The Gender Positive City - a discussion


Contact Madeleine Hug, Senior Associate Director

Earlier this month, we held our first Benoy + Futures round table event where we invited a select group of leaders working within the built environment, to come and share their views and ideas. Madeleine Hug, who led this first discussion, reports back.

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What does the gender positive city look and feel like and how can we make women and girls genders feel safe, contribute and be empowered? 

This was the question posed at the first in a series of Benoy + Futures round table conversations with a range of experts and senior women across various fields from real estate, property, design, sports, and finance. 

Although seemingly simple in premise, this topic threw up a host of other questions. What role does gender play in identity, is a gender-blind society the future? From this layered and complex topic, came four key takeaways in the pursuit of designing the gender positive city:

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“We are in a period of transition, moving from a culture dominated by masculinity (not necessarily wanted by men) to a culture informed by the strength of femininity (kindness, consideration, inclusivity).”

Dr Eime Tobari, Social Value Strategist from COCREATIF

1. Good intentions can have unintended consequences. Tread lightly and canvas ideas with the community first.

Kate Bohn, mentor for women in tech, kicked off the conversation with whatever we suggest, let’s not have a solution’ like the one provided in Frankfurt airport, mapping out Ladies Parking’ zones in pink.” Whilst this was intended to provide easier drop-off for women with children, the pink zones have been criticised for being patronizing and sexist.

Developers and designers should engage with the public to better understand what’s important in their cities and the how they are occupied. Jacqui Collins, ULI UK Executive Director, mentioned UrbanPlan (ULI) as an example of how engaging with others can help developers see their decisions and processes differently. UrbanPlan was set-up for the purposes of providing school age kids the opportunity to learn about the process of designing a development, however the event can sometimes be as much a lesson to the private real estate partners. Seeing urban design decisions through the eyes of these children often exposes some of the less than favourable purely commercial approaches and forces us to think about this from a different perspective.

2. Education and breaking down stereotypes is key

One of the key differences in the predominantly female experience of cities is around safety. At a time when much is being reported about tragic attacks on women in London, there is a renewed focus on what women, the design of environments, apps and external measures can do to try and avoid these crimes. Overwhelmingly the consensus around the table was that the focus really needs to be on the perpetrators of these crimes and why they occur. 

Lighting or being on the phone won’t necessarily change the outcome, so what is the solution? Education is critical, particularly around gender stereotypes. Binki Taylor, Partner at the Brixton Project, spoke about how breaking down gender stereotypes and expectations offers freedom to young people to not be bound by societal expectations.

It was also felt that electronic surveillance doesn’t make people feel safer but natural surveillance and others on the street does. We shared with the group ideas recently considered by the Benoy team including whether having something that animates (noises, motion lighting, digital installations) as you walk past, responding to the presence of humans would help create a sense of safety. Could the public realm even let you know if someone else is there? The design of light source distances to avoid cast shadows and maintain good distribution helps women feel aware of their surroundings. It might not create a safer environment, however transparency and visibility allow women to assess their risk and surroundings better. 

3. The benefit of sports can be a lifelong gift to both women and men.

Stephanie Hilborne OBE, CEO of Women in Sport, shared with the group that the original meaning of sport was, in effect, freedom from responsibility. Our culture doesn’t yet fully recognise that girls and women deserve sport or recognise its value to them. While many boys are offered sports as a healthy outlet for their energy and frustration, girls do not get the same opportunities or encouragement. Too many girls and women miss out on the joy of sport and on building resilience, leadership and teamwork skills this way. The biggest gender gap is in team sport, with 23% fewer girls and women playing team sports every week in England than men and boys. 

Design of places for sports and play should help turn this situation around to encourage female participation. Vienna’s gender-sensitive park projects offer examples of how to adapt these spaces including multiple entrances, clear space arrangement, gender-neutral activity fields, places for retreat, small-structured common areas and good visibility in main avenues. Again, critical to the success of this project was an intensive planning phase where planning officers collaborated with park visitors, female planning experts, and sociologists, focusing on girls’ interests and strategies to raise feelings of safety in parks.

4. The future of town centres needs kindness and inclusivity

Our world is changing and generally, we continue to move to a more inclusive society. Perhaps Covid has increased our sense of care for community, our neighbours and prompted a shift to kindness. Our towns and cities should encourage inclusivity and opportunity, providing a sense of belonging and ownership to all residents and visitors. We need to expand our thinking to design for people from poorer communities, with a lack of mobility but also an ingrained sense of being ostracised. 

One example given was of a a free-access lido in Oslo that was provided to a community as a way to encourage use across different socio-economic backgrounds. Creating these types of mixed communities breeds greater empathy and community cohesion, cultivating more open mindsets in its residents. Design, mix and integration of offer have a role to play, as does technology with neighbourhood and residents apps and Community Managers helping facilitate meetups. 

There is a push away from poor doors and floors’, segregated and ultra-exclusive developments. It doesn’t feel relevant or appropriate anymore. Perhaps developers should instead focus on aligning value with values. What commercial value does social value bring?

Summing up the evening’s conversation Dr Eime Tobari, Social Value Strategist from COCREATIF, said: We are in a period of transition, moving from a culture dominated by masculinity (not necessarily wanted by men) to a culture informed by the strength of femininity (kindness, consideration, inclusivity)” With our culture and societies changing, so too will our cities and public realm.

The Benoy + Futures series looks to bring together leaders and disrupters to debate topical issues in the world of design and the built environment. Contact marketing@​benoy.​com to find out more. 

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