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How Women In Urbanism is pushing for more inclusive New Zealand cities

The Women in Urbanism Jane's Walk held during the 2018 Festival of Architecture. Photo: Joe Hockley

The statistics don’t lie: the bulk of the those that are designing living and urban spaces in New Zealand cities are men – but the times are changing. Globally, there is a conversation taking place on what cities would look like if equal weighting was given to all of its citizens in the design process. We spoke with Women In Urbanism, a recently formed organisation in Aotearoa, about how it's aiming to give a voice to those who don’t fit the pale and male image that dominates the architecture and engineering fields.

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in the architectural and engineering industries. The New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) has found that just 20 percent of all registered architects are women, while the Association for Consulting and Engineering Professionals (ACENZ) reports that around 16 percent of the current engineering workforce are women. And this isn’t even including the other roles that are involved in urbanism, either – from city planners to politicians.  

Rachel Lees-Green is a member of a newly formed organisation to combat this – Women in Urbanism – and a senior consultant at transport consultancy MRCagney by day. She says the idea for Women In Urbanism was formed in 2017 when her colleagues and Women in Urbanism co-founders Emma McInnes and Abby Granbery had been talking about bringing an international expert over to speak about how to integrate feminism into urbanism.

Women in Urbanism members (L-R): Greer Rasmussen, Olivia Johnstone, Rachel Lees-Green, Jessica Rose, Jennifer Keesmaat, Elisabeth Laird, Natalie Donze and Emma McInnes.

“However, we quickly realised there was a lot of latent demand for a group that could foster a broader discussion about women in urbanism in the Auckland and New Zealand context,” Lees-Green says.

“When our first meet-up event a couple of weeks later attracted over 30 women through word-of-mouth advertising alone, we knew we were onto a good thing.”

Despite the group’s name, Lees-Green says the beauty of Women in Urbanism is its members aren’t from one specific profession that’s relevant to urban design.

Members hail from the engineering, urban planning, design and landscape architecture industries, but there are also other members who aren’t involved in urban design at all, but fulfil more of an activist or advocacy viewpoint.

“The thing that connects all of the women in our group is an interest in creating more feminist cities.”

But, first things first, the question that will no doubt be on a lot of men’s lips: why the need for a gendered lens when it comes to urban planning? Simply put, Lees-Green says women and men don’t use and experience cities in the same way.

“Women are more likely to be responsible for managing households and caring for children or other whanau,” she says.

“This changes the types of activities women do each day, the places they go, and when and how they travel. Women also tend to live longer than men, which means any urban design decisions that affect the elderly will have a disproportionate effect on women. Applying a gendered lens helps the people who are making decisions about urban design and planning realise that not everybody has the same needs and experiences as they do.”

After all, men can hazard a guess at the issues facing women when using transport or walking from street-to-street, but there’s nothing like lived experience to provide some inspiration. There's a breakdown on how a lack of diversity when designing common everyday items, like seatbelts and medicine, has had negative consequences for women here.

Or as Christine Murray wrote in The Guardian, “Lately I’ve found myself imagining what the world might look like if the people who designed it – politicians, planners, developers and architects – were more diverse. I don’t believe that men and women design differently, or that poverty and ethnicity inform architecture, but lived experience is a great teacher. The regeneration projects of the past decade are more about planters and cappuccinos than access to free drinking water, public toilets, cheap groceries and a post office. They appear to solve only the first-world problems of the monocultural illuminati who created them.”

Lees-Green says the lack of diversity in the professions that design and build New Zealand’s cities is particularly bad at senior levels, where decision-making power is concentrated.

“As a result, our cities don't work as well for people who aren't like those making the decisions. For example, we typically design our transport networks to serve commuter trips, especially trips to key employment destinations like the CBD. However, women's care-related duties mean they are less likely than men to work full-time, more likely to travel outside rush hour, and more likely to make local trips rather than traveling to the CBD. This means we’re designing transport networks that, on average, work better for men than women.”


The Women in Urbanism Jane's Walk. Photo: Joe Hockley

Another issue is safety, which disproportionately affects women. Lees-Green says research carried out in Auckland has shown nearly twice as many women as men choose not to use public transport at night due to safety concerns.

“How can we address when we design our public transport networks and public spaces this so that everyone has equal access to the city at night?” she says.

And while Auckland is being highlighted as an example, she says it’s a city that’s built for cars and often hostile to pedestrians, which unfairly disadvantages women, young people and the elderly, who are less likely to be using private vehicles.

“Many of Auckland's footpaths are also difficult – or impossible  – to use for anyone who isn't able-bodied. Narrow paths, uneven or slippery surfaces, and steep or missing kerb ramps all make it much harder to get around for people using wheelchairs or other mobility aids, as well as for anyone pushing a pram.”

The Women in Urbanism Jane's Walk. Photo: Joe Hockley

In her piece in The Guardian, Christine Murray also ponders what cities would look like if mothers had more of a role in designing them.

“There would be ramps everywhere, for a start. Schlepping a pushchair around makes you think differently about stairs. I cried when my nearest station was revamped without the inclusion of a lift. To stand at the bottom of that flight of steps with two kids and a newborn in a pram is to experience the kind of despair usually reserved for rat-infested dungeons.”

Women in Urbanism believes it’s these kind of issues that need to be looked at with a gendered lens, so it’s rolling out a bunch of initiatives to tackle this.

For the 2018 Festival of Architecture, it recently hosted Jane’s Walk, a walking tour around central Auckland that redesigned six key spots in the city to make them work better for everyone, and tomorrow for International Park(ing) Day, it’s creating a pop-up toy library to create a safe play space in the public arena for children.

Over the next year, the organisation is also planning on spreading its reach outside Auckland and spreading its message further afield in Christchurch, Wellington and smaller cities in towns around the country, with a host of events planned.

It also wants to create an interactive map that allows women to report on issues they experience in their city.

“This project is still in the early phases, but we think it would be a great tool for identifying places in Auckland that currently aren't working well for women, collating ideas about what we could be doing better, and highlighting where our city planners and designers should focus their efforts,” Lees-Green says.

And as for those who still aren’t convinced city planning needs feminism? Consider the words of senior lecturer in urban planning Dorina Pojani: “Patriarchy in city planning is not just a failure of society – it is a failure of the imagination. So, where to from here? The “matriarchal city” is not necessarily the answer. We need to move past the notion that one group – male or female – creates the world on behalf of everyone else.”

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