Posted by: VPSN | March 8, 2010

Women and Public Space

Helena Gutteridge, first woman elected to Vancouver City Council
(Photo: BC Archives, Call#C-07954)

Today is the 99th anniversary of International Women’s Day.  Over the past few decades, attention to the role that gender plays in city-building and the public realm has continued to grow.

While it is often still the case that “distinction between masculine and feminine space overlaps with distinctions between work and home and between public and private life” (Nancy Kleniewski, Cities, Change and Conflict) – it is also true that, from a city planning perspective, many of these distinctions between masculine and feminine space have been critically assessed and tackled.  This makes the city more inclusive for everyone.

If, as elsewhere around the world, a doctrine of separate spheres characterized life in Vancouver up through the first three-quarters of the 20th century, it is to our collective benefit that, since the 1970s, the role of gender in planning and city-building began to fall under the lens of feminist writing and activism.

It was at this pivotal point, as Leonie Sandercock notes in her book Towards Cosmopolis, that “the spatial order of the modern industrial city came to be seen as a profoundly patriarchal spatial order…”  To this end, we can credit pioneers such as Jane Jacobs with kick-starting the critical assessment of cities and the planners that designed them.

The result, says Sandercock, was that

“urban social movements advocating for women’s needs in the city – needs for more and better public transport, for child care, for community facilities, for safety for a right to occupy public space, and night, and so on – have flourished…”

Not only is this better from the perspective of equality and human rights, it’s better for city-building, period.  Take the case of urban design and how it affects parks and plazas.  After an exhaustive study of open spaces in New York, sociologist William H. Whyte identified a simple principle:

“The best used places also tend to have a higher than average proportion of women…  Women are more discriminating than men as to where they will sit, they are more sensitive to annoyances, and they spend more time casing a place…. If a plaza has a markedly low proportion of women, something is wrong.  Conversely, if it has a high proportion, the plaza is probably a good and well-managed one and has been chosen as such.”  (Whyte, The Design of Spaces)

Of course there is more work to be done.  Much more.  Another example.  Switching from park plazas to the democratic space of City Hall, we note that the local government continues to be comprised of an elected body that under-represents the city’s gender demographic.  Where women have comprised between 50 and 51% of the population of Vancouver (and have done so for decades) the composition of women elected to City Council is, and always has been much lower.

As the figure above illustrates, of the 12 municipal elections since 1980, seven have produced results in which the ratio of men to women was about 3:1, two had results in which the ratio was about 4:1, and only one instance, the 1993 contest, saw the number of women elected anywhere near the 50% mark (5 out of 11, or 46%).  While the last two elections have each seen four women Councillors elected, the fact is that parity still hasn’t been achieved.

This has to change.

Today, let’s take a moment to honour the many fantastic achievements that have been made – in planning, design, and in city-building in all its forms.  Let’s also take a moment to renew our collective commitment to make this city open, inclusive and accessible to people of all genders, ages, ethnicities and abilities.

Postscript – While on the subject – readers may want to check out the poster display created by the Parks Board to acknowledge the achievements of local women athletes.  There are some fantastic stories here.

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