as the bars filled with eager conference attendees and locals alike. In the second year of a post-doc studying energy footprint reduction in cities, I was just about beginning to see the connections between social justice, the urban experience, and what makes a city “tick.”
“My city is always looking for solutions,” she continued. “There is no ‘place’ in my city. There are only points and routes that connect those points.”
America is having a bit of a moment right now. Powerful men long considered beyond retribution are being called out for their transgressions. Behavior long tolerated in a culture where female objectification is in the very air we breathe is being re-examined.
It reminds me of the conversation I had in Quito two years ago.
As we look again at our culture, why stop with behavior? It is also time to re-examine the hardware of our societies. The very infrastructure that we have built—roads, buildings, public spaces, steel, dirt, and concrete—encodes a set of values too. Are these the values we aspire to as a society and civilization?
The cities we’ve built don’t provide perfectly equal access to everyone. An obvious case in point: wheelchair ramps, or lack thereof. But even healthy, active residents of all genders may not consider all of a city accessible to them. Men, for instance, typically don’t consider a dimly lit street lined by bars or clubs an unsafe or inaccessible part of town. For women, braving the same street past midnight has completely different connotations. Like video game players who have been leveled up, men can simply access a much larger part of a city or town at a wider variety of times. One Europe-wide survey found that 30 percent of all physical violence and 16 percent of sexual violence against women happens in bars, clubs, discos and other public places2—something that women are very much aware of and which influences how they move around a city.
Like the physical boundaries it draws between commercial and residential zones, sprawl enforces the boundaries set by our roles in society.
Then there are cars. The American urban landscape is pockmarked by sprawling suburbs that can be entirely devoid of pedestrian traffic. In many metros it is actually impossible to safely access certain parts of the city without a car. If you don’t have a car in Houston or Phoenix it can be difficult to buy bread without having to cross a road that has no marked pedestrian crossing—many streets don’t even have sidewalks. This car-centric design puts women at a double disadvantage: Not only are they at greater risk while traveling through some of these areas, but gender disparity in incomes means it can be harder for them to buy and maintain an automobile, making what James Howard Kunstler calls “the national automobile slum” even more inaccessible for them.
Finally, there is the design of the city itself. The suburbs that define many sprawling cities, including most American cities, are not well suited to healthy social interactions. Pre World War II city design started from the laying of bricks at the human scale. Post WWII American suburbs, on the other hand, are a unique accident in history and designed at much larger scales. The “developer city,” as the famed urbanist Nikos Salingaros calls it, is not “biophilic”—it pays less attention to the human scale and to what people can see, touch, or feel at their own level.3 The suburban house is a collection of rooms, each with its own TV set, its inhabitants fully entitled to their privacy. Is it really a family that lives there? The suburb or small town is a collection of points joined together by roads. The mall (RIP) is not a communal space, it’s a commercial enterprise. City halls are office buildings, not meeting places. The absence of genuine public space drives an absence of genuine community. At each level of organization, the city’s aesthetics first tells us that we are socially alone, then its physical structure makes sure that we stay alone. Like mice trapped in psychologist B.F. Skinner’s conditioning cage, we are trained by the sensory deprivation and alienation of living in the suburbs and working in a downtown inhabited by post-modern or minimalist architecture of icy, silver plain facades to seek instant gratification in lieu of healthy social nourishment. This is one of the reasons why despite their high per-capita gross economic product, American cities continuously fail to rank high in global livability indices. In 2017, the top-ranked American city in the Mercer Quality of Living city ranking was San Francisco at 29th.
But is this suburban alienation a gendered experience? Certainly alienation in general is recognized as a gendered experience, especially among teens.4 Urban planner Yasmina Beebeejaun agrees this is a question worth asking. “Gender remains a neglected focus for theory and practice in shaping cities,” she writes.5 Automobile-centric development not only affects women’s access and safety, it affects the way they see themselves and the way they are seen. As family law professor Carol Sanger wrote in 1995, “the car has reinforced women’s subordinated status in ways that make the subordination seem ordinary, even logical through two predictable, but subtle, mechanisms: by increasing women’s domestic obligations and by sexualizing the relation between women and cars.”6 Like the physical boundaries it draws between commercial and residential zones, sprawl enforces the boundaries set by our roles in society. Specific times must be dedicated to specific activities such as picking up kids from school or doing groceries. The organic social interaction that a city is supposed to facilitate goes missing. Even when time is allocated for socialization as a dedicated activity, it takes the character of a chore like everything else on the calendar. When activities are spatially segregated we find our identities splitting among our various roles, never quite able to bring all of ourselves to anything. Alienation rises. Just as physical access is more restricted for women in these cities than men, the role imposition is also stricter.
Which is not to say men are unaffected by what Salingaros calls the “non-network city.” Studies show that the size of a man’s social network has a greater effect on his feeling connected than it does for a woman. It’s more likely that a single deep friendship will be sufficient for a woman than for a man, for whom a large set of friends has a greater subjective importance.7 Anthropologist Christine Avenarius found that among first-generation immigrants, men, more than women, “mourn[ed] the loss of opportunities to gain reputation and social recognition” that came from relocating to the American suburb.8 And non-network suburbs, in their very hardware, eliminate the public spaces, spontaneous social interactions, and public-use services that can create this friend set.
Are these the values we aspire to as a society and civilization?
But even if men are affected more than women in the first instance, there’s a sense in which women can still end up being the ultimate victim.
The connection in the literature between isolation and predation against women ranges from the theoretical to the empirical. Psychologist William Marshall theorized in the late 1980s that a lack of social intimacy among men can promote predatory behavior.9 In cases of violence among intimate partners, studies have found a connection between degree of social isolation and rates of violence,10 and the effect is enhanced in suburbia.11
All of which constructs a vicious cycle of abuse, inordinately directed at women. The first assault is conducted on the self by the physical space of the city, which withholds stimuli, imposes roles, and takes away the opportunity to construct healthy relationships. The opportunities for physical violence follow, spurred by the elimination of urban commons—the roads that people walk down for pleasure, the city centers, the market streets. While many cities have urban parks, access to them can be a challenge for women and the poor; this zoning of recreational and communal activity does little to eliminate the otherwise overbearing alienation of suburban life. What’s left over are often dark, empty niches. Spaces become gendered, reflecting our biases and our fears back onto us, reinforcing our roles, and cresting in urban violence in a kind of programmatic assault.
Cities around the globe are starting to pay more attention to womens’ experiences. In Sweden, Umea has started creating public spaces that cater to women in a way they haven’t in the past. Spurred on by its gender equality officer, Umea’s city council adopted a formal strategy for gender equality in 2011 with the goal of creating “the conditions for women and men, girls and boys to have the same power to shape society and their own lives.” Umea’s skating park is attracting female skaters through an organization called “You skate girl.” Lights have been installed next to parks, and city tunnels and passageways have been built with a view to safety and accessibility.12 A dark public square where women were afraid to wait for buses after dark has been lit up with a large neon sign borrowing a phrase from the movie Dirty Dancing, “Nobody puts baby in a corner.”
Elsewhere in Sweden, the city of Karlskroga has discovered that doing something as simple as cleaning snow from walking and biking lanes improves access for women,13 who are more likely to walk and bike than men. “The community development staff made jokes about how at least snow clearing is something the gender people won’t get involved in,” Karlskroga’s gender equality strategist is quoted as saying. “But then they thought about it and realized that maybe snow clearing is not gender neutral after all.” In Kalmar, after women were found to be avoiding nighttime bus service because of safety concerns, buses began letting passengers off between stops to get them closer to their destination. In Gothenburg, the municipal parking company replaced concrete facades with glass and improved lighting, noting that insecurity is the primary impediment to women’s moving around the city.14 Simple changes are making a real difference.15
These examples are not from America, or from sprawling cities. But they show the power of rethinking how design is done. And similar efforts are starting to show up on this continent. In 2015, the city of London, Ontario phrased the goal of its new approach to gender in cities this way: “Consider a gender lens during the development and execution of new policies.” The language was added to the city’s strategic planning document—but only after a contentious debate, and over the objections of the city’s longest serving politician.
Most important is the fact that we’re talking about it. Discourse and debate, like the one in London, often predates data-based analysis and action. Sometimes by decades. There’s a reason that urban complexity studies are still playing catchup to Jane Jacobs, the great urban theorist and author of the 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities—and a reason that that book was written by a woman.
Fouad Khan has a Ph.D. in urban development science and policy and has worked for the World Bank, UN, and WWF among others in the past. He is currently an associate editor at Springer Nature and tweets at @fouadmkhan.
1. DeLessio-Parson, A. Doing vegetarianism to destabilize the meat-masculinity nexus in La Plata, Argentina. Gender, Place, and Culture 24, 1729-1748 (2017).
2. European Union Agency for Human Rights. “Violence against women: An EU-wide survey.” Main Results Report (2014).
3. Salingaros, N.A. Eight city types and their interactions: The “eight-fold” model. Keynote speech at the 11th International Congress on Virtual Cities and Territories. Krakow, Poland (2016).
4. Vandervoort, D. Social isolation and gender. Current Psychology 19, 229-236 (2000).
5. Beebeejaun, Y. Gender, urban space, and the right to everyday life. Journal of Urban Affairs 39, 323-334 (2016).
6. Sangor, C. Girls and the getaway: Cars, culture, and the predicament of the gendered space. University of Pennsylvania Law Review 144, 705-756 (1995).
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8. Avenarius, C.B. immigrant networks in new urban spaces: Gender and social integration. International Migration 50, 25-55 (2012).
9. Marshall, W.L. Intimacy, loneliness and sexual offenders. Behaviour Research and Therapy 27, 491-504 (1989).
10. Michalski, J.H. Making sociological sense out of trends in intimate partner violence. Violence Against Women 10, 652-675 (2004).
11. Lanier, C. & Maume, M.O. Intimate partner violence and social isolation across the rural/urban divide. Violence Against Women 15, 1311-1330 (2009).
13. “Gender Equal Snow Clearing in Karlskoga” www.includegender.org (2014).
14. “Safe Parking in Gothenburg” www.includegender.org (2014).
15. Criado-Perez, C. “What works for men doesn’t work for everyone”: Why cities need to start planning with women in mind. CityMetric www.citymetric.com (2016).