Last week I went to visit Frauen-Werk-Stadt 1 in the 21st district to the east of the city. The project was the first ‘gender sensitive’ housing project undertaken in Vienna. It contains 357 homes.
In 1993/94 the city’s Women’s office — “Frauenbüro” — commissioned eight women-architects to cooperate in a team to outline a scheme for the project. The competition process included:
- Detailed requirements in terms of urbanism, open space, walkways, access zones and flat layouts
- A fictitious prospective description of an everyday routine
- An evaluation of 14 ‘model’ projects that were considered to be exemplary in terms of gender sensitive planning, and
- Flat layout analyses that were typically used in all social housing schemes.
The project had two main objectives:
- To further female architects and increase their recognition in the planning profession; and
- To show how the theoretical aims of gender sensitive design could be translated into practice.
The project was completed in 1997. I critically evaluated the project taking into consideration the different themes that are outlined in the City of Vienna’s own Gender Mainstreaming guidance — Mobility, Land Use, Housing design, Streetscape design, and Safety.
Putting Pedestrian Needs literally at the Heart of the development
One of the fundamental aspects that the initial gender sensitive approach that was adopted in Vienna in the early 1990s emphasised was that time is a resource. Therefore the spatial organisation of different uses around the city therefore had a direct impact on women’s time. It highlighted that women’s journeys were often more complex in nature, often involving going from home to school to work to shops to school and home again, which was contrasted against the typical ‘male’ journey that was often just from home to work and back again. This led to a focus on prioritising the needs of pedestrians in developments as these more complex, but shorter journeys were often taken by foot.
The consideration of pedestrian needs started from the choice of site itself. The city had the choice of four different pieces of land, and whilst there were other sites with nicer surrounding contexts, this site was chosen due to its close proximity to public transport lines, and everyday amenities.
Though thescale of the development of Frauen-Werk-Stadt was not large enough on its own to warrant a large mix of uses, nor to require its own transport system around it. However there are a nursery and doctors surgery integrated within the development itself, as well as a number of convenience stores located in close walking distance along the main street nearby. This means that a number of the common trips taken by women at the time were short and could be done by foot, saving valuable time.
In terms of prioritising pedestrian needs, the whole development is orientated around a series of central pedestrian spaces that respond to the site’s geometry. The car free central space makes the development feel quite safe for young children to roam around freely. And whilst the development does have a fair number of inactive frontages, including the entrance to car parking in a basement beneath, the building is not plagued by numerous entrances to the car garage beneath with many inactive frontages, but instead limits this to a single location. Moreover the roads surrounding the development all take a shared surface approach. The pedestrian prioritisation of this development in this more suburban location does appear to have been ahead of its time.
There are a few areas where the development could have been improved, for example there are long stretches of defensible space outside ground floor front doors bordered by dense bushes. The lack of breaks in the bushes means these areas could feel unsafe at night, as there is not an ‘escape route’ — for example if you were being followed — which seems to be at odds with the principles it was being designed in line with, but these are minor detailed design considerations, within a much broader set of principles, that could be easily rectified.
The specific geometry of the site has also enabled a range of flat types to be incorporated within the development, not only with some opening directly onto the open space, and others more secluded and accessed from internal circulation, but also with a range of possible internal layouts, to adapt to changing needs as families evolved. It also leads to a number of different types of balcony types, allowing different families to engage with the public realm around it to differing levels — an important part of the design approach.
Another small but important move is the placement of the communal laundry facility on the top floor, adjacent to the shared roof terrace, rather than on the ground floor. This small minor move makes the act of laundry far more pleasant, by creating a light filled space, adjacent to a pleasant outdoor space, rather than placing it on the ground floor or basement with little natural light.
Streetscape and Children’s Play
The change in levels across the site adds complexity to the treatment of the public realm, with lots of ramps and steps incorporated. There are also many parts of the ground floor which suffer from a lack of natural surveillance, meaning that at night the central route through might feel rather different. Nevertheless there are nice details, such as the semi-transparent enclosures around the cycle storage which reduce the impression of being surrounded by inactive frontages.
The treatment of children’s play areas was also a notable aspect I analysed, given it was designed by women at a time when women were frequently the primary carers. Many are either fenced in, for younger children’s play space contained within the courtyards, or are pushed to the edges of development or caged in at higher levels for older children. Speaking to a local friend here about my visit to another park, where I accidentally wandered into the ‘Hundezone’ where dogs can roam around freely without their being on their leads I expressed surprise that these areas were not fenced but the children’s play areas were. Her response was ‘the Austrians love their dogs more than they love their children!’ Though a facetious comment it did shed some light to me on the Austrian approach to designing for children back in the 90s So the fenced enclosures are perhaps more of a sign of the times, as many projects I have been to since do not replicate this.
As a project that was completed over 20 years ago many aspects of the design are not directly transferable to the current context, and as a project that was designed by less experienced designers there are areas where the design could be improved.
The real revolutionary aspect of the project was fore-fronting the role of women in the development process, and highlighting the need for women to be involved. This enabled the project to be centred around pedestrian needs, right from the level of the site selection, all the way to detailed urban design moves.
This particular project also led to changes in practices in how tendering for publicly funded projects are assessed which continues to today. All publicly funded projects are accompanied by gender sensitive planning criteria they have to take into consideration, in addition to the general planning quality criteria. Today all housing developers who apply for financial support from the Vienna City Council have to pass the test for gender-sensitive and user-friendly planning. What I learnt from visiting this project is it is important to start, and learn from the mistakes so that you can continue to build on this and persist with prioritising the importance of the issue as Vienna has done.
Earlier this year I was awarded the RTPI George Pepler Award by the RTPI. The George Pepler Award is a bursary granted to a person in their first 10 years post qualification experience wishing to undertake a short period of study on a particular aspect of spatial planning. I was delighted to win the opportunity to carry out my research proposal entitled ‘What can the UK learn from Vienna with regards to adopting a gender mainstreaming approach to shape built outcomes?’ I am currently in Vienna for researching how Vienna has made itself more Gender Equal. #GenderEqualCities